Rabbit Behaviour Problem: Bad Litter Box Habits
Many rabbit owners experience problems with litter training their bunny. If your rabbit has bad litter box habits, like Rosie and Jim, read on to find out what might be causing the problem and how to resolve it.
Wild rabbits use latrine areas for toileting, so when we 'litter train' a rabbit we are simply taking advantage of this natural behaviour. Most pet rabbits pick a corner in an area near where they spend most of their time for their latrine, and, to litter train, you simply put a suitable tray in this location (advice on chosing a tray and litter).
Marking: Spraying Urine & Scattering Droppings
Although rabbits have latrine areas for toileting, they also mark their territory by spreading droppings and urine around their home. These smelly messages warn other rabbits that the area belongs to them, and helps to make their territory smell like them so they feel more at home. Human noses lack the level of sensitive scent receptors needed to interpret exactly what these messages say, but, in simple terms, they mean, "this is mine".
The onset of sexual maturity is the trigger for a rabbit to begin marking his or her territory. If you've had your rabbit from a young age, this often means your perfectly litter-trained baby rabbit will suddenly start leaving poop and urine all over the place. If you have a male rabbit, he may start spraying urine up walls or even at you. Males spray females during courtship, and sometimes rabbits will express their love for a human companion with a jet of urine - who needs flowers and chocolate!
Neutering is essential to good litter habits. Once your rabbit is neutered they no longer have such a strong urge to mark their territory so droppings and urine are generally confined to the latrine area. The first step for anyone trying to litter train a rabbit should be neutering - most rabbits will only be 100% house trained after neutering.
Male rabbits can be neutered as soon as their testicles drop, which is usually between 12-18 weeks and females from around six months old. There is no upper limit as long as your rabbit is in good health. With an experienced rabbit vet, neutering is a routine operation and rescue centres carried out thousands of neuters on rabbits every year. It may take a few weeks post-op for your rabbit's litter habits to improve, as it takes time for the hormone levels, which drive territorial behaviour like marking, to decrease.
Litter Training Issues
So, you've had your rabbit neutered and put a tray in their chosen latrine area, but your rabbit hasn't quite got the knack of using it - there are a couple of common issues:
Urinating Over the Side
When rabbits urinate, they shuffle back into the corner and lift their tails. If the tray is quite shallow then, by the time you've added litter, this may mean your rabbit is sitting on the edge of the tray when he shuffles back and completely misses. You can resolve this by swapping to a tray with high sides - around 15cm/6 inches is a good depth.
Digging Out Litter
Rabbits love to dig, and a whole tray full of soil like litter can seem like the perfect spot to your rabbit. A covered/hooded litter tray, or putting the tray into a cardboard box with an entrance hole in the side will stop litter getting everywhere. You could also try providing an alternative digging area for your rabbit to swap his digging activities too.
Going Next to the Tray
Sometimes rabbits have the general idea of where to go, but aren't always getting into the tray. You may get puddles or droppings just next to it. Again, a high-sided tray is helpful, as it makes a clearer designation between in the tray and outside the tray. Likewise, don't use the same litter in the tray as in other areas, otherwise there is little distinction between the two and, to your rabbit, it may seem like the whole cage is a litter box.
It's important that your rabbit can recognise the litter tray as their latrine area. Many new owners make the mistake of cleaning too thoroughly, removing all traces of odour that indicate to their rabbit that's the spot to use. To help your rabbit learn, avoid strongly smelling cleaners and return a small portion of dirty litter to the tray after cleaning, to help retain the correct scent.
Placing any scattered droppings into the tray and soaking up urine with a tissue and placing it in the litter tray can also help teach your rabbit where to go, as again you are creating the correct scent. Cleaning up accidents outside the tray with white vinegar, which is an odour neutraliser, will help make sure only the tray smells like the place to go.
One final tip: pick a tray that is large enough for your rabbit to turn easily and has space for a handful of hay to one side - rabbits love to munch and poop and having hay in the tray encourages its use.
Not Always Using the Tray
If your rabbit isn't neutered it's likely that they are deliberately scattering droppings outside the tray to mark their territory - this usually improves after neutering. If your rabbit is still scattering droppings after being neutered it may be that they've just got into the habit and need a little retraining. The same techniques for a rabbit going next to the tray will help.
If your rabbit has access to a very large area e.g. several rooms it may also help to temporarily restrict the access a little. Providing multiple trays i.e. one per room or one each end of a room can help. If there are certain areas your rabbit favours - put a tray there, even if it happens to be the middle of the room. Once your rabbit is using the trays, you can gradually decrease the number and move them to locations that are more practical. The important thing is your rabbit gets into the habit of using a tray. Again, moving droppings and providing hay will help encourage their use.
Neutered rabbits living together will generally share a tray but if you have problems provide two trays (or more). If it's a recent match, you may find they will be more amenable to sharing once they've had more time to settle in together. Rabbits will often mark more when first introduced, and this will reduce as they settle.
If you have multiple rabbits but they don't live together, you may find that your rabbit marks even when neutered, particularly along the boundaries between enclosures. This is because there is a rival and they feel the need to make it very clear where their territory is. You may find it helps to put a spare tray along the boundary as this maybe enough to satisfy their desire to spread their scent.
Sofas & Beds
There are some spots that seem extra tempting for rabbits to mark, and some rabbits will continue to mark these even if they are neutered and otherwise perfectly litter trained. The most common areas are beds and sofas - these are areas that humans spend a lot of time resting on which means, to a rabbit, they contain a lot of scent. It may be that this acts as a trigger for rabbits to add their own scent markers.
Training a rabbit not to mark these areas can be tricky. It may help to temporarily place an extra litter tray in the area that your rabbit is toileting on - even if this is not a place you'd usually leave a tray such as the seat of your sofa. If you can retrain your rabbit to use a tray placed on your sofa, rather than the sofa, you can then gradually move the tray to a more appropriate spot.
If this does not work, then restricting access may be the only solution. Training a rabbit not to jump on a sofa he is used to accessing is very difficult, so a physical barrier may be necessary. If that's not practical, placing something over the area to protect it such as a puppy pad or plastic cover may protect your furniture even if it does not cure the problem.
Losing Litter Training
As I already mentioned, it's common for a rabbit to lose their litter training when they reach sexual maturity, if they are not neutered. There are also several other reasons that a previously well litter trained rabbit may begin to toilet outside the tray:
- New territory - rabbits increase marking when their territory is changes, for example when they go to a new home, they get a new cage or you redecorate. Usually this marking behaviour will generally settle down over the next few weeks as they adjust to the change.
- New member of the household - introducing a new rabbit or other pet into the household may also trigger an increase in marking. This is common if you introduce a companion for your rabbit. Again, it will decrease as your rabbit adjusts to the change. If the other pet is not a new companion, your rabbit may continue to mark more, particularly along boundaries.
- A health problem - some health problems such as a bladder infection, kidney stones, and pain or mobility problems that affect your rabbit's ability to access his tray can cause your rabbit to lose their litter training. Visit your vet for a check up if your rabbit's litter habits suddenly change.
- Other Changes - many other changes can influence your rabbits marking for example using a new cleaning product can confuse his sense of smell and encourage extra marking. If your rabbit starts marking, try to think of any changes you have made to your rabbit or household routine. Marking can help a rabbit feel secure so a slight upset or stress can be a trigger.
In conclusion, neutering is an important part of litter training, if your rabbit isn't neutered you are unlikely to achieve perfect results. Make sure the tray is large and deep so your rabbit has plenty of room. If your rabbit has bad litter box habits then:
- Make sure there is a clear distinction between the tray and everywhere else
- Return a little used litter to the tray after cleaning to help retain scent
- Transfer accidents to the tray
- Put the tray where your rabbit goes - you can always adjust the location later
- Temporarily increase the number of trays - particularly if your rabbit has access to a large area or several rooms
Did this article help you understand your rabbit's behaviour? If so, you might like to try my book: Understanding Your Rabbit's Habits
- Learn to speak bunny with an illustrated guide to body language
- Understand the motivation behind your bunnies behaviours
- Find out how to support your bunnies behavioural needs