Help! I can't housetrain my rabbit

by Dr Linda Dykes

Updated February 2002

Housetraining difficulties rank fairly high in the list of problems reported by houserabbit owners telephoning the RWA for advice. The majority are easily solved by having the rabbit neutered. With most of the rest, the owner is going wrong rather than the rabbit and it's only a very small minority whose rabbits are genuinely difficult to housetrain.

Sometimes the problem is quite subtle, but there are occasional callers whose unrealistic expectations defies belief - like the lady who complained bitterly that her (eight week old) rabbit 'wouldn't' use his litter tray. It turned out she was bringing the rabbit into the living room and shutting the door so the poor wee beast couldn't actually get to his litter tray in the utility room!

Defining realistic goals for your rabbit

Wild rabbits are clean animals who eliminate in large latrines away from their burrows. They are also highly territorial animals who use faeces and urine as sexual and territorial markers. Marking behaviour is reduced but not totally removed in the neutered, housetrained pet rabbit, who may occasionally eliminate in 'inappropriate' places if his routine is disturbed or his territory violated in some way.

Baby rabbits (8 - 14 weeks) cannot be expected to have good control over bladder and bowels, although some babies (especially bucks) do remarkably well. They will usually urinate in their litter tray when confined in their cage but will not remember to go back to the tray if given too much freedom too soon - hence a cage is essential to use as a home base. Baby bunnies need frequent, brief, supervised playtimes outside of their cage, always before feeding times. Those that do learn to use their trays at a young age usually forget all about it again when they reach sexual maturity.

"Teenage" rabbits (approx 14 weeks onwards) reaching sexual maturity are usually impossible to housetrain until they have been neutered and their hormones have settled down again.

Mature rabbits (over 8 months, and neutered), particularly those living as single houserabbits, should easily become very clean and use their litter tray for all urination and virtually all defecation. There may be the occasional dropping about the place but often one cannot tell whether this has been kicked from the litter tray or laid in situ! Rabbits kept with other rabbits tend to leave a few more droppings scattered about, but should urinate mostly in their litter tray.

 

3 golden rules for successfully housetraining your rabbit

If you want a houserabbit to enjoy living free range (when supervised) as soon as possible, adopt an adult.
As you can see from the timetable above, baby rabbits can't be trusted loose in the house for anything more than short periods until at least seven or eight months of age.

Neutering is absolutely essential.
A few exceptional bunnies break the rules, but by and large you will struggle to housetrain an un-neutered rabbit of either sex. If you persevere ling enough and make it through the pubertal "bunny from hell" stage, you might succeed later, but most people who try this give up. Neutering has health benefits as well as behavioural benefits, so don't put off having your bunny neutered.

If your bunny is making a lot of mistakes outside his tray regularly, he isn't ready for the degree of freedom you are giving him and is actually training himself not to use the tray.
Don't worry about taking a step back and temporarily go back to using a cage until litter training is better established. Some rabbits do take longer than others.

The dirty dozen…… 12 real case histories!

1) A 9 month old, neutered mini-lop buck has "started leaving droppings all over the living room". He was previously perfectly clean in the house.

    Questioning revealed that the misplaced droppings were shiny, clumped and smelly. They were caecal pellets, which should have been eaten directly from the anus. The bunny was putting all his faecal pellets (rabbit raisins) in his litter tray but producing excess caecal pellets which were then abandoned on the carpet.

    Some rabbits - especially older ones - are unable to tolerate commercial rabbit food and do well switched to a more natural hay and vegetable based diet. This particular bunny was being fed large quantities of treats daily and his problem cleared up when his diet was adjusted.

    Fat rabbits or those with teeth problems may be unable to ingest their caecal pellets from the anus, and leave them lying around. Be alert to physical problems masquerading as "behaviour" problems!

     

2) A pair of rabbits, both neutered, insist on peeing and pooping just outside their cage which contains their litter tray

    This is a common and annoying problem. Sometimes it's a protest (in which case the rabbit usually just poops outside the tray) but in this case it was probably because the rabbits decided their litter tray was too close to their bed - they happily used their tray again once it was placed outside the cage.

3) A three year old female rabbit, usually very well housetrained, has started urinating frequently all over the house

    This story is classic of a urinary problem and requires a trip to the vet.

    A urinary tract infection would be the first thing to look for, but stones (calculi); or sludge in the urinary tract can cause similar problems. Neurological or kidney damage caused by the parasite E. cuniculi can also cause urinary incontinence. Once again, this was a physical problem the owners thought was a behavioural problem.

4) A one year old rabbit used to have his cage and litter tray in an unused Inglenook fireplace. The owner moved the cage and tray when he was about to renovate the fireplace, but the rabbit returns to his old spot to use the loo

    Rabbits are creatures of habit! If you need to move a litter tray, move it a few inches each day. If bunny has urinated on the carpet he will tend to return to the same spot. Use white wine vinegar or a proprietary enzymatic cleaner to clear up urine stains, but never used bleach which actually attracts the rabbit back to the same spot.

5) A six year old rabbit has started using the floor around his litter tray as his loo.

    This rabbit was getting on in years and had arthritis - quite a common problem in older bunnies. He found it difficult to jump into his litter tray. A variant of this is the bunny who is too stiff and sore to take up the correct pose for urination, who ends up with urine-scald inside the back legs. The solution in this case was to change to a tray with a lower front.

    A further variant on this theme is the rabbit who likes to chew his litter tray and then piddle whilst standing with front paws on the side. Problems can occur if the edge becomes sharp and uncomfortable.

     

6) Two French lop females are peeing behind their litter tray and splattering urine up the wall.

    Rabbits lift their tails to piddle, females higher than males. These two girls were doing their best to use the litter tray but (like most bunnies) they liked to pee right up to the edge of the tray and were simply overshooting the mark. Easily solved with a higher-sided tray. Litter trays that are too small have the same effect. Rabbits like to hang out in their trays and will tend not to bother in one that is cramped.

     

7) A four year old neutered male has started to pee and poop around the cage of a new eight month old female rabbit recently introduced to the family

    This is perfectly normal behaviour when new rabbits enter the house! People who board bunnies experience similar problems if the resident rabbits get wind of the visitors. The established rabbit will eventually stop marking in this way when bonded to the new arrival. New rabbit couples can make a spectacular mess during the 'honeymoon' period!

8) A five month old rabbit has never reliably used her litter tray and is now going to the loo completely at random

    The obvious problem was that the bunny was entering puberty and needed neutering. Less obvious was that the rabbit's owner was a bit of a hygiene freak and was cleaning out the litter tray once or even twice per day.

    Rabbits recognise their loo by smell until they get into the habit of using a particular spot. Until your rabbit is settled into his housetraining, always add a little soiled litter on top of the clean stuff. Don't clean the tray too often - every 3-4 days can be often enough with good absorbent litter and a single rabbit. On the other hand, some rabbits will refuse to use a very dirty litter tray and some rabbits object if there is a change of litter brand.....

9) A three year old ex-hutch rabbit has moved indoors. He is using his tray most of the time, but spraying pungent yellow urine over the house and his people.

    This is perfectly normal behaviour for an un-castrated rabbit. Some females also spray. Spraying behaviour in rabbits is almost entirely hormone-dependant and nearly always ceases after neutering. This is different from male dogs (who will continue to cock their leg to urinate after castration) but some vets haven't yet realised this yet and are wrongly advising owners that castrating an older rabbit will not work. Neutering also reduces the unpleasant odour of urine.

10) A one year old neutered buck is leaving droppings scattered about the vicinity of his cage

    This is territorial marking. You must convince the rabbit that his territory is his and his alone - don't venture into his cage when he's in there; change his food and water bowls when he is doing something else; and make his cage a nice home to hang out in with treats and hay in his litter tray so he munches and poops in his own special place, in peace.

     

11) A two year old neutered pair always use their tray downstairs, but upstairs they are using a bedroom corner as a second loo.

    It's always impressive (and amusing) to watch a housebunny jump off the bed and go downstairs to the kitchen to use the before hopping back upstairs again, but not all bunnies get the hang of leaving the room to use the loo!

    Some need a litter tray on each floor of the house; some even need more than one in each room. As time goes by, the number of litter trays can be gradually decreased. This pair needed a litter tray in the bedroom corner and then they were fine.

12) A three year old unspayed doe is peeing behind the settee.

First of all, spaying may help; but the quickest way of tackling this behaviour is to either put a litter tray there or to prevent access to the area.

This information is brought to you by the Rabbit Welfare Fund - the charitable wing of the Rabbit Welfare Association. If you love rabbits, please consider supporting the Rabbit Welfare Fund. You can make a donation, or you may like to join the RWA. The 17.50 adult subscription includes a subscription to "Rabbiting On", a fabulous quarterly magazine packed with health, behaviour and care advice to help you build a wonderful relationship with your bunny - whether s/he lives indoors or out.

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