Litterbox Training

In the time my wife and I have had pet rabbits, we’ve dealt with a variety of issues with our furry companions. From behavioral problems to life threatening GI stasis, we’ve been through a wide range of the things that can happen. None of it has deterred us from wanting to keep rabbits as pets. We love these curious, investigative, playful and exuberant creatures and wouldn’t trade them for anything. Below are things my wife and I wish we’d known about when we first started keeping rabbits as pets. I’m offering this as a resource for new rabbit owners, and I hope it helps.

My wife and I volunteer for the House Rabbit Network (HRN) They have a list of articles about rabbit care , including an excellent Bunny Basics guide that gives a brief and effective summary of bunny care. HRN also has a Blog with a variety of resources. It’s a good place to ask bunny related questions, as most of the people on the Blog are HRN members with experience fostering rabbits.
A lot of people will link to articles on the House Rabbit Society web site. HRS is a larger organization than HRN with more chapters nationwide. Both are rabbit rescue groups geared towards providing accurate information to rabbit owners.
HRS also has more articles and information on their site, including articles on keeping rabbits with dogs, keeping rabbits with cats. HRN has an article on Guinea Pigs as Rabbit Buddies
Rabbit Health in the 21st Century: A Guide for Bunny Parents is an excellent book on how to care for your pet rabbit, and includes a lot of information that isn’t readily available on the web.
How to live with an Urban Rabbit“. This book is a good overall look at bunny care. While a lot of the information it contains is available online, it’s convenient to have it in one place.

All vets are not equal; There are a lot of vets who are excellent with cats and dogs, but do not necessarily have all the specialized knowledge necessary to care for rabbits. Rabbits are considered “Exotics” and you need a vet who has an exotics specialist on staff. Check with your local rabbit or animal rescue group for vet recommendations. While your regular vet doesn’t need to have a 24 hour emergency care ward, you should find out where the closest one is, in case you need to get your pet to the vet at 3:00 am. Your regular vet is likely to have a 24 hour vet that they work with, if one is available in the area.

Health Insurance for Pets
My wife and I as well as other HRN volunteers have gotten health insurance for our rabbits from VPI. The basic idea is that you pay for the care up front. There’s a form that the vet’s office needs to fill out. You or the vet then fax it to VPI. VPI then reimburses you directly. All the vet has to do is fill out some paperwork and give you the necessary invoice. The first year my wife and I got it for our rabbits it paid for itself within six months. Rabbit care can be expensive. Be sure to read the fine print so you know what is and is not covered.

The Breeder is not necessarily the best source for information
There are a lot of people breeding rabbits who are caring, informed and knowledgeable people. Unfortunately there are also people who breed rabbits who don’t really know much about them, aside from the basics of feeding and housing them enough to reproduce and keep enough alive to turn a profit. I ask that the reliable, well informed breeders please ignore the next few lines, as they aren’t about you. I know HRN members who’ve been warned by some breeders to never take their rabbit to a vet, “Because the vet will just experiment on it.” Some breeders have also advised people to not give their rabbits hay or greens and just feed them pellet food. Anyone who gives that kind of advice doesn’t really know what they’re talking about. There is a lot of misinformation out there that, if followed, will damage the health and well being of your pet rabbit. Be aware of the source of your advice.

Rabbit Diets
Breeders will sometimes recommend feeding your rabbit an Alfalfa based pellet food. Pellets should be a significant component of your rabbit’s diet, but much of their food should come from hay and greens. The HRN article How to Choose a Good Pellet will get you started. The Calvin’s Care Corner – Rabbit Treats article gives the following advice:“An adult rabbit’s daily primary diet is basic; unlimited grass/timothy hay, restricted high-fiber pellets [apx. 1/4 c. per 5 lbs. body weight], fresh veggies [apx. 2 c. per 5 lbs. body weight], unlimited fresh water [especially in hot weather].” Anything else is secondary, and thus a treat. Rabbits are NOT omnivores. Most of the “treats” you see in the pet store are very bad for your rabbit, particularly the yogurt based threats or anything that contains sugar.

Pineapple and Papaya: possible life savers
I highly recommend getting your rabbit(s) accustomed to dried Papaya and fresh pineapple. Many people believe that enzymes found in pineapple and papaya help break down the fur that a rabbit ingests. This is one of those things that have been neither proven nor discredited and there’s debate upon it’s effectiveness even among vets, but at the very least, rabbits love both fruits.

If you like fresh pineapple you’re in luck, because rabbits are very happy to eat the fibrous core that humans generally avoid. Remember to only give your rabbit no more than a teaspoon or a tablespoon of pineapple during any given day. Too much fruit will cause diarrhea.

Lacking the ability to vomit, rabbits can’t cough up fur balls the way cats can. As a result, fur can build up and cause potentially fatal blockages. This can result in Gastrointestinal or GI Stasis. Not all cases of GI Stasis start with blockages and it’s possible that some blockages are caused by GI Stasis. The exact relationship between a blockage and Stasis is uncertain, but avoiding fur buildup is a good idea regardless.

This is also why frequent brushing is necessary, particularly during the major shedding periods.

Calcium and your Rabbit
Rabbits metabolize all the calcium they eat. Because of this too much calcium can be very harmful to your pet. This can include various forms of Dental Disease and bladder sludge. In extreme cases kidney stones are possible. I also recommend you get Up Close and Personal with a Bunny’s Molars

Young, growing rabbits, or rabbits that are nursing, pregnant or are females being used for breeding need a higher calcium diet. That’s why high calcium foods such as Alfalfa hay an alfalfa based pellets are good for them. Adult rabbits who are not nursing or being bred however, should be on lower calcium diets. This includes Timothy hay and timothy based pellets used in place of Alfalfa. High calcium greens such as broccoli and spinach should be fed sparingly if at all.

Get your bunny fixed!
When my wife and I bought Beanbag into our home, we decided to get her four year old female rabbit Fuzzface fixed. This was done largely because the hormone reduction would make it easier to bond the bunnies and because we had a vague awareness that it would be better for her to be fixed. The vets found a tumor on her uterus when they spayed her. Fortunately, it was caught very early. In the vet’s words, “We don’t have any survival statistics, because we almost never find them this soon.” That was the first, but not the last time Beanbag saved Fuzzface’s life. We later learned that “Up to 85% of female rabbits develop uterine cancer by the age of four if they have not been spayed.” (HRN, Why Spay Your Rabbit?)
Neutered Male rabbits are less aggressive, less territorial and express fewer territorial behaviors, such as spraying.

Rabbit Litter
Picking the right litter for your rabbit can be a surprisingly convoluted process. Most clay based litter made for cats will clump around a rabbits fur. It may be ingested when the rabbit grooms which can lead to a fatal blockage. It should ONLY be used if you have a slat bottom cage that doesn’t allow your rabbit direct access to the litter. Litter made from Pine, Cedar or other aromatic wood shavings are bad for most small animals, rabbits among them. The pine and cedar oils can cause significant respiratory irritation. There is some evidence to indicate more serious ailments can result. There’s a cat litter on the market named SWheat scoop. It’s made, as the name implies, from wheat. The problem with this litter is that wheat expands in the stomach and can cause fatal blockages in rabbits. I know of two cases where a rabbit exposed to wheat based litter needed gastric surgery due to a blockage. This is major surgery and aside from being expensive, can lead to numerous health consequences down the road, assuming the rabbit even survives. Corn can have a similar impact upon a rabbit’s digestive system. Because of this I recommend against corn and corn husk based litters. Paper based litters are often a good choice, provided your rabbit doesn’t eat much if any of their litter. Fortunately, the two best options for rabbit litter are also the least expensive. Critter Country Litter ‘N Bedding is a compressed straw bedding. It shouldn’t matter if your rabbit eats it, as it’s essentially straw anyway. While it won’t provide much in the way of nutrition, it at least won’t do any damage. It’s generally cheaper per pound than most the other litters in your average pet store. You can also get Yesterday’s Mews, which is a pellet litter made of recycled news print pulp. Most of the HRN volunteers, myself included, have become fond of using the wood pellets made for wood burning stoves. These biodegrade as easily as straw and paper based pellets, which makes them a good choice for people who compost their rabbit litter. (The Magic Bunny Poo – A Composting Tale) It’s also costs significantly less than commercial pet litters. Most places that carry these pellets consider them a “seasonal” item, so stock up during the Fall and Winter so you have enough for the Spring and Summer. Your local Agway or other farm supply store will probably have them year round, or be more than happy to order them for you. Some wood burning stove pellets contain accelerants to make them burn faster. Avoid these like the plague, as the chemicals they contain will be very harmful to your rabbit. Litter should be changed every two to four days if you use a litter pan, depending on usage. You don’t need much litter in the bottom of the pan, perhaps enough to cover 90% of the pan’s bottom. Rabbits don’t need to bury their pellets the way cats do. You’re basically looking to absorb the urine and prevent their feet from being scalded by uric acid. Putting a little hay in the litter box will also be helpful. If you’re using a slat bottom cage that doesn’t let the rabbit come in direct contact with their litter, then the change frequency can be weekly, assuming you use enough liter to absorb all the urine produced in that time, and you don’t have any mold or fungal problems from the litter.

Bunny bonding, Love is in the air – sorta
Introducing two new rabbits and trying to get them to live happily together or “Bond” them can be a problematic process. A “Quick” bond is two weeks. Three Months is not unusual. Don’t get discouraged. Remember, YOU are the primate with higher brain function and opposable thumbs. Most rabbits can be bonded, given enough patience and effort on your part. These references should help:Love Match: A Guide to Bonding Your Rabbits HRN Blog: Bonding You may be advised to take the rabbits on a drive in the car. The general idea is to stress the rabbits so that they turn to each other for comfort and forget their territorial and dominance disputes. Using a car for this purpose is falling out of vogue for two reasons. First, it’s dangerous as the rabbits are harder to mange in a moving vehicle. Second, it requires two people, one to drive and the other to handle the rabbits. Finally, there are easier ways to do the same thing at home. If you have a cloths washer, you can put the rabbits in a basket on top of the washer during the spin cycle. Keep a towel handy to throw over the rabbits if they start to panic, and keep a tight grip on the basket.

An even easier trick is to put them in a cold dryer.  No, you won’t be turning it on. You’ll just out them in the dryer, and if they start to make a fuss, turn rotate the drum slowly by hand. This will be enough to keep the rabbits on an uneven footing and will allow you significant control over the situation. As a bonus, the steel drum of the average dryer will be easy to clean in the event of territorial wetting or pelleting. Side loading washers are generally too damp for this purpose, and rabbit claws can catch, bend or break in the drainage holes that line a washer’s drum. Simply putting the rabbits in a clean, dry bathtub will also provide a slippery footing and neutral territory.

Well, it has been awhile since I posted, so I thought I would. Peter and I have been traveling and working out of the Boston area. Luckily, Eve and Dorian were cared by a very capable cat-lover who came every day, let them out and then felt guilty when she had to leave them! She went above and beyond the call of duty. She even picked up our CSA veggies for us and shared them with the bunnies. So, kudos to Erin, perhaps a future rabbit lover…

When we first got back from about three weeks away, Dorian seemed to not be very happy with us. If you remember, his strange personality and issues range from moody to aggressive to shy, but he can also be very loving. Erin had been working with him, the best she could, while we were gone. She wrote me an e-mail when I was away and said, “well, Dorian will approach me…and I can touch him on the nose a bit, but no real petting yet.” That is as far as she got! He is somewhat weary of strangers (except Liz O., for some reason he really likes her).

However, we soon left again, this time only for a weekend. We left the bunnies with an incapable house guest who had little familiarity with any animals. I don’t recommend this, but he was staying at our home anyway, so we figured he could handle a tad bit of bunny-sitting in exchange for a place to stay. He simply fed them, made sure they had water, etc. He did not let them out and he forgot to give them greens (yes, I feel bad). When we returned late Sunday night, Dorian miraculously turned into “sweet and cuddly bunny” (well, for him) and has been that way ever since. See, Erin was spoiling him too much!

No, seriously, they are both fine and doing well. We learned some things recently, though, so I will list them here for your personal enjoyment.

1) Eve trims her own nails. She is 5 years old now and that is how long it took me to catch her actually biting them. I always wondered why she never needed nail trims. Now, if I could just convince her to trim Dorian’s!

2) Dorian no longer needs a second litterbox when out of the cage. Yeah! We have made so much progress on this front. Dorian has not had a pee accident since mid-June. He is such a smart boy, we knew he could do it (Suzanne, aren’t you proud?)

3) Dorian is a lot smarter than we had thought. We give the bunnies problem-solving projects. We wrap up a treat in newspaper and see who gets it open first. Eve gets so impatient that she eventually gives up and runs around looking elsewhere or trying to get us to give her another treat. Dorian, on the other hand, figures out how to open the paper and get the treats out. He then starts eating the treats…Eve rushes over and tries to get the goods. Maybe Eve is actually the smart one, but Dorian has much better problem-solving abilities!

Well, that is all the bunny news from our household! What about yours?

-Rachel: HRN Member/Volunteer

My bunny Eve really likes Bob Dylan. A boyfriend I had when Eve was a young bunny played her Bob Dylan often. I don’t like the guy’s voice (Bob’s), but, to each their own.

Anyway–I really do have a purpose to the title of this post. I wanted to write about how my two rabbits have changed since they are now bonded. If you remember, Eve was a single-bun for a long, long time, until my renting situation changed enough that I could have two rabbits. I really think bonded pairs (or more, if you prefer) are the way to go, though, I admit to being skeptical. For one thing, I was so ‘in love’ with Eve that I didn’t want her to be one of *two* bunnies, I wanted her to be special. But she is anyway–and she is definitely happier with her buddy Dorian.

How has Eve changed? Well, it has all been really positive! For one thing, she still loves my husband and I. She loves grooming us (bunny kisses), following us around and generally worshiping us, that is, assuming we worship her properly. All of the good aspects of her wonderful personality have remained.

What is different? Well, she seems more relaxed now. I see her lounging around the livingroom much more. Dorian loves to stretch out in “long bunny” pose, and she follows suit. In fact, last night I caught her mimicking Dorian’s pose, however, I think she forgot to stick out her other leg. I have never seen her like this and boy is it funny!


Eve seems to get into less trouble–instead, Dorian and her embark on projects; ripping up a phonebook, chewing up the wicker tent, throwing cardboard around…all very positive bunny activities.

The biggest changes, of course, have been in Dorian. I think he knows now that he finally has a forever home. When we brought him home, he was sulky, moody and often unpleasant. He lunged at us when we tried to pet him…he never bit us and we tried not to be afraid of a 3lb. dwarf…but it was disheartening to hear him grunt. I can’t say this agression has totally gone away; it hasn’t. But he does this rarely now. He absolutely loves Eve, so if she does something, he does it too…this includes chasing games and begging for treats. It also helps that she is so friendly–Dorian sees us positively reinforcing friendliness in Eve and approaches us more and more. He often comes right up to us for pets, then realizes that he is a scared bunny and doesn’t actually want to be pet. But, it is progress.

I had posted before about Dorian’s litterbox training issues. For those of you that want to know…yes, he has improved. In fact, we haven’t had a pee accident in 2 weeks! Since we got another litterbox, there has only been ONE puddle on the floor. Poops continue to show up on the floor and I have realized recently that some are actually Eve’s…she is a bad bun for doing what he has. But the poops are becoming less, I believe. So, again, we have progress.

We are learning that not only can love and good treatment from humans help a shy or aggressive bunny, love from a kind bunny companion makes a huge difference.

Lastly, to add some humor, my husband made paper hats for the bunnies yesterday. He also put one on Eve’s head…she was less than amused. But they did have fun throwing them around…


-Rachel: HRN Member/Volunteer

Well, I had two conversations with Dorian about his litterbox habits (D is Dorian, R is myself):

(This one was a week or so ago, before we got him a new litterbox)

R: Dorian, why do you pee on the floor?
D: Well, I am trying really hard, you see. The only litterbox outside of the cage is the blue one, and well, that is Eve’s.
R: Eve actually told you that you weren’t allowed to pee in it?
D: Well…uh…no…but Eve is big and bosses me around. I don’t want her to be mad at me because she is a cool big sister.
R: But Dorian, Eve never actually does anything mean to you.
D: Yes, but I don’t want to mess with the “sacred blue litterbox” that she spends hours chewing on. I will gladly hop in it, but peeing in it is another story.
R: Sigh. I guess we will have to get you another litterbox, perhaps like the one in your bunny condo?
D: YES! I love that kind!

(some days later, a nice, new Feline Pine litterbox arrived, just like the one in the bunny condo)

D: I love this litterbox! (as he hops in it and immediate pees before I have a chance to put litter in it) It is fabulous!
R: Well, you had better use it. Can I take the blue litterbox away?
D: NO!! I told you, that is Eve’s, the new one is mine.
R: Then why is it alright to share a litterbox when you are confined to your bunny condo at night and in the mornings?
D: Uh, well, that is different.
R: How is it different?
D: Come to think of it, I don’t know why it is different, but it is! I don’t remember why we can share one in the condo, but not outside.
R: Okay, since you two now have three litterboxes in the small space of 2/3rds of our livingroom, you had BETTER pee in ONE of those three boxes. I don’t care which one.
D: Alright. But I can’t promise perfection. I have a tiny bladder. And pooping while doing binkies is fun, so I might not poop in the litterboxes. I know Eve understands all these rules you humans have, but I am younger, newer and scared, and I don’t always get it. Your rules confuse me.

And Eve said:

E: Rachel, thanks so much for getting Dorian out of the “sacred blue litterbox.” I mean, he is allowed to play in it, maybe I will even let him try to dig litter out of it and fling it everywhere. If he is really lucky, he can help me chew it apart. But, you expected me to let him pee in it!! No way! Thank God you got that new litterbox…which, incidentally, I can pee, poop or do whatever I please in it in addition to the other two litterboxes because I am top bun…
R: Eve, you forget, I am top bunny…
E: Oh, I am so sorry. You are so right, you are top bun along with your bondmate, Peter. My bad.

Below: The “clowns” as we have nicknamed our silly bunnies. Each bunny in their separate box.

-Rachel: HRN Member/Volunteer

When we adopted Dorian at the end of March, we knew he wasn’t exactly the ‘ideal’ candidate for adoption. Of course, we think he is actually pretty fabulous, but he has his issues and complexities. One of his problems is with litterbox skills, something that I honestly think is improving, however slowly.

Dorian’s litterbox habits became pretty close to 100% accurate when he started living in the same cage as Eve…but we soon realized this ‘perfection’ only applied to when he was INSIDE the bunny condo. As soon as we let him out, he does tons of binkies (very cute) and the little poops fly everywhere. But this doesn’t actually bother me. He has peeing accidents on the carpet as well and this annoys me. Mind you, his litterbox is close…actually, there is one in his cage and one outside. He wouldn’t have to go far either way. But he seems to miss the box, in fact, he has peed right next to the litterbox while I am watching, as if to tease me!

Originally, we thought this was because Eve had secretly claimed the litterbox OUTSIDE the cage and that Dorian was asked (in their secret bunny language) to only go inside the cage. So, he wouldn’t make it and he would pee on the floor. Good theory, right? Well, I don’t think that is all of it…afterall, why would she lay claims to the outside litterbox but not the one inside the cage?

Our second theory: he likes the box inside the cage better for some reason. It personally think it is nicer, maybe he does too. To try to combat this, we have purchased an identical litterbox for outside of the cage.

Third option: Dorian is just not a good litterboxer! I hope this is not the case…I THINK he is slowly getting better, but then all of a sudden, he has another accident.

Since his second identical litterbox arrived (made by Feline Pine–I highly recommend these boxes for bunnies who are diggers like my Eve) Dorian has NOT peed on the floor. But, then again, he has gone for three days before without a pee accident. Lets keep our fingers crossed…

The other thing we are doing is leaving the other litterbox (which Eve might have claims on) out as well. Now Dorian has a choice of three litterboxes in a fairly small area. He does not have to be nervous about peeing in the box while Eve is there because he can just go into the other box. We figure if this works, we can later remove one of the boxes.

Dorian is definitely a ‘quirky’ complex bunny; his litterbox problems are not his only oddity. However, Eve has her problems too. Between the two of them, we have to limit their space out of the cage, 1) because of Dorian’s sketchy litterbox habits and 2) because Eve is a chewer. Eve is horribly destructive…everything goes in the mouth. We have to keep her away from molding, cloth, plants, furniture and everything. So, she and Dorian have a large x-pen as their front yard to their cage. This way, Dorian has tons of litterboxes in a small area and Eve can’t get to anything to chew on.

Dorian doesn’t chew and destroy things at all and Eve’s litterbox skills are perfect. So, it seems, I can’t get a perfect pair no matter what!

But that isn’t why we have bunnies, is it? We don’t expect them to be perfect! We appreciate them for their individuality. We accept their shortcomings and celebrate their more wonderful points. We just love them for who they are…

-Rachel: HRN Member/Volunteer