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Bunny dunnies

Ananda using litter tray

Ananda doing what Ananda does

As regular readers will know I keep pet rabbits. In the house.

There’s several reasons I have them inside. Firstly it’s inhumane (and unhealthy) to restrict an animal made for running to a tiny hutch in the backyard for most of the day. Secondly, there are two lethal insect-borne diseases that effect bunnies in Australia (deliberately introduced to control feral rabbits) and the vaccines are either only partly effective (calicivirus) or illegal here (myxomatosis). Thirdly, rabbits are prey animals that will try to hide any illness or infirmity until they can’t; sometimes when it’s too late to treat. Keeping them in the house allows me to closely monitor their behaviour and spot changes that may indicate a problem. Finally, rabbits are very social and  endearing. If you’re keeping them locked up and isolated you’re not only depriving them of the interaction they crave, you’re depriving yourself of the most rewarding part of sharing your life with bunnies.

If you’ve read this far I’m assuming you’re either a current or prospective bunny owner looking for information on how to care for them or you’re just insatiably curious. So I’m guessing you already know about proper feeding and basic healthcare. If not, google it. You don’t want to be making them sick (and spending too much money) with a diet based around carrots and pellets as do so many rabbit owners. Ignore suggestions from pet stores or breeders. They make their money selling animal junk food and replacements for dead pets. Stick to veterinarian or enthusiasts’ websites such as the House Rabbit Society.

What I’m posting here is some of my own experience of litter training rabbits (for non-Australians: dunny is slang for toilet), which is kinda important if you plan on keeping them indoors.

The (too) simple answer is that you don’t have to train them at all. Rabbits litter train themselves. It comes from living in large colonies underground. You don’t want to fill up your living space with excrement, do you? They’ll find one or two preferred spots to piss and shit and return to them consistently. The problem arises if those spots aren’t preferred by you.

To get them to use a litter tray the first thing to do is put food in it (i.e. hay and/or grass). Rabbits like to eat while they use the toilet (being coprophagic they have some yukky dining habits). I start by lining the trays with washable rags covered with a single layer of newspaper (partly to make the rags easier to clean but also because bunnies comment so eloquently upon the media) then top it off with the hay or grass rabbits should have available to them at all times. Commercial litters are generally unsuitable for rabbits. Either it’ll poison your pets when they eat it or break your budget due to the volumes required. Shredded or pelletised paper can be an option but if you’re happy to pay through the nose you can find a list of rabbit-safe litters here.

The second important thing is location, location, location (though rabbits are more discerning and intelligent than your average estate agent). The tray needs to be one to three metres from their preferred sleeping spot and somewhere they feel safe. That means near a wall with good all-round visibility and more than one potential escape route. Some cover less than a metre overhead helps too. You may not think eagles patrol your house but try convincing a paranoid bunny of that. Rabbits are exquisitely aware of how yummy they are.

Thirdly the trays need to be kept clean. Droppings aren’t so much a problem as urine. When a tray gets too damp they’ll go somewhere else. I keep one more litter tray than I have rabbits to ensure there’s always a spare if the others are occupied or unusable. And I empty them twice a day, especially just before I go to bed (bunnies are more active at night).

If they’re still crapping in your hallway there’s several strategies you can try.

Don’t just sweep up and discard wayward droppings. Put them in the litter tray(s). That’s often the only hint your rabbits will need.

If you see them using an inappropriate spot, interrupt them. Usually just approaching will do it but for more determined rabbits you can gently tug the fluff around their tails. Rabbits nip each other on the bum to move each other along so they’ll know what you mean. Sometimes if they’ve already started pissing this can result in a trail of urine as they hop away though. If they still keep using the wrong place you may need to block off access until they get the idea. Or give up and put a litter tray there. In a battle of wills between rabbits and humans the smart money’s on the bunnies.

If all else fails, try a few days restriction to a relatively small area where they can eat, sleep and defecate appropriately. Once habits are established – whether good or bad – bunnies tend to stick to them.

Even under the best circumstances you’ll never litter train your rabbits perfectly. They don’t really have a concept of where to piss and shit but rather where to stand while they piss and shit. The distinction is important, as you will realise when you see your rabbit sitting contentedly in the litter tray while pissing out over the side. They’re also inclined to spread stuff around by jumping in and out of trays. Using high-sided litter trays helps, but this may not be an option if your rabbit is unwell, elderly or infirm. So I surround my trays with drop sheets (plastic lining covered with old towels or bed sheets) and put corrugated plastic between the trays and adjacent wall.

Then there’s territorialism.

Rabbits like to let potential invaders know which places belong to them. Mostly this consists of rubbing the scent glands under their chins against nearby protrusions, but it often also means less savoury behaviour such as using a few droppings or a small amount of urine as markers. I’m yet to find a way to completely prevent this, but as it usually only involves small amounts in one or two ‘important’ places around the house just putting a few old towels down is usually good enough. I can use them to bundle up droppings for easy disposal and launder once or twice a week to get rid of the few drops of urine.

But sometimes full-scale territorial war breaks out, whether with you or another pet. Then all bets are off. Rabbits will determinedly and repeatedly mark their territories with everything at their disposal, making for a maintenance nightmare.

My female rabbit, Luna, is younger, stronger, quicker, more agile and smarter than Ananda, the male. So it made perfect sense to her that she would be boss. But Ananda was used to being Top Bunny and was having none of it. It took about a year of intermittent skirmishing – with Ananda losing every fight – until the dispute was finally settled. As is generally the case, determination eventually triumphed over talent and Ananda retained his throne. (We human males use similar strategies for divvying up the housework.) But in the meantime I was not only cleaning up a heck of a lot of rabbit excrement as they staked their rival claims to disputed territory but also the tufts of fluff Luna was pulling from Ananda’s bum in her fruitless attempts to make him see things her way.

Ananda and Luna

They may not look it, but they were implacable rivals when this photo was taken

Your first recourse in such situations is to read everything you can about rabbit bonding. Unfortunately rabbits don’t read the same web pages and often ignore the rules. Sometimes you just have to restrict them with pet fencing – often separately – until things have calmed down and more amiable habits have become ingrained. But until the pecking order is firmly established the best you can hope for is a temporary truce. Bunnies are teachers of patience par excellence.

It goes without saying that pet rabbits should be desexed, even if you don’t keep gender mixed pairs. It resolves many behavioural problems and is important for the health of female rabbits. If they don’t have kits they’re at increased risk of cancer of the reproductive system, especially as they age. Believe me, you don’t want to try to deal with the exponential population growth that has made rabbits fertility symbols across dozens of cultures worldwide.

Oh, and did I mention rabbits are coprophagic? Once or twice a day they’ll excrete droppings called caecotrophs, which they immediately eat. The bacteria in caecotrophs is the main source of protein in a balanced bunny diet. If rabbits regularly eat protein rich food – such as lucerne hay, clover or most commercial rabbit mixes – they’ll not only become ill and overweight but they’ll fail to clean up their own caecotrophs, which are much messier than regular rabbit droppings.

Unfortunately rabbits see their caecotrophs as food, not waste, so they rarely drop them in a litter tray. However they will generally excrete them in places they feel most secure (i.e. where they sleep or nap) so, again, an old towel or two is usually all that’s needed to prevent problem stains. If your bunny isn’t cleaning up its own caecotrophs it’s a sign of poor diet or health problems.

So as you can imagine keeping bunnies indoors is pretty labour intensive. Even under ideal circumstances you’re looking at 10+ hours of housework and a couple of extra laundry loads per week. If you have a large outdoor space that is predator and disease proof that a rabbit can’t tunnel out of then use it by all means. But if you do you can probably hire a servant to look after them anyway. Otherwise you might be better off with something requiring less maintenance. Such as a goldfish or pet rock.

Bunnies are very rewarding companions, but surveys consistently show they’re the most abused and neglected of all pets; generally due to the ignorance and/or negligence of their owners. Although they can easily live from eight to twelve years – depending on the breed – few survive for even half that long. Most die less than two years after being purchased or adopted. So please don’t consider pet rabbits unless you can make the effort to educate and commit yourself to their care.

And never buy mammals from pet shops or breeders. Shelters have extensive death rows of animals desperate for owners who’ll reprieve them. That way you won’t be helping fund the bastards who run puppy/kitten/bunny mills. If you need a specific breed or colour you’re not looking for a companion. You’re making a fashion statement. Buy a fur coat instead. It’s more humane. That way you can put it on and pet yourself. That’s what you’re really after anyway, isn’t it? (The huge caveat is for disability assistance animals such as guide dogs which can only be obtained from specialised trainers.)

Yeah, I’m a fanatic and inclined to preach. But I think my bunnies probably saved my life. They did more for me than the medical profession ever did. They’re cuter than most doctors too.

From → bunnies

  1. uncaged permalink

    A very large white rabbit wandered into my parents’ back yard one day and stayed about a year before moving on to another lucky house owner. He ate everything in the back yard, including the pears from the pear tree (we watched him pick them himself from low branches). He was such a joy to my parents that after he left I bought them two more bunnies. And I thought how lucky those rabbits were to have that big back yard to romp around in. It was bunny paradise.


  2. Very informative and interesting post. I particularly like the line, ‘Rabbits are exquisitely aware of how yummy they are.’


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