Training Your Rabbit: Reality 101

by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.

Obedience Training

We have to be honest. Most people will not be able to obedience train a rabbit the way they might be able to train a dog. This does NOT mean rabbits are stupid. Quite the contrary! A rabbit may understand very clearly that you are trying to get him to do something, but will simply give you a baleful stare and continue doing his business as if to say, "Yeah, I hear you. But what's in it for me?" This irritates you until a minute later, when your adorably manipulative bunny comes running for kisses and cuddles.

Question: Are rabbits intelligent?
Answer: Your college kid should be this smart.

Question: Do rabbits like to obey?
Answer: Hahahahahaha.

Why is a Rabbit Not Like a Dog?

Let's compare a rabbit to a dog, that quintissential model of (potential) obedience. The ancestral dog was a cooperative pack animal. He was utterly submissive to his alpha dog: the chief of the pack. Humans took that characteristic and bred domestic dogs to have a very strong desire to please their *new* alpha, the Human Master. Most dogs have a puppylike desire to please their perceived alpha, and this is what makes them so easy to train (at least in the hands of an experienced dog trainer who understands the way a dog's mind works).

Now consider the rabbit. The wild rabbits from which our domestic friends are descended are indeed social creatures--but they are herbivores who have not had the evolutionary pressure to be highly cooperative. The family group lives in a series of excavated tunnels (the warren) in the earth. There is a social hierarchy, but it is generally based on which rabbit is the strongest and toughest. Rabbits cooperate only in the sense their evolutionarily programmed alarm systems benefit the entire warren. Rabbits can certainly be extremely affectionate with one another, but they also have distinct likes and dislikes of other rabbits. It's often impossible for a human to guess which rabbits will fall in love, and which ones will hate each other from the start and never learn to get along. Surprisingly, it's often easier for a rabbit to get along with a human, cat, dog, guinea pig or other animal than with an unfamiliar member of his/her own species.

Unlike dogs, rabbits have no innate desire to please an alpha. If the human caregiver becomes so frustrated with the apparent disobedience of the rabbit that s/he becomes physically abusive, the rabbit will begin to consider the human as an enemy, and never forget the physical punishment. Hitting a rabbit is not only dangerous to the animal (the skeleton is extremely fragile), but unproductive. The rabbit subjected to physical punishment may become extremely aggressive, hopelessly fearful or--believe it or not--vindictive. With love and patience, the human caregiver can teach the bunny what is acceptable and what is not. The only effective way to train a rabbit away from undesirable behaviors is with positive reinforcement and very gentle negative reinforcement, such as a squirt with a water bottle and a firm "No!" when the bunny is being naughty.

Naughty is as Naughty Does

...Which brings us to the question, "What is "naughty" for a rabbit?" The human caregiver must accept that certain behaviors we might consider objectionable (e.g., chewing furniture, digging carpet, marking with urine in a corner) are not naughty to the bunny, and are, in fact, extensions of the rabbits natural behavior. If the bunny is chewing furniture, you can dab some nail biting remedy on the problem areas--but don't forget to provide the bunny with chew toys (untreated wicker baskets, clean, tape and staple-free cardboard boxes, untreated pine molding, macaw-safe chew toys, etc.) as a substitute. If the bunny is digging carpet, and you don't have access to a safe, fenced area where the bunny can have some supervised digging time, cover the problem areas with 100% cotton bath mats and provide a large litterbox full of organic litter and shredded paper or a paper grocery bag filled with fresh grass hay. If the bunny is insistent about using a particular corner for urination, even after repeated warnings and white vinegar deodorizing, give in and put a color-coordinated litterbox in that corner.

Living with a rabbit can mean learning to compromise, but it tends to make us better, more toleratnt people in the long run. We highly recommend it!

Learning to Use the Litterbox

Spay/Neuter: The First Step
The most important thing to remember is that your rabbit is very unlikely to retain reliable litterbox habits upon reaching sexual maturity unless she is spayed/he is neutered. Sex hormones give a rabbit an uncontrollable desire to mark the territory with urine and specially scented fecal pellets. Spay/neuter will eliminate/greatly reduce this drive, as well as eliminate the risk of uterine/ovarian cancer and unwanted pregnancy in females. And let's not forget the huge relief from endless sexual frustration that spayed/neutered animals enjoy.

Get the Right Box!

To train your rabbit to use a litterbox in a selected area, choose a litterbox that is the right size for the bunny. Don't force a tiny dwarf rabbit to leap into an enormous, high-sided box designed for a gigantic cat--and don't make your French Lop squeeze his big frame into a toaster-sized toilet. The litterbox should be comfortable, and located in a quiet, private place.

What Type of Litters are Safe for Rabbits?
Be sure to use ORGANIC litter in the box. Clay litters--especially clumping litters--are inexpensive, but very unhealthy for two reasons. First, the inhaled clay dust can cause respiratory problems. Second, when ingested as dust licked off paws or as a crunchy treat straight from the box (yes, some of them do it!), the highly dehydrated clay litter absorbs vital fluids from the intestine itself and can cause serious impactions and intestinal slowdowns. Clay litter is not healthy for rabbits or cats.

Organic litters include those made from recycled paper products (e.g. Carefresh, Nature Fresh), pelleted wood sawdust (e.g. Feline Pine, Aspen pellets) or other pelleted organic products. We strongly advise against the use of CatWorks organic litter, however. This particular brand of litter contains a binder with a very high zinc content. We know of at least one confirmed death due to zinc poisoning in a bunny who ingested CatWorks.

Do not use cedar or pine shavings (even those cute, dyed green ones that supposedly contain active chlorophyll--which they don't), as these produce potent aromatic compounds that can potentiate (i.e., increase the effect of) liver enzymes. This can be a problem if the bunny is taking any type of medication or if s/he's facing possible anesthesia. Because the liver is intimately involved with the metabolism of many drugs, their effects in the rabbit will be unpredictable if the bunny is also metabolizing aromatic compounds from wood shavings.

Getting Bunny to Use the Box

Now that you have set up a safe, comfortable box, put it in an area where the bunny can be comfortably confined for a few days, except for brief excursions for run and play. You can place the box inside the indoor hutch, tuck it behind the john in the bathroom, or place it in a corner of the laundry room: whatever is convenient as well as attractive to the bunny.

Use a baby gate to enclose the bunny in the selected room with his litterbox, and be sure to provide plenty of toys, food, water and comfortable places to sleep. This will be bunny's home base and should be as inviting as you can make it. It may take a few days for the bunny to reliably use the box, as he may mark the area thoroughly as he settles in. It may help to soak or sweep up "accidents" (they're not accidents) with a bit of tissue and put the tissue in the box. He'll get the idea! Like cats, most rabbits prefer to do their biz in a nice, absorbent spot such as a clean litterbox.

It often helps to put a handful of timothy hay in a clean corner of the litterbox to encourage use of the box. A rabbit will often sit in the box, happily munching at one end, while the processed product comes out the other end. This may seem a bit disgusting to a human, but rabbits don't consider their feces to be dirty. Some rabbits will even nap in the litterbox! As long as the litterbox is changed regularly, this should pose no problem: rabbit fecal pellets are hard, dry and relatively odorless. In fact, rabbit litterbox leavings are just about the best natural, organic fertilizer you can get for your garden! Grow an herb garden, fertilize with bunny's litterbox leftovers (including the organic litter) and enjoy the ultimate in recycling!

Once your bunny is reliable about using the litterbox in his area, you can gradually increase his freedom. Be sure that he can always get back to his litterbox when he's free in the house. There's a possibility that he may pick a second area in the house as a toilet corner. If the behavior continues, even after squirt bottle and white vinegar, you may have to raise the white flag and provide another litterbox or two. But bunny's litterbox should not smell if it's changed regularly.

For more tips and information on litter box training your bunny, be sure to visit House Rabbit Society FAQ on Litter Training.

copyright 1998 - Dana Krempels
updated 27 May 2009

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