If you are new to the idea of keeping a rabbit indoors, then the concept of houserabbits may seem strange. But rabbits adapt very easily to life indoors, using litter trays just like cats and settling happily into the family. Housetraining rabbits is easy - most rabbits get the idea of using a litterbox straight away, although a few take a bit of persuading. Baby rabbits, like puppies, can't be expected to achieve perfect control of their toilet habits straight away - although most will make a pretty good effort, given sympathetic owners who appreciate the rabbit psychology involved. And do bear in mind that trying to keep an un-neutered rabbit indoors once it reaches puberty (4-6 months) is extremely difficult and sometimes impossible. Just like cats, rabbits of both sexes have to be neutered to live indoors successfully. There are two aspects to training the indoor rabbit. Housetraining is usually fairly easy, if you follow the instructions below and have your rabbit neutered immediately it reaches puberty.
Chewing is another matter - whereas it is natural for rabbits to toilet in one place, they are animals programmed to chew and you must teach your rabbit is not to chew forbidden objects and offer plenty of attractive permitted alternatives. In some ways it's like rearing a Labrador puppy - the first six months are an awful lot of (fun) work and left unsupervised rabbits can be fairly destructive, but as time goes on you will be able to trust him with your sofa/coffee table/wallpaper and have a valued and loved companion bunny to share your life and your home!
Although I have just used a canine analogy, bear in mind that housetraining bunnies differs from housetraining dogs. With rabbits, you need to consider the two waste products separately. There are also the important changes in toilet habits to contend with when your rabbit reaches puberty, which is usually the signal that it is time for bunny to take a trip to the vets for neutering! Urine is primarily a waste product to a rabbit, except when un-neutered rabbits spray like tom cats. Droppings, on the other hand, are important social and territorial-marking tools. Getting bunny to go to his litterbox to pee is simply a matter of reinforcing to him the habit of going there when he needs to go. Getting him to poop there is a matter of reinforcing that his house his territory, and making his litterbox a pleasant place for him to relax. Rabbits like to poop while munching on hay - put a hay-rack over the litter tray and sure enough your rabbit will hang out in his litter tray, munch hay, and make manure! Some people find that hiding edible treats in the litter box encourages the rabbit to frequent it more.
- Cage set up
- Hayrack and food dish filled, water bottle filled and attached to cage.
First off - add the contents of your rabbits' usual dirty-corner to his litter tray. He needs to know where his loo is and showing him makes life a lot easier. If you've only just collected your bunny from the breeder (and please do find a good breeder rather than going to the pet-shop) you might not have any soiled bedding available; he'll probably use the litter tray anyway, but if he chooses a different corner, you'll just have to rearrange the cage. Most rabbits put their loo in a back corner, which is fine because you should have his food bowls at the front where the can be filled with minimal intrusion into his territory.
Second thing - put him in his indoor cage and leave him alone. You do need a cage, especially if starting off with a young rabbit. There is plenty of time to build up to having a free range housebunny. Let him adapt to being indoors: there's an awful lot to get used to - new sounds; temperature; routine; other pets, the TV. Don't go dragging him out for a cuddle every few minutes just because you no longer have to venture out into a freezing cold garden to fetch him. Fundamental to success is that your rabbit must choose when to come and be petted, and it is best to start as you mean to go on. The idea of these first few days confined in the cage is firstly to get him used to living indoors, and secondly to reinforce to him the idea that his cage is his territory and where his loo is.
First few days
You can spend these first few days sitting near the cage, talking to your rabbit (not if he's relaxing and dozing) and offering him edible treats while teaching him his name. You need to find something tasty to get your rabbit addicted to.
Bribery and corruption is the easiest way to train a houserabbit. The bribe needs to be something small enough that one quick chew and it's gone - otherwise he'll grab it from you and run away again which is not the idea at all! Some people use slivers of carrot; peanuts (only a few per day!); original Winalot (which is vegetarian) or specially-marketed rabbit treats from the pet-shop, which rattle when kept in a little tin. Some rabbits recall on rattling the treat tin is far more impressive than most dogs! Whilst we're talking about the treats - when the rabbit is out of his cage, offer them on the palm of your hand, not between thumb and finger. Otherwise you may get bitten when bunny comes racing up to grab his peanut - rabbits can't see in front of their noses very well!
Out and about
When your bun is relaxed, using his litter tray to pee in and no longer intimidated by all the new experiences, you can start letting him out of the cage. Make sure the room is bunnyproofed first i.e. electrical and telephone cables out of reach or covered in plastic water piping; chewables out of the way; anywhere you don't want your rabbit to go blocked off. It will take time to train him not to chew forbidden objects but the first priority is housetraining.
Choose a time when there is not too much activity going on, and you have a good 30 minutes or so free of distraction to supervise your rabbit. Shut the dog, cat, and kids out of the room. Make it before feeding time - not only will your rabbit have an extra incentive to go home when you want him to, but they are less likely to pee and poop before food! Now you're all set. Just open up the cage door and let him come out in his own time. He might not come out at all. That's fine - you want him to regard his cage as his safe place, and if he feels secure there, that's good. Eventually he'll come out (babies will often revert back to the four-legged crawl they learnt when leaving the nest). He might dither around the door for a bit, or he might leap out and go berserk when he realises he has a whole room to run about it. Lie on the floor, with a supply of the treats, and if he comes near you, talk to him and offer him a treat. If he lets you, you can rub his nose, but don't grab at him and don't pick him up! If you see him raising his tail and looking like he is going to piddle somewhere he shouldn't (unlikely, on a first trip out when he will be a bit scared) either clap your hands or stamp your foot and say 'No!'. He'll stop, but you know he needs to go and it's time he went home. 10 -15 minutes is more than long enough for a first trip out anyway.
Time for beddy-byes
Fill his food bowl, rattle it a bit and put it in his cage. Then rattle the bribe tin and see if he will come back near the cage. If he does, great. If he doesn't, you'll just have to herd him back in from further away. He has to go back into the cage under his own steam, so you need to (gently!) harass him such that he goes home to escape being pestered. Then you reward him and he learns that going home means a treat. The easiest way is to gently herd him back to his cage, clapping your hands and saying 'go home' or 'bedtime'. Most rabbits will happily hop back into their cage, but if yours is a bit reluctant you need to arrange the furniture to make a chute leading to the door so he hasn't much choice but to hop back home. When he's in there, immediately praise him and offer him a treat. You can also make a point of always popping something tasty in his cage for when he goes back in, such as a teaspoon of porridge oats.
You need to practise this every day, preferably more than once. Older rabbits can usually come out for long periods straight away; but babies should start with much less time as if they get too distracted they will forget to go home for a pee. Most rabbits will happily go in and out of their cage during their free running time, because to them it is their home, not a prison. They might pop back in to go to the loo, have a drink or a snack. That's wonderful behaviour! You won't believe it until you see it but they soon learn to go whizzing back to their cages when you tell them to go home, ready for their treat - although if they get used to a certain amount of free time and they feel deprived if you try to put them back sooner, you might find bunny goes on strike which is infuriating but actually very funny.
Based on an article first published in Fur & Feather