Rabbits have two kinds of faeces; caecotrophs (which they eat); and small, firm globe-shaped pellets approximately the size of a pea.
Caecotrophs are soft and look like a bunch of grapes. They are made in the caecum, where bacteria generate nutrients that are not available in grass and the other plant matter that rabbits eat. The caecotrophs are eaten immediately as they come out of the anus when a rabbit is in a quiet, safe location (they often are mistakenly referred to as ‘night faeces’). In the domestic environment, this typically is at night, after all family members have gone to bed. In the wild, this happens during the night and during the day, when the rabbit is resting in the security of a room in the warren.
The other type of dropping, the faecal pellets usually are deposited in specific latrines. In the wild, latrines are often, although not always, made on slightly elevated ground, or near one of the unhidden entrances to the warren. They usually are started by one or more rabbits using their strong front claws to dig a shallow bowl, which is then used to deposit faeces in by most of the rabbits in the warren.
Why do they do this? There are a pair of pocket-like perineal glands known as the inguinal glands, believed to release pheromones that may serve as sexual attractants in both sexes. Large, fibrous faecal pellets can act as a vehicle for these anal gland secretions. Latrines may therefore have several purposes:
- the recognition of own or familiar odours at these sites may have a “confidence-enhancing” effect
- the odours may inform an intruder that the area is occupied
- latrines provide indirect exchange of olfactory (scent) information among members of the same social grouping and may contribute to the regulation of population density by inhibiting reproduction in socially subordinate animals.
Because the use of a latrine is for more than just toileting, it is another good reason to desex your rabbits while they are young. Entire male rabbits, for example, may mark their territory by urinating and defecating in multiple spots.
Toilet training rabbits makes use of this normal behaviour to toilet in one spot. Many people may not be aware that most rabbits are quite easy to litter train, although occasional accidents may occur.
What do I need?
Location and training
If you have a specific location in a specific room that you want to be the location of the litter tray, confine your rabbits to that area when you first bring them home. Some people use a rabbit cage or house as a location for the rabbits to rest, sleep in at night, and do their toileting. If that is the case, the rabbits should be placed in this house when they first arrive home. The owner should watch for which location, usually a corner, of the house the rabbits use for eliminating and immediately place a litter tray there.
If you aren’t using a cage or house for your rabbits, or if you want the litter tray to not be in the house, then temporary penning needs to be set up to keep the rabbits in the section of the room that you want to be the toileting area. If you simply want the litter tray to be in a particular room, then the rabbits can simply be confined to that room. In either case, you need to watch where your rabbits choose to toilet and put a tray there. If you want the tray to be just a short distance away from what your rabbits initially choose, move the tray gradually a little bit (2-6 cm each day) until it is exactly where you want it to be.
Once the litter tray location is decided on and your rabbits are consistently using the litter tray, you can gradually allow your rabbits access to more and more space. Once they have had their initial litter tray training, most rabbits identify the tray as their latrine, allowing for even more flexibility in moving it. Some rabbits may choose to move their litter tray themselves. Unless it is important to you to keep the tray in one space, you should let the rabbits move it where they want it.
Cat litter trays are quite suitable for rabbits. Although one large tray may suffice for two rabbits, you may need to provide more trays if you have more than two rabbits, or if one or more rabbits is reluctant to use the first litter tray.
Rabbits often spend long periods of time just resting in their litter tray. They may even eat the substrate while they are just sitting there! Selection of litter is therefore a critical issue as many of the litters made for cats are unsafe for rabbits. Any litter that clumps is unsafe, because it clumps in the gastrointestinal tract and can cause gastrointestinal blockage. Other litters are toxic if consumed, while others give off fumes that irritate the rabbit’s respiratory tract, triggering respiratory disease.
UNSAFE litters include clumping litter, pine shavings, cedar shavings, all other softwood shavings, and clay litter with deodorant crystals.
SAFE litters include straw, hay, oaten or alfalfa (lucerne) pellets, pelleted rabbit food, and litters specifically made and marketed for rabbits.
Once you have identified your rabbits’ preferred substrate (or combination of substrates), use it consistently. Changing the substrate may cause your rabbits to stop using the tray.
How often do I need to clean out the litter tray?
Rabbits are different from cats in that they do not dig in the litter to bury their excrement. The faecal pellets are deposited on the surface of the litter and left there, while urine trickles down to the bottom.
The location of the urine can make the status of the litter’s cleanliness deceptive. The surface may look clean, but if a lot of urine has been deposited in the tray, ammonia fumes rise to the surface and irritate the eyes and respiratory tract of your rabbits.
Spot cleaning – removal of the faeces only with a scoop – is not recommended as this leaves the urine in the tray to accumulate and ammonia fumes to increase. Every 1-2 days (depending on the number of rabbits using the tray), the entire contents of the tray should be dumped, the tray rinsed, and new clean litter placed in the tray.
Why have my rabbits stopped using the litter tray?
Firstly, your rabbits may still be using the tray but, because they were suddenly startled or frightened (e.g., by people yelling or moving unexpectedly), the rabbits may defecate as a response to fear as they scurry away to hide. These pellets are easily picked up and disposed of with a tissue. In this case, the best treatment is prevention, that is, make sure everyone in the family knows to not cause sudden, unexpected loud noises.
Sometimes rabbits who have been consistently using their litter tray start regularly eliminating outside the tray. This can happen secondary to various stressors, such as changes in the household, for example, a new baby or a new pet, illness, or a disrupted schedule. If this happens, try to identify the stressor and improve the situation, if possible. It may be best to keep the rabbit in their own room, where their tray is, for a while, ensuring that the family changes do not disturb them there. Also, consider if simple changes have happened, such as the rabbit’s litter tray substrate being abruptly changed.
Like dogs and cats, rabbits may be frightened by thunderstorms, and eliminating where they happen to be when a severe storm starts can trigger an elimination problem. If your rabbit starts using a specific new location other than the current litter tray, it may be easiest to add a second litter tray at that site. If that is not an option, block the rabbit’s access to the site.
There may be some physical problems affecting your rabbit’s ability to climb into the tray. Obesity, age-related joint problems (e.g., arthritis), back pain, and urinary tract infections can all make your rabbit want to defecate elsewhere (somewhere easier to access). If that is the case, veterinary care and treatment should be sought – there is a lot that can be done to make your rabbit more comfortable.
1. Crowell-Davis S (2021) Rabbit Behaviour. Vet Clin North Am Exot Anim Pract 24:53–62
2. Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund (2023) How to keep pet rabbits happy and healthy. Accessed 15 Feb 2023