In my work as a clinical animal behaviour counsellor, one of the most common problems that I am asked to help rabbit owners with is inappropriate urination. Understandably, this behaviour is problematic and distressing for owners, especially if rabbits are kept indoors.
Urine marking (urinating on horizontal surfaces) and spraying (urinating on vertical surfaces) are in fact normal rabbit behaviours, used primarily as a way of laying claim to a territory as well as advertising their sexual status. Consequently, it is more common in intact rabbits (especially males).
Causes of inappropriate urination
As well as sexual behaviour, there are a number of things that might be motivating a rabbit to urine mark and perform spraying behaviour. These include:
- Territorial behaviour: This tendency is more common in intact rabbits. Therefore, removal of the reproductive organs – neutering males and spaying females – can help to reduce the behaviour. However, marking can sometimes be triggered when a rabbit enters a new environment or shares their housing with other rabbits.
- Learned behaviour: Learned behaviour develops as a result of experience. So if a rabbit learns to toilet in a particular location and repeats this behaviour, eventually it becomes part of their routine. Learned behaviours can be difficult (but not impossible) to unlearn. Therefore early treatment is crucial.
- Changes to the environment: Relocating a rabbit to new accommodation can be a trigger. Even changes associated with the arrival of new pieces of equipment or a house-move can be the cause. Therefore, changes should be made gradually.
- New additions to the rabbit family: Being introduced to a newcomer can lead to marking and spraying behaviour. As such, accurate and sensitive methods of introduction should be followed.
- Problems with litter trays: There must be a sufficient number of litter trays available (at least two per rabbit) and they should be located in places that a rabbit favours. Usually corners of a room are preferred as latrine sites so try a corner tray in addition to stand alone types. Rabbits often like to eat whilst toileting so placing hay close-by might help too. Keeping litter trays cleaned (but not over-zealously) is important and make sure that the litter that is being used suits that individual. Scented varieties might appeal to us but not a rabbit! Sometimes making sudden changes to the type of litter we offer can be enough to put a rabbit off – so make changes very gradually.
- Urinary tract problems and other medical disorders: Changes in toileting habits can be a sign of cystitis (inflammation of the bladder) and bladder stones. Other medical conditions, including E. cuniculi (a microscopic parasite that affects the brain) and kidney disease may also be responsible. Consequently, prompt veterinary attention is important.
- Pain: This is a common cause of behaviour problems in all animals. Rabbits with musculo-skeletal pain, or elderly rabbits with oseto-arthritis, may find it difficult to get in to a deep sided litter tray. Sometimes, positioning themselves in a small tray might be uncomfortable which leads to them toileting in other locations. Veterinary attention is recommended in all cases. Also, for elderly rabbits, choosing easy access trays of a suitable size and providing ramps for them to get in and out easily can help.
- Neutering can significantly reduce problems associated with hormonal activity. But it is worth remembering that female rabbits can still have hormonal surges in spring, even if they have been spayed. This might explain why the behaviour might return at certain times of the year. For those who wish to breed from their rabbit, managing the environment and the rabbits housing may be the only solution.
- Managing the environment is an important part of the treatment plan.If the urine is being deposited on a particular area (e.g. soft furnishings or in a particular corner) prevent access to it or line targeted locations with plastic for easy cleaning. This may also act as a deterrent as rabbits dislike their urine running on to their feet. Guards to line the bottom part of an enclosure can help stop urine from being sprayed through the bars. However, some rabbits may always need to have limited access to certain locations indoors. Instead, runs outside or in an out-buildings can provide more freedom and stop house-soiling problems.
- Increase the opportunity for a rabbit to get it right. This includes the type of litter box offered, its location and the substrate provided (make sure it is approved for rabbits). Observe where your rabbit toilets and follow their preferences. Some rabbits learn better toilet habits if they are initially kept in a smaller enclosure with litter trays close by. They can gradually be given access to a larger area if the behaviour diminishes.
- Changes to the environment should be managed sensitively. For newcomers, use the same equipment they already have before replacing it all in one go. Existing bedding and some of their litter, that retains their scent, should remain with them until they are familiar with their new home.
- Scent swopping: Rabbits use the scentfrom glands on their chins to mark places and objects. This is a behaviour also seen in cats, witnessed when they rub their heads and cheeks alongside items and locations in their territory. In cats, to help with familiarity, we harvest this scent by stoking them in these areas using a clean cloth (a bit like a mitten, wrapped around our hand). The scent is then transferred on to new objects and new environments that they are entering. This helps establish their scent, making them feel more comfortable and secure. Due to the similar behaviour trait, it is, in my opinion, worth carrying out the same procedure with rabbits. It might just help a rabbit feel less likely to mark with urine.
- Use positive reinforcement training techniques: Rabbits are very responsive to learning. This type of training involves using a reward, usually a small tasty food item for the behaviour that we want to reinforce. So when you see your rabbit choosing the correct toilet location – provide a treat (making sure not to interrupt them and put them off). Also, when using treats do chose low sugar, healthy options.
Written by Caroline Clark RVN, Cert.Ed,
ABTC Registered Clinical Animal Behaviour Counsellor
Post Graduate Diploma (Advanced Studies) Companion Animal Behaviour Counsellor
APBC Full Member
About the Author
Caroline is a registered clinical animal behaviourist and qualified veterinary nurse. She runs Pet Education and Training, her own behaviour referral practice, specialising in canine, feline, rabbit and parrot behaviour. Caroline is passionate about sharing her knowledge and provides online course and hosted CPD training events for pet owners and pet professionals. Caroline was recently featured as the animal behaviour expert in Embarrassing Pets, a 20 part series for Channel 4 TV. She enjoys writing articles and blogs and is currently authoring a book on canine fear and anxiety which will be available on the shelves soon.