by Helen Anne Travis
Rabbits are social animals that love to please their owners. With a little patience, they can be trained to run agility courses, fetch, jump, and spin on cue. Rabbits are fun and good pets for beginning pet owners, but training them to perform tasks like using a litter pan, hopping onto a scale, sitting still for nail trimmings, and jumping into their carrier makes them even easier to care for.
“[Rabbits are] really smart animals that are often underestimated,” said professional animal trainer Barbara Heidenreich. “That’s why I encourage people to train them so they can see their true personalities.”
How To Litter Train Your Rabbit
Training a rabbit to use a litter pan is relatively easy, as they prefer to eliminate in the same location. Half of the battle is finding the spot in your home that the rabbit has already claimed and then putting a litter box (the bigger, the better) there.
But what if your bunny picked a less-than-ideal corner of your home to do his business? One option is to gradually move the pan to a more desired spot. For more drastic cases, you can move the box to the preferred location and add some soiled litter to the mix so the rabbit knows it’s his. Placing the box in a small room, or limiting the animal's access to a small perimeter around the pan will help drive results. Adding a small handful of hay to one side of the box can encourage the bunny to hop in.
Don’t use kitty litter in your rabbit’s pan, as the dust can be harmful, and avoid cedar shavings, which smell nice but can hurt your rabbit’s respiratory tract. Make sure the litter is approved for use in rabbits. Because they like to nibble in their environment, it is vital the litter is non-toxic if ingested. Heidenreich prefers litters made from recycled papers, which seem to be the best for odor control. Clean the pan daily to keep your home smelling sweet.
Like most other pets, it’s recommended you spay or neuter your rabbit, which will help prevent male rabbits from spraying and fighting and will also protect female rabbits from certain cancers and health complications.
How To Train Your Rabbit To Do Tricks
The first step in teaching your rabbit to do tricks is training it to target, or place its nose on a fixed point. This can be leveraged into bigger stunts, like jumping on command, turning circles, and running agility courses.
To teach a rabbit to target, Heidenreich uses a small stick with a tiny ball attached to one end. She shows the ball to the rabbit and each time it touches its nose to the ball, the rabbit gets a treat. For many rabbits, curiosity is enough to get them interested in the ball. Others need a little more incentive, so Heidenreich sometimes rubs a bit of the bunny’s favorite produce on the ball to get its attention.
Once the rabbit starts seeking out the ball, you can use it to move him to a desired location. Spin it slowly over the rabbit’s head to get him to turn in circles. Raise it in the air and reward the rabbit if he jumps. Your bunny will start to learn that the action he performs is what gets him the treat, and then, fairly soon, you can remove the stick from the equation.
“That’s the cool thing about positive reinforcement,” Heidenreich said. “You create situations where the animal says, ‘What do you want me to do? I can’t wait to do it!’”
Can You Tame a Wild Rabbit?
If you find a rabbit in the wild, it’s best to contact a wildlife rehabilitator or, if you don’t know where to find one in your area, your local veterinarian for advice. Do not move the animal without guidance from a wildlife professional.
In most cases, if you’re able to get close to a wild rabbit, it is likely sick or orphaned. The animal is probably frightened and will only be stressed further by your attempts to take it in. It may also injure itself—or you—trying to get away from you.
“Truly wild animals don’t make good pets,” said Dr. Peter Helmer, a specialist in small mammals at BluePearl Veterinary Partners in Clearwater, Florida. “They're a prey species, and you can’t explain to them you’re not about to eat them.”
Fortunately, female rabbits can have up to 14 babies in a litter, meaning there are plenty of domesticated rabbits waiting for you to take them home, if having a rabbit companion is what you want.
If you are interested in helping to rehabilitate wildlife in your area, you can learn more here at the Wildlife Care Association, or contact your local wildlife rescue groups.