Question: Are rabbits intelligent?
Answer: Your college kid should be this smart.
Question: Do rabbits like to obey?
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.
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!
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.
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.