There are a whole multitude of rabbit bedding materials available to the rabbit owner, but before you splash out on the most expensive on the market, pause and consider the question of what sort of litter you should be getting.
Some people keep their bunnies on commercial cat litter as a rabbit bedding, because cat litter is easily available and some varieties are suitable for bunnies – but not all of them are, so let’s start there. Cat litter materials come in two sorts: clumping, and non-clumping. The difference is that clumping litter contains materials that make it stick together in lumps when it gets wet. This is fine for a cat, who jumps into a litter tray, stays there for a couple of minutes, then leaves. You’ll notice your rabbit wants to spend time sitting meditating in her litter tray, she likes to have some hay or greens there to nibble on, so she’s in the tray for a long time. This means that the dust from a clumping litter can be inhaled by a rabbit – and it will then clump in her lungs. If she nibbles on the litter (and she will!) then it’ll clump in her gut.
It should be obvious now that you NEVER use clumping litter for rabbit bedding!
Non-clumping litter is the other option. Commercial non-clumping cat litter is often based on granules of natural clay, which is fine for rabbits. Avoid the scented variety, though – rabbits have delicate lungs and spending a long time in the litter tray means they’ll be breathing a lot more of whatever scent is used than the manufacturers will have expected – and that means they can’t guarantee it’s safe.
Another alternative that pet owners are often advised to use for rabbit bedding is good old-fashioned pine shavings. They come ready packaged in convenient sized plastic packs from every pet shop around, they’re cheap and they smell nice. Right? Wrong! That lovely pine-fresh scent is actually a powerful pine oil that has been suspected of producing liver damage in rabbits – so avoid soft-wood shavings, too. You can buy the same pine oil packaged as a pure essential oil. Sniff it delicately when you have a cold or use it as a rubbing oil, by all means – it’ll clear your sinuses a treat – but don’t let your rabbit’s sensitive lungs get soaked in it.
You can buy hard-wood shavings, but they’re much more expensive. I’ve used cedarwood shavings sometimes with a pet snake, but to be honest she seems as happy on a sheet of paper in her tank. Don’t choose aromatic hardwoods like cedar for rabbits – like pine oil, cedar oil is a strong aromatic oil and not good for sensitive bunny lungs. When I can get them, I use woods like apple and oak as shavings or sawdust – but you need to know who’s shredding their tree prunings, because they’re not easy to buy in the shops! I use them as a base layer for the bunnies when I can get them – it soaks up wetness very well and provides a good solid base, but it’s not an easy option! Always choose a wood you could feed to your rabbit safely – fruit woods are good, or the northern temperate hardwoods like oak, ash, hazel, hawthorn or blackthorn. Wild rabbits will chew all these trees in the wild when they’re budding or strip bark off them when grass is in short supply, so they’re safe to use as litter materials. If you have a hedge of suitable woods in the garden, consider saving a branch or two for a chew-toy for the bunnies, or shred the prunings fine and use them for rabbit bedding - but do take care not to let the thorns from blackthorn or hawthorn get into your rabbits (or your own feet, either!)
I haven’t ruled out all the alternatives for rabbit bedding yet, don’t worry. Actually, my favourite bunny litter is also the favourite for the bunnies. I use shredded paper. Old newspapers, junk mail, envelopes – all staples and plastic removed, of course – simply gets fed through a shredder and then I just put about four inches in the tray. The rabbits eat it, dig in it, sleep on it, occasionally pull some of it around the house as a game, and they seem to be healthy and contented with it. It’s also a very good biodegradable litter, since once it’s been in the tray and served its purpose, it goes on the compost heap. I joke that it’s also a secure way to dispose of the shredded papers – if anyone wants my identity badly enough they’re willing to dig up my compost heap in search of the used rabbit bedding, they really deserve anything they can find! Don’t bother with a crosscut shredder unless you really feel you have to – the rabbits seem to be happy to do the cross-cutting themselves and the strips provide hours of rustling, burrowing fun before they pack down in the tray!
This table should help you just look up each of the options and its pros and cons quickly:
Litter MaterialSuitabilityReasonSoft wood shavingsBadVolatile oils in the wood (the pine smell) can damage the liver.Hard wood shavingsGoodBiodegradable, non-toxic, but slightly more expensiveShredded paperGoodCheap, non-toxic, biodegradable. Ink in printed paper may stain fur.Clumping cat litterVery badLitter which clumps can block a rabbit’s gut if swallowed and kill your pet!Non-clumping cat litterGoodNon-toxic, but can be expensive. Don’t use the scented varieties – rabbits have very sensitive noses.SoilBadGarden soil can carry dangerous bacteria. Also forms mud when wet and will be carried on the paws.Vermiculite (and other mineral soil conditioners)ReasonableExpensive, can be dusty, but non-toxic, lovely for bunnies to dig in. Not biodegradable as they’re usually granulated rock.ClayBadCan block the gut if swallowed and kill your rabbit.
Once you’ve settled on a litter material, the obvious question is, how often do I change it?
Rabbits aren’t smelly creatures when they’re healthy, so I find that a weekly-clean out is fine. If you’ve been careful about litter-training (seetraining ) then your bunny will be reliable about using his tray, and with the addition of the daily greens ration, or a good hay-rack, you’ll find most bunnies want to spend a good few hours lounging in their rabbit bedding. Some rabbits will sleep in their trays, others just eat there – Biscuit only goes in his tray to drink and excrete, Biggles will spend half an hour at a time in hers flat out on her side fast asleep as well as eating and drinking – every bunny’s different!
If you feel that your bunny’s tray is getting a bit wetter than you like, clean it out more often – if you have more than one rabbit using the tray, you will need to clean out more often. You may find that cleaning out the ‘wet’ corner is enough to keep things clean and sweet. At all events, at least every month empty the tray completely, wash it thoroughly with hot soapy water and dry it, then refill it with clean rabbit bedding.
If you get too fastidious and clean up too thoroughly, too often, you may find that your bunny begins to forget what the tray is for, particularly if they’re fairly newly litter-trained. Make sure that the tray still smells like a litter tray – if you regularly feed greens in the tray, you’ll be able to keep that link without worrying about the smell, but if you only keep litter in the tray, leave a little bit of damp paper or a few pellets in it after you’ve scrubbed it – just so bunny doesn’t get confused. For the same reason, once you and your rabbit have decided where the litter tray lives, don’t move it unexpectedly around the house – if your rabbit has strong opinions on where the litter tray should be and you put it elsewhere, you may find that your rabbit goes to where the tray was, not where it is!
At the end of the day, clean out the tray according to your nose. If you don’t want to live with it, neither does your bunny! Make sure you scrub it thoroughly at least once a month, but don’t get obsessive about it – you don’t want to spend all your time cleaning when you could be enjoying quality play and snuggle time with your pet instead, and neither does she!