Part II: The Foster Home
Foster parents are the backbone of any rescue operation. In addition, they are the best opportunity for animals to learn how to be part of a family. Fosters often fill a variety of roles, from simply being a holding space to nursing a sick animal back to health to taking on a potentially unadoptable behavior case. Because a foster home is often where rabbits learn to live in a home, it is the perfect place to prevent problem behaviors while fostering (no pun intended!) adoptable ones.
Environment, environment, environment
The ideal set-up for a foster rabbit is one that mimics the home they will go into. An ex-pen or run with a litter box, food and water dishes (rabbits drink from dishes not bottles), and regular enrichment is an ideal set up. In addition, the rabbit should have time outside of their home daily. I would consider all of these “the basics” for a rabbit. The foster would be able to show the potential adopter how a proper rabbit run is set-up, how to provide time outside of the home, and the litter that the rabbit is currently using. This is a great opportunity to educate an individual who wants a rabbit about what a rabbit’s needs are, and they can decide whether they have the time and space for one.
Rescues or individuals with multiple foster bunnies can adapt their busy households to mitigate unwanted behaviors in bunnies. Bar chewing, tracking (rushing back and forth across the section of the cage that faces another rabbit in an antagonistic manner), fence fighting, digging, and breakdown or lack of good litter box habits are all behaviors that develop from unfamiliar rabbits being near each other. Because animals are being rotated as they come in and go out, they rehearse these behaviors over and over again as they feel the need to reestablish territory. The presence of unfamiliar rabbits can cause stress as well as unwanted behaviors, so it is important to manage this. Visual barriers are great ways to prevent antagonistic behaviors toward other rabbits, and provide them with a little privacy. It is important to provide a little bit of space between rabbit runs, as the rabbits will often go out of their way to chew or pull the barrier if they can. However, a tall, smooth, solid wall, like a cutting board, can be used if the runs need to touch. The rabbit should not be able to chew on any part of it, because they will! If the rabbits can’t reach the barrier, blankets or towels can be used. The major advantage of preventing these behaviors in rabbits, especially single rabbits, is that it will allow for much smoother bonding if the adopter chooses to get two rabbits. As social animals, rabbits do best in groups, so many rescues advocate for and will even assist with bonding. Rabbits that have a history of behaving aggressively towards other rabbits will undoubtedly be tougher to bond than rabbits without such a history.
Another important role of a foster parent is to prevent and mitigate the rehearsal of destructive behaviors. Inappropriate digging and chewing are two behaviors that can be worked on in the foster home by setting the environment up for success. For example, a rabbit that is observed chewing the carpet or fleece in their ex-pen should have the environment changed quickly to prevent it from becoming a well-rehearsed pastime. Preventing behaviors doesn’t change the motivation for them, but it does prevent the animal from rehearsing them, making them less intense.
One of the strongest motivators for today’s behavior is yesterday’s behavior. All animals, including humans, easily fall into routines and patterns, so work to create a pattern that will help the rabbit be more adoptable. If, as a foster, the aesthetic value of your coffee table’s legs isn’t too important to you, it is still valuable for the bunny to not make a habit of chewing them. Using PVC pipes or baby gates is an easy way to protect furniture. Non-rabbit people are often surprised when I tell them that many rabbits can live free- roaming, just like dogs and cats, and this likely makes them more attractive to a potential adopter. Rabbits that fill their day by filing their teeth on table legs or burrowing into the back of the couch will quickly look for that opportunity in a new home. Supervision and quick changes will help to prevent patterns from being established. There are great bunny-proofing ideas available from The Rabbit House.
Litter box training
Most people are quite surprised to learn that rabbits are latrine users (Quesenberry and Carpenter, 2012), and readily adapt to using a litter box. Rabbits that are litter-trained are able to experience more freedom, and they are likely more adoptable as a result.
Most rabbits come into the shelter unaltered. Unaltered rabbits are more of a challenge to litter train, but it is not impossible to do so. The vast majority of rescues and shelters spay or neuter rabbits before adopting them out, so we’ll assume that is the case in this article. Whether a rabbit is fixed or not, the training process is the same.
Begin with an environment that is relatively small. One of the most common mistakes I see in litter training is offering too much space too quickly.
My own rabbit, Tula, was a stray who was pregnant when she came into rescue. After she gave birth, I fostered her for a few months (okay, it was 6 days before I decided to adopt her) before she could be spayed (and I could officially adopt her). I began by setting Tula up in a medium-sized dog crate. I selected a litter box that was large and deep, and took up the majority of the space in her crate. The remaining space contained her food and water dishes, and a space for her to stretch out. I tried expanding her space to an ex-pen before she was spayed, but she immediately began to intensify her marking and nesting behaviors, which included spraying urine and depositing fecal pellets around the whole pen as well as digging the litter out of the litter box. I transitioned her back to her crate, got her spayed, then more gradually transitioned her to an ex-pen, with much more success!
Setting up the litter box properly is important. The litter used should be bunny-safe (Carefresh, pine or paper pellets, shredded paper, or aspen shavings). Cat litter can be deadly for rabbits, corn cob litter grows mold when wet, and cedar shavings are toxic to small animals, so all should be avoided. If the rabbit is coming from another foster home or shelter, try to begin with the same litter they were using before.
The next, and most important, step is to add hay to the litter box. Rabbits tend to eliminate where they are grazing, and adding hay to the box encourages the rabbit to spend time there. At first, avoiding putting hay anywhere else in the environment. If there are accidents outside of the litter box, try scooting the box to that spot. If the accidents tend to be right outside of the box, it’s likely that the sides aren’t high enough, so get a deeper box. If the accidents are happening in multiple spots, add more boxes, or select a larger one. The idea is to do what must be done so the rabbit successfully uses the litter box, so it may be necessary for the box to take up the entire area at first, and then you can gradually reduce the area until the box is just where the rabbit prefers to go. Unaltered rabbits are likely to leave little dots of urine around their environment. Altering is the best solution here. If the accidents are often near a side of the pen where there is another rabbit, be sure to add a box there.
Of course, just because the rabbit isn’t litter trained doesn’t mean they have to be cooped up in a small space all of the time. I recommend slowly increasing the space the rabbit has to explore. Too much space too quickly is setting the rabbit up to fail.
The rabbit should be able to return to the box in the environment to use it. Supervise the rabbit with their new space, and, if they consistently return to their box, then you can increase the space. Sometimes, it is not feasible for the rabbit to run in a space accessible to their box. If this is the case, take the litter box with them to the new space. If the bunny hasn’t used their box in about 20 minutes, return them to their pen with the box, and wait for them to use their box before letting them out again. This is very similar to taking puppies outside frequently while housetraining.
Accidents can have any number of causes, and addressing breakdowns in good litter habits could be its own article! For that reason, I won’t go into lapses in litter box training here. However, if the rabbit has an accident during this process, just regress to a smaller space or a shorter time outside of the environment, then progress more gradually.
Behaviors to improve adoptability
Teaching rabbits new behaviors will not only help them adapt to living with a family, but can also be useful as marketing tools for those individuals. Videos of rabbits rehearsing trained behaviors that can be shared on a rescue’s social media are likely to attract more attention!
Obviously, a foster home is meant to be a temporary stop on the way to an adoptive home. Teaching the rabbit to hop into a crate voluntarily will not only be helpful when the rabbit gets a new home, but it could even be shared on a social media as the rabbit being “Ready for their new home!” Check out the video below for an outline on crate training rabbits!
Hand feeding has multiple benefits. People feel genuinely connected to an animal when they hand feed. However, rabbits are often nervous to eat out of the hands of people, particularly new people. Look at what part of the diet (greens, pellets, etc.) the rabbit gravitates toward first, and save that portion of the diet for hand feeding. Sit near or inside the rabbit’s pen with the food (or special treats) and wait for the rabbit to come near. Situate yourself so that you aren’t directly facing the rabbit. This can be too intimidating; bunnies often would rather approach you from the side or back. Hold the treat well away from your body, and choose a treat that is large (pieces about the size of a baby spinach leaf are a good start).
Often, I hear people say that their rabbit isn’t food-motivated. However, what I often see is a rabbit who is not comfortable being fed by hand. Using a large piece and not requiring a rabbit to come too close is key in gaining the trust of a rabbit who is nervous. They can approach and take the treat without having to be too close to the person or the hand. Eventually, you can use smaller bits and require the rabbit to come a bit closer. When you have visitors, have them feed the rabbit in a similar manner. This will help generalize the idea that all hands have good things, increasing the likelihood of a potential adopter being able to connect with the rabbit. The rabbit is also encouraged to come and explore the person, and it usually doesn’t take long before the rabbit has their paws in the person’s lap, nose twitching, looking for treats.
Helping a rabbit become comfortable with touch is of crucial importance. It’s likely that the people who are looking to adopt a bunny would like to pet their prospective pet. If a bunny is comfortable being hand fed and being close to people, beginning to condition them to tactile stimuli is a helpful next step. Rabbits are usually the most receptive to touches between their eyes (where they groom each other) and between their ears. A stroke that goes from nose to ears is often my first goal when teaching a rabbit to become comfortable with touch.
Begin by placing your hand about 6 inches over the rabbit’s head, while simultaneously offering a treat. Remove your treat hand and your “petting” hand at the same time (after bunny has taken the treat). Do this several times. In my experience, it takes roughly three repetitions of a particular touch or gesture for a rabbit to show signs overt enough for the person to know that they don’t like what’s happening. If the rabbit shows no such signs after three tries, excellent! However, if bunny is distracted by the hand more than twice, this is an indicator that they are uncomfortable. Regress by backing up an inch, and practice a little more at this step. Practice this roughly 5 times at least once a day, if not more frequently. After three successful sessions, lower your hand an inch, and repeat the process. If the bunny looks at your hand, then returns to eating, that is a “go ahead” signal. When you are eventually able to make contact, touch between the ears with one finger and immediately remove your hand. The touch should be less than one second. Gradually, touch for longer, increasing by one second at a time, until you can touch the bunny for two seconds without causing stress. The next step after a two-second touch is about a one-inch stroke. This is consists of going from front to back at the width of the base of the ears. Gradually, add an inch at a time, doing only a few repetitions per session.
If the bunny begins to leave during the session or stops coming over, that means the training progressed faster than the rabbit was comfortable with. Simply go back two steps, then move forward more slowly. Spend more time at each step, and build “-half-steps-” (such as moving half an inch instead of a full inch) into the training plan.
If the rabbit only tolerates touch on the parts of their body where it has been trained, communicate this to the potential adopter. Let them know about the steps needed, and what this rabbit’s personality is like. Some people aren’t ready for a timid rabbit, and that is okay.
One of the most important roles of a foster is to match the needs of the family with the needs of the rabbit, and no one is better equipped to do this than the foster parent. The video below explains and demonstrates the process. While this video is less than two minutes long, the actual process can take months. The speed of the process depends on the bunny’s comfort level. It is important to note that this is not the starting point for all rabbits. Rabbits with extreme fear or aggression may need alternate approaches or behavior work before beginning any type of tactile training. This video is meant as a general guide, not a training plan suited for all rabbits.
The role of a foster parent is a crucially important one. One of my favorite things about working with fosters is how dedicated they are to protecting their animals’ welfare when interacting with potential adopters. This means they are often willing and eager to educate, explain, and give a very realistic picture about what life with their animal is like. Fosters are truly what make the amazing work that rescues do possible, and it is my hope that anyone who fosters rabbits will find this article to their advantage. The last article in this series will discuss the final step in a rescued rabbit’s journey: the adoptive home. Current and prospective bunny parents, stay tuned!
Emily Cassell has spent her training career working with multiple species in various settings. Beginning as a pet dog trainer working both in group classes and in the home, she gradually moved on to her current line of work with orangutans, tigers, and other species as a zookeeper. Throughout her career, she worked with owners of pocket pets by assisting with husbandry, nutrition, and welfare. Eventually, Emily started Small Animal Resources, a consulting service and Facebook page to broaden her ability to help pocket pets and their people. Through PPG, she has written articles, hosted webinars, and taught a workshop on rabbit behavior. Her passion is improving the lives of rabbits and other small pets by demonstrating the value of training and enrichment.