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One of the main arguments I’ve seen against keeping rabbits in the house is that they’ll make your house smell.
House rabbits shouldn’t smell, or at least, they shouldn’t smell bad.
If they do, it’s usually for one of these reasons:
- The rabbit is overweight
- They’re arthritic
- They’re ill
- They’re not drinking enough water
- They’re hormonal
The other obvious one is that you’re not cleaning out their litter tray often enough. We completely replace all the bedding (we use absorbent paper pellets) every week, and remove any soiled litter more frequently.
The weirdest thing about this argument is that dogs smell, and yet if you suggest keeping a dog outside everyone goes crazy.
I personally love the smell of my rabbits – one in particular smelled of warm, digestive biscuits. He used to get really tired of us coming over to him whilst he was chilling and smelling him. He was a good boy though, and just laid there.
House rabbits shouldn’t smell strongly
When rabbits smell bad, there may be something wrong. It’s usually worth a vet visit. I’ve never come across a rabbit that just…smelled bad.
Reasons why your rabbit might start to smell
Before you panic, there are a few reasons that may make your rabbit smell bad.
The rabbit is overweight
The joys of a rabbit’s digestive system requires them to eat cecotropes, which are basically poops.
Cecotropes are soft and stinky and do smell, but the majority of rabbits eat them directly from their butt. It’s gross, but it does mean that they don’t smell.
However, if your rabbit is overweight, they may not be physically able to reach their cecotropes.
Often, the rabbit will just eat the cecotropes of the floor (some rabbits prefer to do this rather than the direct-from-the-butt method) and everything is fine, but other rabbits will end up with cecotropes smeared all over their butt.
Being overweight can reduce a rabbit’s ability to clean themselves effectively anyway, and smeary cecotropes just make the whole situation worse.
I don’t want to shame anybody here for letting your rabbit get overweight. Some breeds are predisposed to put on a lot of weight and it can be difficult to shift it. Once of my rabbits needs butt baths weekly because she was overweight, and her diet was exclusively hay and a few veggies (limited only to ones that didn’t upset her tummy).
The rabbit is arthritic
This is basically the same as overweight bunnies -arthritic bunnies struggle to clean themselves effectively. I had the double whammy of having a recently widowed rabbit that has NEVER groomed herself since her mate had done all that for her. She was also 10 and had a bit of arthritis in her back legs.
Arthritis is common in older rabbits – remember that wild rabbits wouldn’t ever reach the age of four, never mind hitting double digits. It makes sense that they would start to show signs of wear and tear.
There are medications, such as Meloxicam, that reduce inflammation and make life a lot more comfortable for your rabbit.
A good vet will tell you that reliance on these medications can shorten your rabbit’s lifespan – they can cause kidney failure. This is a really tough decision to have to make, but wouldn’t you rather your rabbit had a shorter, pain-free life than a long, miserable one?
The rabbit is ill
Ill rabbits feel sorry for themselves and often won’t clean themselves. Diarrhoea and incontinence can exacerbate the problem.
Assuming you have the illness under control (I don’t need to tell you that a sick bunny needs to see a vet), I don’t recommend bathing sick rabbits, since it can stress them out even further.
In an ideal world, your bunny will have a mate that will take over grooming duties. If not, do what you can with warm water and a damp cloth.
You can also see if you can induce the rabbit to start self-grooming, by scratching them – try rubbing their ears or scratching just above their tail.
This also works on cats, if anyone’s interested.
Btw, apparently a lot of rabbits HATE having their butt scratched.
Mine have always loved it, but only when they were super comfortable with us. My theory is that inducing a rabbit to self-groom makes the rabbit feel vulnerable, so they only let those they 100% trust do it.
The rabbit isn’t drinking enough water
Read this post for tips on encouraging your rabbit to drink more water, but be sure that your rabbit doesn’t have a health issue first. The old banana-in-the-water trick works well.
Offer your rabbit a water bowl, rather than a bottle, because it’s easier and less frustrating for a rabbit to drink as much water as they’d like.
The rabbit is hormonal
Get your rabbit spayed or neutered. Not only do rabbits smell hormonal, but they’re more likely to spray pee up your walls.
Unspayed rabbits sometimes do produce a smell – it kind of smells sweet, and a little bit like weed. It’s not that uncommon for fixed rabbits to sometimes emit this smell, but I can’t work out what governs it.
Holly and Daisy don’t produce this smell at all, but one of my other rabbits used to, and it used to accompany nest-building, and make my other female rabbits build nests. We never had a full-on false pregnancy, just the odd waft of the sweet smell, and then a couple of days of nest building.
I’ve tried to research it, but I just find information telling me it’ll go when my bunnies are fixed. THEY ARE. Perhaps they’re just stinky. It’s not a bad smell, and it’s not continuous – we just get a waft every few weeks.
How to clean your rabbit
Don’t ever bath your rabbit. Rabbits find being submerged in water extremely stressful.
Yes, I’ve seen that video of wild rabbits swimming, but I imagine choosing to go swimming to avoid a predator or find food a very different experience to being unceremoniously chucked in the bath.
As well as risking your rabbit going into shock, baths can also induce hypothermia. So, what do you do when your bunny has a poop-smeared butt?
Butt baths – wet
Use something like a litter tray, or washing up bowl. Put a couple of inches of warm water in the bottom, and see if your bunny is happy to sit in it. If they’re not (and they probably won’t be, though one of mine LOVED a butt bath), then dip a cloth into the water and clean your bunny as much as you can.
I like to put a towel on the floor, put my bunny on the towel, and then wrap them up like a burrito. That way, you can lift the towel to expose the bit you need to wash, but the rest of the bunny is wrapped up and less able to kick you.
I use a cloth the clean them as best I can. If required, I snip off any soil fur that I can’t get clean. I don’t recommend doing this unless you have experience – rabbits have extremely delicate fur that can easily get cut.
A note on bunny soap – rabbits have EXTREMELY sensitive skin. Far more sensitive than ours. I only used shampoo specially designed for small animals. If I run out, I just use water.
I’ve heard of people using dish soap, but I would never put something so harsh on my rabbit’s skin. There’s every chance I’m being over-cautious, but it’s not something I think is worth risking.
Butt baths – dry
This website has a great article on using cornflour to clean bunny butts. I’ve not tried it myself, but it’s a great option for those of you with rabbits that really hate water. It’s a far better method for giving butt baths when the weather is cold, since hypothermia can set in quickly.
How to convince your rabbit to clean themselves
As I mentioned before, one (luckily only one) of my rabbits had been groomed fastidiously by her mate for most of her life.
She was always pretty lazy – one of those rabbits that spend 95% of her life in her tiny cage, despite being completely free-roam. We actually used the cage door to block the gap behind the sofa, so we couldn’t have locked her in if we’d wanted to.
The best way to get a rabbit to groom themselves is to pet them. A lot of rabbits seem to think that humans are gross, and will spend hours grooming themselves after being stroked. It’s actually pretty offensive.
Smearing their face with a bit of banana also works, but it can result in overzealous grooming from another rabbit, and I don’t like the idea of making the rabbit dirtier than they were to begin with.
Rabbits do have an auto-groom response, as I mentioned before, best activated thorugh butt scratches and ear rubs.
How to clean your rabbit’s scent glands
I have never had to do this and didn’t even know it was a thing until I saw it on Facebook. Apparently, if your rabbit smells bad, it’s can be a scent glands issue. I would check with a vet, just in case.
I recommend that you either find a vet that can do it and ask them to show you how to do it yourself, or see if you have any local pet groomers that also do rabbits.
I will also direct you to this website, which has a video showing you the process. Let’s all hope that we never have to do it!
How to litter train your rabbit
I have a separate blog post on litter training your rabbit here. Rabbits are clean animals, and are easy to litter train.
Once you have all the pee (and poop, but from a smell point of view that’s less important, since bunny poop doesn’t typically smell) in one place, it’s easy to stop it smelling.
Make sure you’re vigilant about cleaning your rabbit’s litter tray out completely every week. I either use a disinfectant spray designed for small animals or white vinegar. Both are equally effective, but I hate the smell of vinegar so I prefer the spray. Don’t worry if you can’t get hold of the spray – vinegar is just as effective and it only smells whilst you’re cleaning – it dissipates quickly when you’re finished.
Which litter to use to absorb the smell of urine
Wood shavings are fine, but they’re messy and they need changing more often. I use paper pellets and they’re great. The stuff I’ve linked to the closest to the stuff I use, but since most of you are from the US, me linking to a UK product isn’t much use.
Not only do they totally absorb the smell, but they contain a mild insecticide, which massively reduces the chance of flystrike.
How to get rabbit wee out of carpets
If your rabbit pees on the carpet you need to get it out asap because 1. rabbit pee STINKS and 2. if your rabbit can smell the pee then they’re likely to pee there again.
An easy, cheap way to make sure the smell is gone is to buy a cheap bottle of biological washing liquid. Add a drop to a spray bottle and fill it up with water. Soak up the majority of the pee with a paper towel, then spray generously. Leave to dry and then spray with water to remover any leftover chemicals.
Don’t allow your rabbit near the spot whilst the area is being cleaned – we don’t want them licking the floor and ingesting any chemicals.
The key here is to use biological washing chemicals. The enzymes eat away at the pee molecules and remove them, rather than just covering the smell.
Rabbit pee is alarmingly string strong stuff, and comes in a dazzling array of thicknesses and colours, even red, depending on what they’ve been eating.
Whilst it’s important to keep an eye on any strange toilet habits, don’t panic if your rabbit is producing strange pee. What’s weird to humans may be totally normal to rabbits.
Final thoughts on stinky bunnies
Pet rabbits shouldn’t smell. They definitely don’t smell as strongly as dogs, which is good because they produce about the same volume of fur.
If your rabbit does smell, its an indication that there’s something amiss, and I’d recommend getting them to see a vet.