Litter Dangers

Litter Boxes, Liver Disease and Your Rabbit

Did you know that commercial pine or cedar litter or bedding can be VERY DANGEROUS and sometimes fatal to rabbits, rats, mice, guinea pigs, etc.?? Did you know that sand and clay kitty litters can cause and/or aggravate respiratory problems? Read on.


In 1989, House Rabbit Society (HRS), the premier national rabbit rescue organization, made a curious discovery (Harriman 8-9) following the unfortunate death of a young, healthy rabbit after a routine spay operation. HRS ran blood work and discovered that the rabbit’s liver enzymes were far higher than normal. Excess liver enzymes in the blood indicate leakage from the liver, which is not handling toxins adequately; a defective liver cannot properly filter anesthetics, or other toxins.

Originally HRS had advised that all rabbits over two years old have blood tests run on them prior to any surgery. Because they could find no cause for the above rabbit’s death they lowered that age recommendation to 18 months. As they began testing ALL rabbits prior to surgery, a disproportionately high number of rabbits showed elevated liver enzymes. Thus began a long process of elimination.


After searching through all sorts of data (breed, body type, age, weight, etc.), no common factors were found. They finally looked to the bunny home—the cage—for clues, and that is where they found their answer: all of the rabbits who had elevated liver enzymes were using pine shavings in their individual litter boxes and/or cage trays! Of the group of rabbits tested only those that used alternative litters were found to have normal blood panels.


In order to verify their suspicions, HRS removed the pine litters from the rabbits to be tested; nothing else in their environment was changed. After one month the rabbits were re-tested and all of them had liver panels within the normal range!

Phenols—the stuff that makes pine and cedar smell good— are the reason that the softwood shavings are dangerous. Phenols are caustic (n. A substance that corrodes and destroys animal tissue), poisonous, acidic compounds; the very things which are routinely diluted and used in over-the-counter disinfectants. And since phenols are caustic, their direct connection to respiratory ailments (pneumonia, etc.) In rats, mice [rabbits] and guinea pigs is [also] clear. The constant irritation to the nasal passages, throat and lungs gives harmful bacteria an easy opening (TeSelle, AFRMA Rat and Mouse Tales, July-Oct 1993).

The above data—plus the fact that an animal with a damaged liver will also have a depressed immune system—are sufficient evidence to lead to the conclusion that wood litters and beddings must be avoided.


There are many alternatives to using pine or cedar litters. At the Zooh we use three products which we highly recommend: Clean ‘N Comfy, which is made of ground corncobs, slightly less absorbent, but according to the bunnies, just as comfy; Yesterday’s News, a pelleted newsprint, which is very absorbent and controls odors well; Care Fresh, a paper pulp product that is absorbent and very comfy. There are many other products out there that are safe, absorbent and comfortable alternatives. If you have any questions, contact us.

We do not recommend commercial sand and clay [kitty] litters for litter boxes, though using them in the catch trays is ok, because your bunny cannot come into contact with it. These litters are dusty and may contain silicates. Bunnies enjoy scratching about in their litter, which raises a lot of dust (even in “dustless” litters), and this can cause irritation to the eyes and respiratory tract.

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