Cleaning and Disinfecting Rabbit Cages and Equipment

By Laurie Stroupe

Cleaning and Disinfecting

I do not believe that kids should live in sterile environments. We’re starting to hear that American children do not have enough contact with soil to develop healthy immune systems. I believe the same is true with rabbits. They should not be kept in sterile environments. Good thing, too. I could never achieve that.

But a certain amount of cleaning and occasional disinfecting is important. I’m no expert in this area, but I can tell you which practices I follow. I hate to say this without knocking on wood, but they seem to be working for me.

Before I launch into products and procedures, let me say that air exchange is just as important as, or maybe more important than, cleaning. I’ve heard breeders say that the secret to their herd’s health is their outdoor coops. I can’t argue with that.

My disinfectant of choice is Vanodine.

*Note: Vanodine is not available in the US at this time (as of 9/2013).  However, Barbi Brown’s Bunnies offers a similar Iodine-based disinfectant.  I have not used the new disinfectant personally so I don’t know how well it compares to Vanodine.*

I’ve mentioned on my website that I’d like to try some less expensive iodine-based disinfectants. But Vanodine reportedly contains surfactants which give it a cleaning property in addition to the disinfecting one.

While it is true that I spray Vanodine on my own boo-boos despite its lack of approval for that use, one of my biggest uses is cleaning out water dishes in the barn between major cleanings. Periodically, I take dishes in to wash them in the dishwasher. I actually do not recommend putting rabbit dishes in the dishwasher because fur and hay are hard on the appliance. I generally pre-rinse mine, but Andrew regularly has to get out the screwdriver to take the bottom strainer out and remove the hair and hay. But we hate our dishwasher and figure it is on its last legs. You might like yours and want it to stay around for a while.

Back to the dishes in the barn – at the first sign of slime or dust or anything besides crystal clear water, I spray the bowl with Vanodine, give it a quick finger-wash, and rinse thoroughly. So far, that has worked very well for me.

When I move rabbits from cage to cage, I also spray the cages between use with Vanodine. I’d hate to find out tomorrow that the rabbit I moved from the cage had a problem and I had just spread it to another one.

I also use Vanodine for small boo-boos on rabbits, but again, it’s not approved for such.

If I have just one hole to clean, I use Orvis Paste in water. Orvis Paste is just detergent without colors, fragrance, or ingredients to keep it liquid at all temperatures. In the winter, it’s solid. In the summer, it’s liquid. In addition to the Orvis Paste, a brush and a pail of hot water is all I need to get a hole sparkling clean. I admit that I was obsessive about cleaning single holes before their reuse in the beginning. Now, I’m more likely to remove a whole row of bunnies and use the pressure washer to remove soil.

young lop rabbits aren't they cute

Now we come to the bleach part of this article.

Bleach should be diluted so that it is strong enough to be effective, but not so strong that it causes problems, anything from skin irritation to lung problems to blindness and so forth. I read a post once that said a huge advantage of using Vanodine over bleach is that people are more likely to dilute the Vanodine correctly. That’s probably because the directions are right on the bottle of the Vanodine. But how do we dilute bleach appropriately?

One of the most important things I learned is that not all bleach is created equal. The percentage of sodium hypochlorite varies. A common percentage is 5.25% With that amount, you want to use 1 part of bleach for 32 parts of water. So let’s see. That would be 1 oz. of bleach per quart of water or 4 oz. per gallon. In plain English, that’s 1/2 cup of bleach per gallon of water, if the bleach is 5.25%.

Is that what you use? Or were you surprised at the amount?

You will find the percentage of sodium hypochlorite on the label. If you use another percentage of bleach, then follow this formula: 21 divided by the percentage of bleach equals the number of ounces of bleach to put in a gallon of water.

So, now that we have the proper bleach solution, what do we use it for? The main thing we use it for in our barn is to disinfect nest boxes. That’s the one place that I don’t fool around with disinfection. Yes, I want my rabbits to eventually live in a clean, but not sterile environment. But day one is not the time to hit them with a load of reality!

Any time you use bleach, thorough rinsing is required. When possible, allow bleached and rinsed items to dry in the sun. Bleach breaks down quickly in sunlight, so any residual bleach on cages or nest boxes or dishes will dissipate with this step.

Also, I suggest you wear gloves when you work with bleach. Besides saving your skin from irritation, you will find that the rabbits appreciate bleach-free hands when you handle them. A breeder friend of mine mentioned once that her bunnies react negatively to the smell of bleach on her hands.

Since our cages are now permanently mounted in the barn (for all practical purposes) against the PVC water system, I will be using Vanodine after pressure washing to clean my holes from now on. It’s safe to use around animals and does not require rinsing.

We also use a pressure washer for our carriers. I can’t say that we sterilize our carriers ever (maybe we should add that step occasionally), but we do pressure wash them between every show. Thanks, Andrew!

It’s normal to live around a certain level of bacteria, soil, and virus. It’s only when those levels get too high or the animal is too vulnerable (such as with newborns) that is becomes a problem. Using appropriate products at the right dilution, along with excellent air exchange and a little elbow grease, will allow your bunnies to thrive. Try to strike the right balance between obsession and neglect, and everybunny can be A-OK

Pressure To Clean

What took us so long to invest in a pressure washer, I’ll never know. But our world, at least as far as cage and carrier cleaning is concerned, changed dramatically for the better when we did.

One thing we did wrong was to fail to read the directions. Specifically, “do not store pressure washer outdoors in freezing weather.” We did a better job of storage with our second pressure washer.

Ours is a variable pressure type so that we don’t blow the entire cage or carrier away. It is amazing how much pressure comes out of one of those suckers. Ask Andrew to show you the missing patch of skin on his leg sometime.

The pressure washer does a great job on cage bottoms; poop is no match for it. It does a creditable job on removing fur; fur puts up more of a fight. We still get some tiny bits that hang on, but nothing to be concerned about.

You may want to try a few different ways of propping or positioning trays when you are cleaning them. You don’t want them to go flying around and get dented or chipped.

After removing debris with just water, you can run a mixture of bleach and water through to sanitize (not recommended by the manufacturer, but we do it). Wait 20 minutes and then go back to water to rinse.

Andrew uses the pressure washer on an area of pea gravel so that he doesn’t end up in a soggy mess. Twice a year, we unhang every cage in the barn and pressure wash them all. In between, we wash cages as needed. We pressure wash our carriers before every show.

Our pressure washer cost about $169 (actually double that because of the freezing accident). It was worth every penny. I highly recommend that you not wait as long as we did.