By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut.
Rabbits are often a species kept outside, but in extreme temperature they can be more severely affected.
Wild rabbits are naturally able to regulate their temperature well if they can stay active and seek shelter if they need it. Making sure your rabbit’s environment allows them to do this, will help it to be able to stay warm and all activity should be encouraged. Encouraging foraging behaviour including scatter feeding and hiding hay within boxes can help to encourage activity, as well as providing plenty of fun toys and puzzle feeders.
One thing to consider is the positioning of the accommodation, both the hutch and the run. If they can be placed in sheltered spots, possibly close to walls or foliage, this can provide some insulation. It should also be ensured they are away from cold winds and draughts which can dramatically affect the temperature in terms of wind chill. Still allow access to their full run though, being active will always help to raise body temperatures!
Ensuring your pet is in good health before winter will make a big difference to the care needed. If a rabbit is ill or underweight, moving them indoors before the cooler weather starts would be advised. Keeping rabbits in pairs is recommended for many reasons but helping to prevent them getting cold in winter by making sure they have a friend to cuddle up to can make a big difference!
Insulation in the form of covers can not only trap heat but they can be great protection from drafts. Some hutches have specific covers that you can buy for them, but you must always ensure they still have proper ventilation when covered and that the covers cannot be chewed. Tarpaulins, with old blankets underneath can be enough to make a significant difference to the temperature. Converted sheds and summer houses should ideally be insulated when being converted as using insulation within the walls can protect from both extremes of heat and cold. The insulating materials will need to be covered over, again to avoid it being chewed and the risks of ingestion.
The bedding that you use within the bedding area is vital in winter. Straw is of very little nutritional value when eaten but is good at trapping in the heat when used as bedding material. It is important that any bedding material is kept clean and dry so it will need changing regularly and adding it to a cardboard box to allow them to snuggle in a smaller area. Regular checks must be made when using straw, particularly of the eyes, as it can occasionally cause hay pokes, damage or infection. Ensuring there are no leaks and the housing is water tight is also vital. Fluffy bedding and ‘snuggle sack’ type beds can help to trap air next to the pet and raise the temperature a little but monitoring them chewing it is important.
Providing heat sources can be useful but which sources we use are very important. Things like hot water bottles are not recommended as they can cause scalding if chewed. Microwave, pet specific heat pads with material covers are recommended instead but should be used under supervision and discarded if there is any damage or wear. Fan heaters and similar can be used to heat areas but should never be placed directly pointed at a pet, always under strict supervision and never where rabbits can chew them or their cables as this is an electrocution risk. Any heat source should be provided with care and the rabbits given the opportunity to sit near them or to stay away from them if they get too warm.
In cold weather, if in either a bottle or a bowl, fresh water can rapidly freeze. Checking regularly to make sure the pet has access to clean, fresh, unfrozen water is vital and covers can be purchased to insulate the water bottles to try to avoid that happening – although still check as in very cold temperatures it can still freeze!
In real extremes people can be tempted to move their outdoor pets indoor to help to keep them warm. While the intention is good, the dramatic shift in temperature can cause more problems than it solves. A better idea is to move them into a protected but unheated environment such as a garage or shed, ensuring they still have natural light. This protects them from draughts but will also raise the temperature a few degrees from the outside space.
Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for Nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).