By Caroline Charland
Winter can be deadly in some cases for domestic rabbits. While wild rabbits are able to survive by going into dry, cozy burrows underground and snuggling in groups, domestic rabbits who live outside are often kept in hutches. I have rescued rabbits since 1984 and founded the Bunny Bunch, and I believe that the best scenario for any pet rabbit is to live as a house rabbit indoors with temperature controls for summer and winter. When this is not possible, you need to know how to keep your rabbit warm, dry and safe during the winter months.
Rabbits who live outside often eat more during the winter months to gain body weight to help them stay warm, so expect an increased appetite. They also get a winter coat that is thicker than their normal coat, again to help them stay warm. But these changes alone are not enough to keep a rabbit safe outdoors through a cold winter.
Bring Your Rabbit Inside
When it gets cold it is best to set up a place in your house for your rabbits, as rabbits can die from living outdoors in the cold winter months. Besides keeping your rabbit in a roomy cage indoors, there are several creative ways to bring your rabbit indoors to live.
By putting a litter box in your bathroom and simply putting up a baby gate, you create a safe place for your rabbit. You can also do that in the kitchen or a spare room that is rabbit-proofed. Another idea is to keep your rabbit in a pet exercise pen in any room. If you have carpet, put down a piece of linoleum floor loose on top of the carpet and the exercise pen on top of that. This setup protects your carpet. Add a litter box, hidey-house, toys, food and water dishes, and you have a safe area away from the cold outside.
If none of these options are possible, then even keeping your rabbit inside in a large carrier or a crate containing rabbit-safe litter, hay and a bed for when it is freezing outside is better and safer than your rabbit being outside.
Rabbits Living Indoors
Rabbits who live indoors can become cold, too. Most homes have heating, but if you turn it down when you leave the house or at night, remember to provide a cozy bed for your rabbit to lie on. A cardboard box turned on its side with a pet bed on the bottom makes a cozy sleeping spot. All kinds of rabbit hidey-houses are available, and these make a nice place for a rabbit to nap or sleep in.
Rabbits Most At Risk In Cold Weather
Baby rabbits, young rabbits, pregnant rabbits, older rabbits and ill rabbits are more at risk of dying if they live outside in the cold. This is due to less body fat, lower immune systems and, in some cases, not being able to get around to warm themselves. I always recommend bringing them indoors.
How To Protect Your Rabbit In A Hutch
If you can’t bring your rabbit inside to live, then you can take steps to help protect your rabbit from the winter weather. Following are some tips to consider. Consult your veterinarian and adjust for the safety ideal for your situation.
It’s best to place the hutch inside a building if possible. If you can’t do that, place it along the wall of a building or in the nook of a building so it is best protected, and away from the wind. Make sure the hutch is off the ground; one way to do this is by placing it on large bricks.
If the hutch can’t be placed inside a building, make sure the outside is weatherproof to protect your rabbit from rain, sleet, snow and wind. How you do this is up to you. One method is to use wood and tarps on the top and on three sides. Make sure there are no gaps where wind, rain or melted snow can get in. Often people nail wood on the sides and then use a tarp over that. The front needs to be open so the rabbits can see out and get fresh air, but at night when it gets colder, cover the front with a thick blanket or comforter and then cover that with a tarp to waterproof it. Do not seal this, as you want it easily removable and to allow fresh air to get in.
Don’t forget that rabbits need lots of room to play and exercise, so set up a safe area so they get exercise daily.
Inside the hutch, consider lining the bottom with cardboard (changed frequently to maintain cleanliness) and place cardboard boxes or hidey-houses filled with hay inside. You can buy cordless heating disks that you heat in the microwave. Heat these up in early evening and provide them for your rabbit to lie on. The disk comes with a cover as it can be too hot to touch your rabbit directly, so be sure to put the cover on. It’s a good idea to buy several of the heating disks. While they do hold the heat for several hours they won’t stay warm all day or night. The disk can be used in the house, too, for sick rabbits and in the carrier for a trip to the vet.
You must keep the inside of the hutch very clean. Clean the litter box daily as the urine can freeze. Plus, make sure the water bottle or bowl is not frozen or your rabbit won’t be able to have a drink.
Yes, rabbit can enjoy brief, supervised playtime in snow when the temperature isn’t too low.
Is Your Rabbit Suffering From Cold Weather Exposure?
Even when you do everything to protect from the weather, it is sometimes just too cold. If you notice your rabbit is not active, is sitting in a hunched position, is rocking back and forth or is doing anything out of the ordinary, there is a good chance he is suffering from the cold.
How To Warm Up A Rabbit
If your rabbit is suffering from exposure to the cold it is important to slowly get his body warmed up to the normal body temperature of 102 to 103 degrees. The best way to do this is by taking your rabbit to a veterinarian who regularly treats rabbits. But, you can do a few things right away, and on the way to the vet.
You can use the heating disks to do this. Lay your rabbit on top of the covered disk so his body begins to warm up. Put a blanket over his body, too. If you don’t have a heating disk, you can make some from socks and rice. Place uncooked rice in a sock, tie a knot in the open end, and heat in the microwave. Make sure it is not too hot to the touch. Then lay one on either side of your rabbit. Never leave your rabbit alone with this temporary “heating pad,” as the rice could be dangerous if ingested.
Warmed subcutaneous fluids can be used to warm up the body temperature, but do not try this unless you have experience doing this and your veterinarian has given his or her approval. Some older rabbits can have heart conditions, in which case they shouldn’t get subcutaneous fluids. But, hopefully, an older rabbit would be living indoors.
Do Rabbits Like To Be Outside?
Rabbits do like to get fresh air and feel the sunshine. If you can provide a safe, supervised play area you can spend enjoyable time outside with your rabbit. Remember that your rabbit needs protection predators, too. In the winter, lots of wild animals search farther for food.
Can Rabbits Play Outside In The Snow?
Yes, many rabbits like to run, jump and romp in the snow. But make sure it is safe and not too deep. I recommend doing it on days when the sun is shining so it’s not so cold. So yes, limited time outside is fine, as long as you are supervising.