Rabbit Care in the Winter – Seven Important Tips for Caring for Rabbits in the Winter.
Rabbits are amazingly hardy. Different rabbit species can live the most varied of the world’s climates, be it the desert, the mountains, the swamps, or the bitter cold. The rabbits we keep as pets descended from the wild rabbit of Europe. Thus, pet rabbits are built to be able to live outside in the winter – even in sub-freezing temperatures – as long as you provide the right care.
In fact, I write this from my home in northern Michigan. It’s December, and there are sixteen inches of snow on the ground outside. The thermometer hasn’t touched above 32*F in two or three weeks, and yet the bunnies outside are doing fine. All your rabbits need in the winter is a little extra attention. So, based on my experience, here are my top tips for winter rabbit care:
1. Make sure your rabbits have water around the clock. This is the number one rabbit care tip any time of year, but it’s especially important in times of weather extremes. If deprived of water, rabbits will not eat. If they do not eat frequently, their digestive system – used to digesting high fiber foods slowly but steadily – will become static. This can morph into a serious problem very quickly. Besides, if a rabbit drinks lots of water, its coat will become extra soft and shiny. True story!
2. Use the right watering equipment. This is essential to accomplishing point #1. Water bottles do not work well in freezing temps. (Freeze = expand = crack…pretty obvious.) The spout on a water bottle will freeze first, which means that even though the water in the bottle might still be liquid, the rabbit cannot access it through the frozen spout. Instead of bottles, use hard plastic or stoneware crocks. Hard plastic is better, because it won’t crack as easily when dropped. (And trust me, when your hands are numb from the cold, you do drop crocks.)
3. Have two water dishes for each rabbit. Not two dishes in the cage at once, but one in the cage while the other is in the house thawing. When I go out to water the rabbits, I remove their frozen water dishes (usually containing a semi-solid ice cube) and throw them in a five-gallon pail. Then I replace it with a fresh dish of water, and take the bucket of frozen dishes in the house to thaw. Next time I go out, I can make the swap again. My water crock of choice is the EZ-crock, because I’ve tossed dozens of frozen EZ-crocks into a bucket, one on top of another, and never had one crack yet. Besides, the rabbits can’t spill them, which is an obvious bonus.
4. Full-feed in the winter. Moving on from water, let’s talk feed. To “full-feed” your rabbit means to give it enough pellets that it will have some left over every time you come to do chores. I’m usually very wary of recommending this. Rabbits will not gorge themselves to death if given the chance, but they usually do put on some excess weight if they are full-fed. However, when the daily high temperature is 20*F or less for weeks at time, rabbits burn so much energy keeping warm that I think full-feeding is warranted.
5. Don’t use electronic heating devices. I understand wanting to help your bunnies stay warm. I understand touching their ears with your fingertips and bemoaning that they feel like ice. But I also understand that it’s better for a rabbit to be chilly than to be roasted alive. Do NOT use electronic heating devices such as warming pads, heated dishes, or heat lamps. Rabbits can outside in freezing temperatures all winter and be just fine. The wild rabbits do it; they don’t hibernate like the bears and chipmunks. Anytime you use electronic devices outside in the weather, they are at risk of shorting and catching fire. Rabbits will chew on every electrical cord they can find. Even if the heating device is outside the cage, close proximity to straw or wood shavings in the cage can quickly cause fire. Trust me: we used heating pads with our first rabbits, and though we were very careful to protect the cords and electrical connections, they caught fire. We barely had time to rescue our bunnies.
6. Don’t cut off the ventilation. Bunnies that don’t live in an environment with good airflow are susceptible to snuffles and other respiratory problems. In the winter we batten down the hatches in an attempt to keep heat in and drafts out, and while this is good, make sure you still allow plenty of airflow.
7. Observe your rabbits often. Look at them. Watch them eating or playing. Take them out and run your hand down their coats. Turn them over and check for signs of illness. You can usually tell if a rabbit is ill if you take the time to watch and handle it. But if you just breeze by it, give it feed and water and skip out, it could be silently suffering and you wouldn’t know till it’s too late.
Here’s wishing you and your bunnies a wonderful new year!