Keeping Rabbits Outdoors in Cold Weather

Keeping rabbits outdoors comes with all manner of challenges, but most relate directly to the weather. Rabbits can easily die in hot weather from heat stroke, and they are in danger of freezing or coming down with cold-related illnesses during the cold months. With winter swiftly moving in, we will discuss some pointers for keeping a rabbit warm and comfortable during these times when temperatures can fall well below freezing, and biting wind and snow are constant considerations. Especially in northern climates, precautions must be taken before the onset of winter to keep these animals safe.

Initially, the primary concern is the location and build of your cage or hutch. The cage should be located in a sheltered area that affords protection from the wind, especially north winds. It should have a roof of some kind (many rabbit owners prefer roofing tin since it cannot be chewed) and, depending on the kind of shelter, will likely need protection on the sides. Wooden hutches with wire bottoms and wire fronts are great for cold weather because they offer protection on the top and three sides, though these also run the risk of being chewed by a bored rabbit. For maximum protection, a heavy canvas cover can be made for the front of the cage that will be rolled up during nice weather, but that can be put into place during wind, storms, and at night.

Foremost of all considerations during cold weather is to keep your pet rabbit dry. Most breeds of rabbits have thick coats which are exceptional insulators against the weather, but if water reaches their skin they will be unable to stay warm. Keeping the animal safe from precipitation will remove the largest of these risks, but there are still others. Water dishes should be securely attached to the side of the cage so that the rabbit can not accidentally knock it over. Ideally, this dish will also be up off of the cage floor so that the rabbit does not run the risk of stepping in it. Wire-bottomed cages that will not allow waste or spilled food and water to sit within reach of the rabbit are ideal for staying clean and dry. This allows all waste to fall straight through the bars and get completely out of the cage. Many cages are equipped with trays to catch waste, and these should be placed far enough below the cage itself that it is not at risk for filling up to a level that will reach the rabbit’s feet. Depending on how the cage is set up, this tray may need to be checked regularly to ensure that it does not fill up with snow.

Next, it can be difficult to keep your rabbit supplied with water in freezing temperatures. Especially in the cold, it does not take rabbits long to suffer severe dehydration and they must have access to water at all times. While most rabbit owners prefer water bottles with a ball-activated tube so that rabbits always have clean water to drink, these can be hazardous during the winter. The thin metal tube freezes much faster than the water in the bottle, so caretakers may believe that their rabbit still has drinkable water when the tube is frozen solid. A plain dish, or a dish that uses a 20-ounce or 1-liter plastic bottle for its supply, are preferable. The wider mouth of these bottles does not freeze as easily. If heated dishes that the rabbit can not chew are available, the water can be kept from freezing altogether.

Place the water dish in a sheltered area inside the cage, enough above the floor to keep it from being stepped in or spilled. Fill the water every day and check it several times during the day, especially in very cold weather. The heat from the rabbit’s body inside a well-sheltered cage can often be sufficient to keep the water from freezing, or will slow the rate of freezing.

Finally, make sure that the rabbit has a nesting box available that is not much larger than the rabbit’s body size. This box can be lined with straw to provide greater warmth. If the box is too large, it will allow too much room for cold air to get in around the rabbit, especially to its less-protected feet. The box should allow for comfortable entrance and exit, with just enough space for the rabbit to turn around inside it. The rabbit’s body should fit snugly within the nesting materials when it curls up to sleep. This will allow the rabbit a warmer refuge during cold nights or windy days when bitter winds can easily come up through a wire bottom and freeze its feet.

Cold weather can be deadly for any animal, but with just a few precautions and a rabbit’s naturally well-insulated body, the animal can live warm and comfortable in even the coldest climates. Rabbits survive in the wild further north than most other animals, but your pet rabbit relies on you to give it the advantages that allow their wild cousins to live throughout the year.