Keep Your Outdoor Rabbits Safe and Warm
Its been a hot year and so far Autumn has been mild – but that is likely to change. It’s important that you get your rabbits outdoor enclosures ready for winter before the weather turns really nasty. They need to be well sheltered from draughts, rain, flooding and of course kept snugly warm. It is still vital however, that they have permanent access to their exercise area so they can choose when they want to stretch their legs and explore. Remember that the MINIMUM enclosure guidelines for a bonded pair of rabbits is 10ft x 6ft x 3ft tall.
This is where a shed style ‘hutch’ with an attached aviary style walk in run attached can often be the best set up for bunnies. See the I Heart Rabbits – Housing Facebook group for more enclosure examples.
- Make sure the hutch / shed is as insulated as possible. You can use pre made hutch huggers or use off cuts of carpets with a layer of duvet over the top (in a waterproof duvet cover) and finished off with tarpaulin over the top. This can be used on the top and sides of hutches but NOT over the front as its important they still have ventilation, light and can see out. You can use a clear shower curtain over the front part of the hutch or shed windows to stop the rain but still allow light and visibility.
- Use a max/min recording thermometer in both the sleeping area and the exercise area of the rabbits enclosures. Then you will know exactly how cold it gets and can see if your heating methods are helping. Be sure to keep thermometers and wires away from nibbling teeth!
- Line the sleeping area with cardboard (as long as your rabbits are not chewers!), newspaper, SOFT straw and then a layer of bedding hay. This creates a nice cosy bed. You can also use fleece blankets and towels if your rabbit is well litter trained (and again, not a chewer!) but often the straw / hay bed is warmer. A bonded pair of bunnies will be much warmer as they can snuggle with each other. You can use a Snugglesafe microwave heat pad to add in last thing at night too. Make sure to use a lovely fleece cover on these – check out the Snugglebunnies page on Facebook as all the profits from their items go to the Rabbit Welfare Association.
- Check the water! Often water bottles can freezer and the rabbit is unable to drink. You can use pre made bottle covers or you can make your own with bubble wrap and an old woolly sock. Bowls are often better than bottles but these can freeze too. You can place these on top of a Snugglesafe head pad overnight to reduce the risk of freezing.
- Access to their exercise area is vital – so this needs to be weather proofed too. Make sure the area cannot flood and that they have areas off of the floor to perch on. Use clear shower curtains or plastic sheeting to cover 3 sides of the run. You can also use thick, clear corrugated plastic over the roof . Never enclose the whole run as this will cut own the ventilation too much.
- Lastly – YOU need to go and feed, check and play with your bunnies just as much as you do in the summer. Often, many rabbits get left to fend for themselves in winter as their owners do not want to go out in the cold and wet to see them. If you have a large shed enclosure with a walk in aviary, this makes it much easier for you to spend time with them in the nasty weather.
Be on the lookout for any change in eating habits or behavior that can show that a rabbit is unwell. Seek immediate advice from your vets if you are concerned. Very young or elderly rabbits and those with health problems will often need more care in the winter months. Make sure you are already registered with a good rabbit savvy vet.
UPDATE: 5pm 28.3.18
I am VERY pleased to see that Heathrow Airport have decided to cancel their event! Hooray – thanks to everyone that contacted them and well done Heathrow for seeing sense!
Yet again its that magical time of year when the Easter Bunny comes to visit and shares all his lovely chocolate eggs. Isnt it wonderful? No…not if you are a rabbit.
Easter is the time of year when the majority of companies believe animal exploitation is perfectly acceptable. Throughout the world, live rabbits (and chicks) will be taken to busy shopping centres, schools and even airports and forced to interact with excitable children. Not a care is given to the welfare of the live animals because a ‘wonderful experience for the children’ is often deemed far more important than the animals care.
It is vital to understand a rabbits behaviour in order to see why this thinking is wrong.
1) Rabbits are prey species. As such, they do not like loud noises, busy areas and lots of people. They do not like being hovered over (this is like a bird of prey waiting to cach them) and they do not like being picked up, held or pinned to the floor for a ‘lovely cuddle’.
2) Rabbits have specific dietary and housing needs. Their diet should be strictly controlled any many of these live animal encounters feed muesli type mix to their animals regardless of what species they are. Often, large amounts of carrots are also used at these events so that the children can feed the rabbits – a very bad thing as carrots are high in sugars and not suitable for feeding in large quantities or every day.
3) Rabbits should only live with rabbits. Many of these pop up events will have rabbits housed with other species such as guinea pigs, chicks, ducks, goats and mini horses. This is NOT acceptable and creates a hugh risk of injury and stress to all the animals involved.
For more information on caring for rabbits, please see the Rabbit Welfare Association and Funds guide.
Lets look at Heathrow Airport first…
In their wisdom they have created a ‘Bunny Cuddle Corner’ in every terminal for over the Easter period. They are very excited about this venture and have created a video to highlight how fabulous it is that they are providing a space for over excited children to get in with live rabbits before boarding their flight. They even have Dr Elizabeth Kilbey (a clinical child psychologist) in the video stating that animals have a soothing effect on children. Well, yes…but what about the effect that excitable children have on rabbits? Apparently, that does not seem to matter…She even states that “rabbits are the perfect pets to calm children”. This is an outrageous thing to promote and she clearly has NO clue about a rabbits needs.
My questions that are not currently being answered are:
- Where these rabbits are being kept overnight?
- How long do they spend in the ‘activity’ enclosure at a time and per day?
- What is the current vaccination status of each rabbit?
- How long is their journey to and from the airport?
Heathrow have stated that the rabbits are “trained for this environment” (I never knew you could get airport training for rabbits…) and they are provided by a company called Amazing Animals. I wonder if they are this company that was highlighted in the Daily Mail in 2016?
Heathrow have responded to the public outcry on their Facebook page with a couple of pretty standard cut and paste responses that frankly, are not acceptable. They claim that “The activity is being run to give people the chance to have a relaxing moment before travelling”. What on earth??? Since when did humans desperately need to stroke a rabbit before boarding a plane as the only way to calm themselves? I’m feeling anything but calm right now! Please sign this urgent petition to get this event shut down!
Moving on to The Sun newspaper.
They decided to print an Easter feature and use a Shutterstock image of a child dangling a rabbit pretty much by its neck! The Sun responded to a few comments (not all and not to any of mine) with a paltry excuse that they did not know the handling was innapropriate and they are sure the child did not mean to cause any deliberate harm to the rabbit. Well thats ok then…NOT! I would like to know how Morrisons, Smiggle, Superdrug, Poundland and Ocado feel about being promoted alongside animal cruelty?
We need to wise up about animal exploitation – as parents, as companies, as HUMANS! and treat animals with the respect they deserve. These promotions are meerly a circus by another name and should not be socially acceptable. If you are a parent, be responisble for the messages you are giving your kids and avoid anywhere that exploits animals.
These are just 2 example of the horrors that have been unveiled so far for Easter 2018. If like me, you feel that these events are cruel and should be stopped, please politely contact the companies involved by email, letter, Facebook or Twitter and share your responses. You can encourage others to share their thoughts on these, and other Easter events with live animals.
And PLEASE make sure you sign and share this urgent petition!
A hot cross bun is not a happy one!
Most of us humans cant wait for the weather to brighten up and bask in the glow of Mr Sunshine. However, imagine doing that whilst wearing a fur coat and not being able to cool down via sweating…doesn’t sound like much fun does it?
Rabbits can easily suffer from heatstroke and this can be fatal. Ideally they need to be kept in an area with a constant temperature of between 10 – 20 degrees celcius (50 – 68 degrees Fahrenheit). They do not cope well with sudden temperature changes and anything above 22 degrees celcius can cause heatstroke.
It is highly recommended that all owners purchase a thermometer that records the maximum and minimum temperatures. Place this in the rabbits main living / sleeping area (make sure its up high safely away from inquisitive bunny teeth!) and check it throughout the day. You will soon see that hutches and closed in areas become significantly hotter than the outside air.
Hutch temperatures can become dangerously high and one recent study shows that they can easily reach highs of 40 degrees celcius within just a few hours – this is like cooking your rabbit 🙁 It can even become far too hot for them when they are in the shade or on a cloudy day.
PLEASE SEEK VETERINARY ADVICE URGENTLY IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR RABBIT IS SUFFERING FROM HEATSTROKE.
Its vital that you understand the signs of distress and heatstroke in rabbits as this is an emergency condition that needs veterinary attention. If your rabbit seems lethargic, off food, is panting, wobbly when moving, dribbling or generally acting weird then CALL THE VETS! Warmer weather also brings a higher risk of Flystrike so make sure you are extra vigilant about checking your bunnies bottoms and cleaning out the enclosure more than usual.
There are quite a few ways of making sure your rabbits (and guinea pigs) stay nice and cool in warmer weather (see the poster for some top tips). The MOST important is that their whole area is in complete shade and that they have constant access to their run from their hutch / shed / cage etc. This allows them to move around and seek out cooler areas. It also allows much better ventilation of their living space.
Icepods made by Scratch and Newton are fab and provide a nice, safe way of keeping small furries cool. Simply pop them in the freezer overnight and then wrap in a tea towel. Place inside the bunnies area and it will release cold air around it. The bunnies dont tend to lay on it directly, but it helps keep the temperature a little lower in that area. You can achieve the same effect by 3/4 filling a large bottle with water and freezing. This still needs wrapping in a tea towel (to prevent any frost burns) but will defrost a lot quicker than the icepods. It is also more of a chew risk once thawed.
You can also get specialist cage fans that are battery operated and can really help keep the air flowing through the enclosure. They can be used indoors and outdoors and just need something to hang on. Never point these directly at the rabbit if it has no way of getting away from it. many rabbits will choose to come and sit in front of it for some time if they feel hot. Never place cooling items in front of, or pointing at their food, hay or water as this could prevent them wanting to eat and drink.
It is not recommended to freeze fruit or veg and feed as it is thought that the very cold temperatures of this can upset the gut by causing a mild tummy ache that in turn, can lead to stasis.
Marble / granite & Glass ceramic tiles can be placed inside the rabbits enclosures (make sure there are no sharp edges) as these stay cool for some time and the bunnies can lay on them. These can also be popped in the freezer for a couple of hours before use for an extra blast of coldness (no longer though as they may crack). And an old towel can be misted with water and frozen for another chill out mat.
Be sure to offer more water sources than usual and try to offer a water bowl as well as a bottle. Rabbits often prefer to drink from a bowl and bottles can leak / break / get stuck and then the rabbit is denied access to vital water. Always offer more than one water source as a back up and refresh twice a day.
A covered pop up tent filled with children’s play sand or untreated top soil makes a great cool area for them to dig in. make sure they are fully supervised at all times when using this & do not give them any chew toys or scattered food to avoid the risk of ingesting the sand / soil. Also make sure you check the bunny thoroughly once the playtime is over and remove all traces of sand / soil from the underside of the rabbit including genitals.
For more tips on keeping bunnies cool, check out the following website links:
17th – 25th June 2017
RAW is run by a collaboration of organisations: The Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund, The Blue Cross, PDSA, RSPCA, Wood Green, Burgess Pet Care and Agria Pet Insurance. This team pick a new theme each year and aim to provide information to both veterinary professionals and the general public about key aspects of rabbit care.
But I feel that raising rabbit awareness should continue all year long and throughout many countries, so I urge you all to embrace RAW and continue it longer than just the suggested week.
- Veterinary practices can continue to improve their offerings for rabbits and can apply to be on the RWAF rabbit friendly vet list.
- Owners, rescues and companies can help share welfare posters from reputable organisations via social media and hold awareness events.
- and everyone can take a few minutes to report any potential welfare problems to pet stores, zoo’s, farms and shops that they may come across (by informing the companies manager, head office, via their social media or if more serious, by reporting to the RSPCA, Trading Standards and the Local Council).
So lets come together to make this the best RAW yet AND continue to share good, factual rabbit advice all year long.
Bad weather can cause serious problems for outdoor pets. High winds can easily fell trees, damage hutches, blow over fences and if severe, can even knock over sheds! Heavy rain and snow can cause flooding and all of these things are highly stressful for rabbits to endure.
This shed was blown over by the severe winds caused by #stormdoris which reached up to 94mph in parts of the UK. Its a dramatic reminder that we can never take it for granted that an outdoor enclosure is going to be safe.
Storm Doris also caused this huge conifer to crash down on top of 3 rabbit hutches at the Hopper Haven Rabbit & Guinea Pig Sanctuary – causing significant damage to the hutches and a storage shed. Luckily no animals or staff were injured but the clean up effort and repairs are going to cost over £900! (see here if you would like to make a donation).
Even if your enclosures survive intact, your garden may be severely damaged. This fallen wall could have easily caused harm to people or pets and will mean the garden is not predator proof or rabbit safe until all the repairs have been undertaken. It’s vital that you check your garden after any bad weather, to look for breaches in security and damaged or weakened areas.
Less serious damage can happen at any time from our normal winter weather. This hutch has had its felt ripped off of the roof meaning it is no longer waterproof. Hutch covers can also become torn over time and its important to check the integrity of all enclosures and their covers on a regular basis.
Many ‘off the shelf’ enclosures do not withstand bad weather well. For example, the above photo shows a hutch that is flush with the floor so has no protection against flooding. It also has owner reports of “leaking so badly that bathroom sealant had to be applied to all the joints”. Conversely, hutches on tall legs are not at risk from flooding BUT they can easily topple over in high winds. Tunnels (either man made or dug by rabbits) can easily flood and trap a rabbit to one part of its enclosure. Many cheap, pet store hutches and runs are badly made, easily damaged and are false economy as rarely last more than a year without needing some repairs.
Lastly, there is a huge problem with bad weather that is often over looked – STRESS! Even rabbits in secure enclosures that do not get damaged are often spooked by high winds and heavy rain. As they are a prey species, they suffer easily from stress and this often leads to Gastro Intestinal stasis. They can stop eating, stop passing faeces and become very unwell in just a few hours. It is vital that you closely monitor your rabbits both during and for a few days after bad weather. You may decide to move them into a more secure location such as a garage (not safe if a car uses it too) or utility room when there is a storm on the way. If so, make sure the temperature of the room is as close as possible to that of their normal enclosure and try to keep to their normal routine. As always, seek veterinary advice if you are concerned about your rabbits health.
So what CAN Be Done?
Prevention is always better than cure so it is important to really think long and hard about your rabbits outdoor set up before the adverse weather arrives. Take the time to think about how the enclosure will cope with extreme weather – both hot and cold, dry, wet and windy. Remember that the RWAF enclosure guidelines state that a pair of average sized rabbits need permanent access to a minimum space of 10ft x 6ft which comprises of a sleeping area and an exercising area.
The photo above has been chosen as it represents an ideal rabbit enclosure. It is made of good quality materials and is seated on a level, concrete base. It meets the RWAF minimum size guidelines and has permanent access to secure sleeping and exercising areas. The base is slightly raised off of the floor and the run has low level boarding – both of which help prevent flooding. The roof is slanted and has a wide overhang which helps prevent the rain from running down the sides of the enclosure. It also has plenty of ventilation as well as having cozy areas in the sleeping compartment. Multiple levels allow the rabbits to exhibit natural behaviors and increase their area by making use of the vertical space.
Now, this style may not be a viable option for all owners, however the principles are still valid. Make sure your enclosures follow the same points as above even if you are using a mix and match set up. Here are some more tips:
- Anchor / screw down hutches and runs to the floor and also fix them back to a fence, wall or shed to reduce the chance of them toppling over.
- Make sure your enclosures are raised off of the ground and attach clear perspex sheeting to the lower quarter to help prevent flooding (do not cover the whole enclosure as good ventilation is vital).
- If you use tunnels, raise them off the ground during bad weather to reduce the risk of flooding.
- Make sure the enclosure has a slanted roof and add some guttering to allow drainage to a safe place away from the hutch.
Lastly – buy the best you can afford as quality items really do make a difference. Don’t be fooled by price or marketing blurb, check out owner reviews that are NOT on the manufacturers website (try rabbit forums instead) to ensure you get an all round, non biased view of the product.
I have previously written about the fact that good, rabbit savvy vets can be very hard to find (see here) So now I’m going to focus on a new company that has been formed to bridge the knowledge gap.
LagoLearn Ltd is unique because it is currently the only company that focuses on rabbit only training. They provide a range of teaching events that are suitable for all student and qualified veterinary professionals including animal support staff (ANA’s and VCA’s) who often get overlooked and are not allowed to attend some training because they are not a vet or a nurse. LagoLearn know how important it is for all practice staff to be aware of rabbits welfare and care needs so are happy to welcome them to their training days.
All of the teaching is carried out by experts in their field. Dr Ivan Crotaz BVetMed is one of the company directors and teachers. He has a special interest in anaesthesia, airway management and surgery and is an accomplished teacher having provided lectures throughout the UK, Europe and the USA. A selection of well known rabbit specialist vets and nurses will also be lecturing at some of the events along with other expert individuals.
The day course format consists of main lectures and small group teaching where delegates are split into vet and nurse groups to work through case studies, problem solving and practical skills that are most relevant to their job. Topics covered will include anaesthesia, surgery, dentistry, husbandry, nurse clinics and making your practice more rabbit friendly and much more!
These events will be running throughout the UK and also Internationally too. The next event is on the 13th Oct 2016 at the beautiful Easthampstead Park. It is one of the ‘Rabbit Roundup’ events that provide a useful overview of the most common issued faced by general practice vets and how to treat them. This day also has a special lecture that highlights the current RVHD2 crisis. See here for more information about this course.
LagoLearn are sponsored by Supreme Petfoods and are proud to be working with them as they both share a passion for improving rabbit welfare. They are the only company to currently provide a range of ethically sourced extruded and monoforage rabbit feeds that have the highest percentage of crude fibre available (Science Selective Adult contains 25%, Fibafirst contains <30% and the VetCare Plus products range from 28% to 34%) and no added sugar.
So make sure to mention LagoLearn to your vets and get them to sign up to their mailing list by emailing [email protected] as well as following them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram and even YouTube! Feel free to also send them photos of your happy healthy bunnies and use the hashtags #lagolearn and #rabbitcpd
Updated Dec 2016.
RVHD1 and RVHD2
This article will provide a concise overview of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Viral Disease, its characteristics, locations, testing methods and some of the preventative steps that can be taken.
Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease 1 is a type of Calicivirus, has been in Europe for many decades or even centuries and affects both wild and domestic rabbits. There are a few different pathogenic strains of the virus but until recently, RVHD1 was thought to be the only type in the UK.
RVHD2 differs in a few key ways as it is unaffected by age and has a longer illness phase with different clinical symptoms. It is also thought to have a lower mortality rate. Little research has been done on RVHD2 and it is highly likely that cases are under reported.
Both viruses are potentially very easily spread and can live in the environment for a long time (RVHD2 up to 200 days in laboratory conditions) Insects, wildlife and scavengers can spread it as well as direct contact with an infected rabbit. Fomites such as bedding, wild plants, shoes and clothing can also carry the virus to new areas. It is currently unknown if biting insects can spread RVHD2.
Due to it being so easily transported, the spread of RVHD can be very quick and strict biosecurity is recommended as well as vaccination.
The current UK vaccine, Nobivac Myxo-RHD offers protection against RVHD1 but is unlikely to offer any for RVHD2 as this virus is antigenically and genetically different from RVHD1. It is recommended that a second vaccination be given to cover RVHD2 and there are a few options:
- Eravac has been licensed in the UK for use in ‘fattening’ rabbits. This is an oil based drug with no research showing the possible long term effects and there is currently no recommended vaccination schedule.
- Cunivak RHD is currently out of stock and Cunipravac can be ordered via a special import certificate however it is only available in large multi dose bottles.
- Filavac RHD K C+V is available to order from most UK wholesalers and is administered annually or 6 monthly (if considered to be a high risk patient or area). It is vital that the rabbits are still vaccinated with the Nobivac Myxo-RHD as the Filavac vaccine does not give any protection against myxomatosis, however standard immunology advice is to leave at least a 2 week gap between the different vaccinations.
It is important to research all options and discuss with your vet / client. The safety and efficacy of using any other vaccine alongside the Nobivac Myxo RHD has not been studied.
It is not recommended to carry out en-mass vaccination clinics as this could potentially increase the risk of disease spread due to the way RVHD is transmitted.
Testing and Reporting
Its important to consider RVHD2 as a differential diagnosis when dealing with a sick rabbit that doesnt seem to respond to treatment and no obvious reason for the illness is found. PCR testing is now available for live rabbits via the Batt Laboratories in Coventry. For sudden deaths, post mortem liver samples can also be sent here or to the Moredun Research Institute.
Wherever possible, please send samples to either laboratory via the methods outlined on their websites. Please also consider reporting all suspicious deaths to the Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund as their Veterinary Advisor is monitoring the spread of this disease.
Good husbandry is paramount and sick rabbits should be barrier nursed. Enhanced cleaning, disinfection and quarantine protocols can be implemented in practice and with owners. Anigene HLD4V is a veterinary grade product that is believed to be effective against RVHD when used at a concentration of 1:50 for soiled conditions.
It is vital to be aware of the risks associated with attending events such as rabbit shows, petting zoos and even rescues. Environmental insect controls should also be in place as it is still unknown if RVHD2 can be spread via insects. Care should also be taken when considering feeding handpicked wild plants.
Keeping Up To Date
You can also visit the Rabbit Welfare Association’s website as they will always have the most up to date and factually correct info.
Lastly, Rabbit Specialist Vet Francis Harcourt Brown (retired) has information about the disease on her website.
Be wary of other reports and anecdotal stories doing the rounds as they may not be factually accurate. Also, please contact your own vet asap so they are fully aware of the new RVHD2 strain and that they are stocking and advertising the new vaccine to help fight this. We need owners to insist all their vets order in the vaccine to get as many rabbits as possible protected against this fatal disease.
Please know how to keep your rabbits safe and spread the word!
RVHD and Myxomatosis are diseases found throughout the UK and can be fatal to un-vaccinated rabbits. Both outdoor AND indoor rabbits are at risk. RVHD in particular is highly infectious and contagious. It is an air borne virus that can be spread by direct and indirect contact with infected rabbits, food bowls, hutches and even the soles of your shoes. For example – if you, your dog or cat has walked on ground where a VHD infected rabbit has been, you can carry it on your clothes or shoes, your other pets can carry it on fur or feet. The virus can survive in the environment for a long time and can survive cold temperatures far better than you might expect.
PLEASE SEE THE MOST UP TO DATE POST RE VACCINE OPTIONS!