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.
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:
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.
Sadly our gardens may not be as safe as we think they are. Many owners of small pets will be aware of potential problems from predators such as foxes, cats and dogs but are unaware of the threat from other humans.
There has been a sharp rise in incidents over the past few years where rabbits (and other small furries) have been stolen from gardens. The reasons behind this are varied and vile. Many are stolen to use as bait for dog fights, or for their fur coats. Sometimes children have been deliberately taking pets to ‘play’ with and others have been stolen out of malice.
So I urge ALL pet owners to ensure their gardens are as safe as possible, not only from the threat of natural predators, but from humans too. There are a range of things you can do:
- Secure Enclosures.
It may sound obvious, but if you have a small furry then make sure it is always INSIDE a secure environment that is fully enclosed. Its vital they have room to exercise so make sure it meets the RWAF minimum size guidelines (for rabbits). If you let your rabbits free range then please ONLY do so whilst you are also in the garden to supervise them.
Make sure that both the pets enclosures AND the garden gates are secured using heavy duty padlocks. Also make sure you have a spare set of these keys in a safe but easily accessible place in the house in case of emergency.
- Garden Fencing.
Its important that your fencing is secure and at least 6ft tall. You can add trellis on to the top of fencing to make it even higher. Then, grow thorny plants like roses or blackberries up the fence to make it more uncomfortable for people to climb over. You can also use prikka strips, which are hard rubber spikes that attach to the tops of fences. This is mainly to stop cats entering your garden but it can also help deter humans.
Although it will not physically stop anyone from entering your garden, it can be a good visual deterrent. Also, it can be useful in capturing evidence if someone does manage to get in. You can also use posters / stickers on the outside of the fence to show that CCTV is in operation.
Movement activated flood lights can be a good deterrent. have them pointed at the garden gate / back door rather than directly at the rabbits enclosure otherwise the bunnies will keep setting the light off!
- Neighborhood Watch Schemes.
Anyone can sign up to start a scheme and these can be very beneficial to the whole street. Posters and stickers can be obtained that clearly show that the houses are part of a scheme. This can act as a good deterrent for people looking for mischief.
- Rubbish Bins.
Don’t store your bins outside your garden fence as this makes it easier for someone to climb over the fence!
So make sure you are doing everything you can to keep your pets safe. Never leave them in the garden free range if they are unsupervised and take as many steps as possible to keep your garden and all its contents secure.
EDIT July 2018
Oxbow have re-released these and they are now available again.
For many years, rabbit owners have been giving the Oxbow Papaya Fruit Plus tablets to their rabbits to help prevent hairball build up. Although, not scientifically proven to help, the anecdotal evidence and owner testimonials are overwhelming with positive results.
These little tablets contain the active enzymes Papain and Bromelain. These enzymes are thought to break down some of the mucus in the gut. They do not break down the fur itself. It is the mucus that binds the fur together inside the gut and this causes the faeces to get clogged with too much hair. This can show as mis-shapen poops or, if particularly bad, will look like a string of pearls. These are very hard for the rabbit to pass naturally and can cause a gut slow down or blockage resulting in an emergency situation.
Unfortunately – Oxbow decided to discontinue these tablets on 1st September 2014 and they have not produced a direct replacement (There are a few still available on Amazon). They now offer the Oxbow Natural Science Digestive Support Supplement which is great…but has not active enzymes in it so is no use for hairball prevention.
But there is another way….
As always, lots of fluids are needed to help a rabbit whilst it is moulting, along with daily grooming. The best brush for rabbits is the cat zoom groom by Kong. It is soft and rubbery so does not hurt or damage the skin like slicker brushes and combs can do. Feed the rabbits their fresh greens / herbs soaking wet as this helps to get more fluids in as well.
Pro C by Vetark is a fabulous product that can be added to the drinking water daily. It contains probiotics that help the gut cope and also extra vitamin C. Rabbits metabolise more vitamin C when they are stressed and moulting is a stressful time. This helps the entire rabbits system cope a bit better during the moult. It can turn the water a shade of green so don’t worry if this happens. Use for a 5-10 day course. This is generally a product that I would always recommend to keep in the cupboard for use at any times of stress of illness.
I have searched around for an alternative enzymatic product and found something that may work. It is a Bromelain supplement called ‘Natures Own’ with no added nasties in it. Each tablet contains 100mg of Bromelain. The Oxbow tablets contained 23mg of Bromelain as well as 2.9mg of Papain and 1-2 tablets could be given daily. This means, if using these ‘new’ Bromelain tablets that are 100mg…you can cut them into quarters thus feeding 25mg per quarter. This can be given as a daily dose and increased to half a tablet (50mg) per day for when the rabbit is moulting.
I MUST stress that I have not tested these tablets in rabbits – but have been looking for an alternative that is as close to the Oxbow tablets as possible. This recommendation is purely based on the fact that these new tablets contain Bromelain in a sufficient dose that almost matches the Oxbow tablets. It is not an exact replacement. You can always discuss this with your vet before use and always stop if any tummy upsets occur.
I would be very interested to hear from anyone does choose to use these and if you notice any improvements.