Winter is a difficult time for many animal species, including rabbits. With proper care, however, you can ensure that your rabbit will remain healthy through the cold weather. Rabbits are more able to cope with cold weather conditions than hot conditions, but given the wrong conditions, rabbits can suffer from exposure, frostbite, and decreased body temperature. Smaller breeds of rabbits may be more susceptible to cold temperatures than larger breeds of rabbits because their small body mass cannot retain heat as well.
Rabbits housed outdoors are often kept in hutches. These hutches provide a place for your rabbit to get away from the wind and cold. Hutches should be off the ground to prevent them from getting water and snow inside and to allow colder temperatures near the ground to affect the rabbit less. Placement of the hutch is a key factor in helping your rabbit make it through the cold winter. The back should be facing north and should be solid or positioned against a building. This prevents the cold north wind from entering the hutch. A south-facing hutch will allow the warmer air to enter.
The sides of the hutch should be boarded up, and the front, south-facing side of the hutch should be partially covered to prevent wind-whipped snow from entering. Additionally, if your hutch does not have a dropping pan, you might want to place boards around this open area. Doing this prevents cold air from coming up from the bottom and prevents snow accumulation in the manure, which make it more difficult to remove if the manure and urine freezes. But do not close off your rabbit’s cage too tightly. Rabbits need plenty of fresh air, and being enclosed with the fumes from their urine may cause respiratory distress.
If you choose to move your rabbit inside during the cold weather, keep a few things in mind. Do not move your rabbit to a garage where it may be exposed to fumes from a running car engine. This can causes respiratory distress or kill your rabbit due to carbon monoxide poisoning. Rabbits do not tolerate sudden changes in temperature well, so moving a rabbit directly from the cold into your heated house may not be a good idea. Gradually move your rabbit into the warmer temperatures, or try placing it on an enclosed porch or shed rather than into your home. Avoid placing the rabbit's hutch in a drafty location. Most rabbits will not need a heated environment to make it through the winter.
An easy way to keep your rabbit comfortable and safe during the winter is to place straw or hay in the nest portion of the hutch. It is recommended that straw be used over hay because straw has better insulating properties. Plus, rabbits are less likely to eat this type of bedding. One thing to keep in mind is that during extreme cold, your rabbit will be less likely to venture outside the nesting area. The rabbits’ reluctance to leave often means the rabbit will urinate and defecate in the nesting area. Thus, the straw will need to be changed periodically to maintain a clean and warm environment for the rabbit.
Food and water
Food and water during the winter is also very important. More calories will be needed to maintain body heat. A way to increase calories is to add a little corn to the diet to increase body heat production. A lot of corn, however, is not good for your rabbit, especially if the rabbit is not accustomed to the corn or if the corn is not a component of its existing diet. One must remember that rabbits are grazers of grass and do not readily have access to corn. Too much corn can cause gastrointestinal upset, diarrhea, and dehydration if the rabbit consumes too much. Adding a little more food to the food bowl will also help increase caloric intake, as will adding a little alfalfa hay for nibbling. However, it is important that you do not overfeed your rabbit. It is difficult to get the extra weight off once the spring comes and excess weight can cause a variety of health problems and decreases reproductive success.
Water supply is an important consideration in cold weather, as well. Water should be available to the rabbit at all times, even if it means changing the water and removing the ice multiple times a day. Water bottles should not be used during the winter because they freeze and crack easily. The best way to ensure that your rabbit is always exposed to fresh, unfrozen water is to keep a few bowls, either plastic or ceramic, on hand. As one bowl’s water freezes, bring that one in the house to thaw and replace it with a bowl of fresh water. Again, this may need to be done several times a day in extremely cold situations.
By following these steps, you can greatly increase the likelihood of your rabbit having a safe, comfortable winter. Always remember that having a healthy rabbit and a rabbit with a good coat of fur is essential to keeping your rabbit healthy, happy, and warm through the cold winter months.
Brett Kreifels, University of Nebraska - Lincoln