Winter brings a variety of situations, including cold temperatures and short days, which affect the well-being of your outdoor rabbit. There are steps you should take to prepare your rabbit(s) to weather the season in optimal health and comfort.
Your rabbit should have a hutch that has solid walls on at least three sides and a slanted, overhanging roof that will allow snow and rain to run off. The hutch should be placed in an area protected from blustery winds and heavy precipitation. Straw or other bedding in the hutch will provide extra warmth, but it must be kept clean and dry. It is very important that you check daily to ensure your rabbit has a dry environment. Damp surroundings, whether from rain, snow, a leaky water bottle, or urine, will contribute to chilling and immune stress, which in winter can easily result in serious illness. While well-protected, the hutch should still have adequate ventilation to reduce odors and keep your pet breathing fresh air.
Water is very important in the winter. It is critical to keep the rabbit’s source of water clean and not frozen. In very cold weather, this may necessitate checking the water several times a day or providing a heated waterer. If you use the latter, be sure to still clean it regularly to inhibit bacterial growth and keep the water appealing to the rabbit. Also be sure that the cord cannot be chewed by the rabbit.
If you are breeding rabbits, you will need to provide 14 to 16 hours of light during these short winter days. The lighting intensity should be 25 lux at the level of the animals. Since no one really knows what a lux is, simply hang one 36-watt fluorescent tube light about 6 feet above the rabbits for every 55 square feet of floor space. In addition, baby rabbits cannot tolerate the cold temperatures that adult rabbits can, so it will be very important to provide extra warmth if needed. If you provide supplemental heat, be sure to monitor the temperature of the nest box daily. There have been instances where the nest box gets too hot and doe’s not nurse the litter. Remember, a little heat goes a long way in a small nest box.
Finally, expect your rabbit to eat more – maybe lots more! The colder it gets, the more the rabbit must eat. Like all animals, rabbits have what is called the “thermoneutral zone”. This is the ambient temperature range at which the rabbit does not need to expend energy to maintain an ideal body temperature. For adult rabbits, this zone is 69 to 77 degrees Fahrenheit (young rabbits will be comfortable at higher temperatures). Below 69 degrees, the rabbit must use energy to stay warm. The colder the environment, the more energy the rabbit needs. Energy comes from food, so expect your rabbit to eat as much as three times more in the winter than it does during warmer times of the year. This increase in feed intake even has a fancy name: thermostatic appetite control. The rabbit’s appetite automatically adjusts to meet the energy needs of the rabbit in different temperatures. If your rabbit does not have access to adequate food, it will be hungry, cold, lose weight, and will likely get sick. If the situation becomes dire, the rabbit could die from illness or hypothermia.
The graph shows the relationship between feed intake and decreasing ambient temperature. Note that eventually the rabbit’s intake “maxes out”. This is because even a hungry rabbit in a cold environment can eat only so much food; at this point, housing becomes very important in keeping the rabbit comfortable and healthy.
If you provide your rabbit with warm, dry housing, plenty of food, and lots of fresh, clean water, your rabbit will stay comfortable and healthy through even the longest winter!