There are a lot of options available for keeping your rabbits warm and comfortable and a lot of things to look out for.
The RWAF advises against the use of sawdust and clumping cat litter.
We recommend a good quality soft straw as the ideal bedding for warmth and comfort, particularly for outdoor rabbits. It’s warm because the hollow strands trap warm air and it’s also absorbent. It’s important to understand the difference between hay and straw. Hay is dried grass and the most vital part of a rabbit’s diet. Straw is dried stalks from grain crops and is much more suitable for bedding as it is warmer and less likely to be eaten. It’s not a problem if rabbits eat straw but there are few nutrients and they must be given good quality hay to eat. The same care should be taken in choosing straw as you would take when choosing hay. It must be dust-extracted and sweet-smelling and as soft as possible to minimise any risk of eye damage. Although buying straw direct from the farm is likely to be cheaper, it won’t have had the dust extracted and may be sharp and spiky. Look for products labelled as super-soft and dust-extracted.
Sawdust has commonly been used in the past as an absorbent layer in the rabbits sleeping areas. This is not advisable; sawdust can irritate the skin and lungs because of the oils/phenols contained in the wood. These can be absorbed into the rabbit’s internal organs and cause low grade liver inflammation.
Wood shavings are essentially the same as sawdust but because they are not as finely broken down, the risk of skin and lung irritation is lower. We have advised in the past that wood shavings should be used with great care and only in a well-ventilated environment. However, having made enquiries recently, we have learned that for good quality shavings, the drying process should remove harmful volatile oils and phenols. We are also aware of concerns that mites may be present in wood shavings, however, we think this is extremely unlikely; even if they survived the heat-treatment process, mites have a very short life-cycle and there is no host in the packaging to sustain them.
Wood-based cat litter pellets are also heat processed which removes the harmful oils and phenols and therefore do not pose a risk of skin and lung irritation. For the sleeping areas of outside rabbits we recommend that these pellets are used with a covering of straw for warmth and comfort. Always read the label because at least one brand contains silicon which should be avoided.
Pulped paper (Megazorb for example) is safe, highly absorbent and dust-extracted. Because it is a waste product from the paper industry it has good environmental credentials.
Shredded paper (for example Fitch, Carefresh confetti and Petlife Safebed) varies in texture and absorbency depending on the type of paper that has been shredded. The softer the paper the better, both for comfort and absorbency. If there was print on the paper before it was shredded then there may be issues with the ink if your rabbits ingest it. As always, keep an eye on what your rabbits are eating.
Paper pellets are highly absorbent and great for litter areas. They are less comfortable as a bedding than some other products so we recommend covering with a softer product like straw.
Shredded tea bags are made from the offcuts of the tea bag manufacturing industry. Whilst they are soft, odour-free and highly absorbent, they contain plastic so again, owners must be careful of their rabbits ingesting this product.
Newspaper is commonly used to line sleeping and litter areas for absorbency and insulation. It is easily available but obviously is covered with ink so once again, be careful of your rabbits eating it. A good covering of straw is recommended.
Aubiose is bedding made from hemp/flax. It’s absorbent and because it comes in large bales it can be economical. It’s also natural and biodegradable.
Miscanthus (Femmington Fibres for example), also known as elephant grass is an alternative to straw. It’s a natural product and highly absorbent.
What to avoid
Sawdust. It’s worth repeating that sawdust can irritate the skin and lungs
Clay-based “clumping” cat litter. If rabbits ingest this product it will “clump” in the gut and cause serious problems.
There should always be plenty of airspace and good airflow in your rabbits’ accommodation, whatever the substrate. It should be cleaned regularly and your rabbits need to be able to leave their sheltered area as and when they want to, to take exercise in an enclosure that at least meets our minimum space recommendations.