Welfare Wednesday – Winter draws on!

RWAF Hot tips for keeping outdoor buns warm this winter

Amongst our members and supporters there is a huge wealth of knowledge, so we asked everyone to share their top tips. Some are well tried and tested, and still working well, but others are ingenious and we wonder how we hadn’t thought of them already.

Keeping rabbits warm is important, because in the wild they would live in underground burrows and the temperature changes very slightly between summer and winter. By keeping them above ground we are subjecting them to extremes of temperature changes and we need to help them stay warm and dry. Damp and draughts can be deadly to bunnies at this time of year.

We always recommend rabbits are kept in pairs, and there is no nicer way of keeping warm than by snuggling up to your friend.

Companionship is often overlooked, and can be even more important over the winter months. Naturally, because of the dark nights and poor weather we are less inclined to spend time in the garden, so we see less of our rabbits who are kept outdoors. You must make sure you check them regularly (at least three times a day, but more is always better), and check that the hutch / shed is not leaking, that their bed is dry and that they always have hay and water.

Remember that even in bad weather rabbits will need to exercise every day; it is not acceptable to keep them locked in a hutch because you are not able to provide a protected exercise area for them, so some forward planning now may be needed. A hutch attached to a safe exercise run means the rabbits can shelter in the hutch or exercise in the run when they please. At the very least, add a tarpaulin cover to both to protect them from rain and snow, and a hiding place (one per bunny).

Garden sheds offer a great alternative to a traditional rabbit hutch because they can be well insulated and the rabbits are nice and dry inside and they have more room to move around. It is also easier for the owners to feed and clean out inside a garden shed in wet weather. Exercise runs can still be attached to a shed, and can still be covered by a tarpaulin.

The easiest thing would be to bring the hutch and run into an unused shed, garage (as long as it has a window and you aren’t using it for a car…those exhaust fumes are very dangerous) or a conservatory. Lots of owners bring their rabbits in and keep them as house rabbits over the winter months. It’s fine to have winter house rabbits and summer garden rabbits, as long as you do not embark on this and then abandon it mid way; if you decide to do it, you will have to stick to it because it would be cruel to bring them in and let them moult their winter coat, only to put them outdoors again before spring. If you are going to do this, then first of all bring them into a room with no heating and acclimatise them gradually. Remember that they may find household noises like the TV and washing machine scary so take your time. They will not be used to our artificial lights either, so make sure they have somewhere to hide out of the lights while they adjust.

Top Tip – if bringing rabbits in doors do it gradually – bring them into a cold quiet room, and give them plenty of places to hide. Use their own litter tray and toys so that they have a familiar smell.

By cold – we mean if the temperature falls below zero; that is when insulating sheds and hutches and items such as Snugglesafe can be used to best effect – but of course lots of the tips relate to weatherproofing and they can be used in wet and windy weather regardless of the temperature. You will need to use your own common sense.

However, most rabbits live out doors all year round, so if this applies to you then read on!

To stop water bottles or bowls freezing:

Cable tie a plant pot to the inside of the hutch and put the water bottle in there. Once the hutch is insulated (see below) it reduces the risk of the bottle freezing. (Total genius, well done to the person that thought of this!)

Don’t forget to check that water bottles are working properly, and keep 2 so that if one freezes it can be swapped for another.

If you use water bowls, lift them off the floor of the shed or hutch, and keep them out of a draught.

Wrap water bottles with bubble wrap, a thermal sock or glove.

Use a Snuggle Safe under a water bowl to stop it freezing.

For keeping hutches and runs warm

Use a tarpaulin with eyelets so it can be secured in place.

Put old blankets or duvets over the hutch and run, but under the tarp for extra insulation. (Make sure bunnies can not nibble the blankets or tarp)

Buy a Snugglesafe heat pad to use overnight.

Make sure bedding is kept warm and dry. Straw is warmer than hay so makes a better winter bedding, but nothing is warm if it is wet. Your cleaning schedule needs to be scrupulous in the winter and don’t be stingy – make sure you provide a deep bed of something like shavings or Megazorb and plenty of straw.

Use silver backed beach mats to insulate the hutch and run

Put wind breaks up around the hutch and run

Line sheds to create a double wall, and an extra layer of insulation.

Add Perspex sheets to the front of hutches and runs to keep them weather proof, but allow rabbits to see out and get daylight. If you do this make sure there is still good ventilation, perhaps leave a small gap along the top.

Add a cardboard box with a small hole to the bedroom area and fill it with dry straw.

Add a low wattage heater to a shed – make sure that the bunnies cannot chew the cable! (The RWAF suggests this should be a last resort for safety reasons and that Snugglesafes and a thick bed are a preferable solution.  If heaters are used they should be electric, not paraffin, they should be in a safe place where they cannot be knocked over, won’t have bedding  or hay pushed up against them and where a rabbit’s fur cannot come into contact as that too is combustible.  Cables should be protected from nibbling.  The temperature should rise to no more than 20 degrees)

Insulate the shed or hutch, and also the hutch or nest box inside.

One final note, this advice is really for rabbits in good body condition, those who are old, or thin may need even more care, and we advise the owners of such bunnies to bring them in for the winter.

This advice is now on our website at https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/pdfs/RWAFtoptipsforwintercare.pdf