As we head into the colder months, it’s time to think ahead and take some simple steps to make sure your rabbit hutch and run are all set up to keep them, warm, dry, healthy and safe, whatever the weather. Rabbit Welfare and Fund (RWAF) veterinary surgeon Richard Saunders gives some advice on how to prepare your rabbits’ home for the winter season.
Rabbits in the wild live underground in burrows, where temperatures don’t vary as much as they do above ground. Pet rabbits sometimes need to be able to cope with winds, rain and extreme cold and depend on their owners to help keep them warm and dry.
When the winter weather starts coming in, if possible, move your hutch and rabbit run into a light, well-ventilated garage or shed that’s not used for cars or storing chemicals.
Before the cold weather sets in, take your rabbits out of their hutch or shed and give their living quarters a thorough inspection. Check that the inside of the hutch doesn’t have any rotten areas, or cracks where draughts can whistle through, and that the shed is in good weatherproof condition.
Be sure that the roof is thoroughly waterproof and there are no cracks, little gullies or areas water could penetrate. You can replace the top surface with roofing felt if it’s not up to scratch.
The legs that keep the hutch off the ground need to be in good condition and stable, as any direct contact with the ground will make the base become sodden and your rabbits’ living quarters damp. Raise the hutch on solid legs or place it on a sturdy waterproof surface if you have any doubts.
Hutch and run safety whatever the weather
Your rabbits should have free access to their run at all times, even in the winter, and never be locked in their hutch. They need exercise every day and being able to move around also helps them to keep warm.
Some basic DIY jobs can help fox-proof the rabbit hutch. Replace any swivel catches on the hutch door with bolts. Give the run a thorough once-over to ensure there are no rusty or weak areas in the wire that can be chewed or wriggled through, or that predators such as cats, dogs or foxes can squeeze through.
If the wire is old, slack or worn, or you want an added layer of protection, cover the hutch and run with 6G (1.6mm-thick) wire mesh for reinforcement. Check the tacks or nails you use are well nailed in, so your naturally inquisitive rabbits cannot damage themselves or chew them. If possible, move the hutch and run nearer the house so you can easily nip out and check your rabbits frequently, however bad the weather.
Insulation from the outside in
Think through the best way to insulate the hutch exterior. You can buy a good-quality waterproof cover that fits snugly over the hutch and has a transparent plastic roll-down front section. This allows good ventilation and means you can roll it up on cold but sunny days.
Alternatively, you can also use some practical home-made insulation methods. Add some Perspex sheets (so your rabbit can still see out) to the front of the hutch and sections of the run to give some protection from the weather, leaving plenty of gaps for ventilation.
Cover the outside of the hutch with silver-backed mats to add an extra layer, and if the weather drops below zero, wrap an old blanket or duvet around the hutch. Invest in a good-quality tarpaulin with eyelets that you can put right over the hutch and run and secure when it’s very cold, wet or windy. If your rabbits’ living quarters are in a shed, you can insulate the inside walls with commercial wall-insulation boards.
All warm inside
Your rabbits need deep bedding of shavings or Megazorb under their bed of plenty of straw. Straw is warmer than hay because it’s hollow and provides more insulation. Buy good-quality soft straw that’s not spiky or dusty, such as barley straw.
Placing a cardboard box filled with straw in the hutch makes a super-warm and insulated sleeping area and is easy to replace. You can also put a couple of these in the run.
The hutch needs to be cleaned out scrupulously and regularly, so your rabbits are never sitting on a damp or soggy surface. Make it quick and easy to clean by giving them a small litter tray you can just slide in and out of the hutch, filled with plenty of shavings to absorb the urine. You can use anything that’s non-chewable, like a good-quality small tray or lid.
Added warmth and comfort
When the temperature looks set to drop below zero, your rabbits may need the equivalent of a hot-water bottle for rabbits to help keep them warm at night. A small chew-proof heat pad (e.g. SnuggleSafe) is ideal for them to sit on, and simple to use. If the temperature drops below zero, heat the pad in a microwave exactly as instructed, slip into the little custom-sized pad case to ensure your rabbits don’t get too hot, and the pads will stay warm for up to 12 hours.
You can also try putting a heat pad under the water dish to prevent the water freezing.
Thinking ahead about the condition of your hutch and run can ensure you have them all set in good time for the colder weather to come.
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