Caring for Rabbits in Cold Weather

Caring for Rabbits in Cold Weather

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One of the reasons I love raising rabbits is that they are easy keepers. But as winter temperatures in the U.S. are plummeting, many people are wondering if they should be doing anything special to care for their rabbits. The answer? Maybe.

Good Housing is Vital

Thankfully, rabbits do well in very cold weather - but the difference between rabbits who sail through winter and those who develop frostbite or hypothermia is good housing. Wherever you house your rabbits must be dry and sheltered from the wind. 

It's often tempting to simply drape tarps over your rabbit cages, but this is rarely adequate. For one thing, rabbits chew on tarps, leaving holes behind that expose them to the weather. For another, it's difficult to keep tarps tight against cages so your rabbits are truly protected from the elements. Also, you may think your tarps are well secured (and indeed, they may be well secured for years), only to discover one horrible morning that your tarps have blown away. (That happened to me this winter; thankfully, the affected cages were empty.)

While rabbits do have thick coats to insulate them against the cold, they are sensitive to drafts and can go into hypothermia if cool or cold water reaches their skin. Therefore, it's best to have a structure over your rabbit cages or colony setup. In addition to a roof with deep overhangs, it should have at least three walls and be large enough that none of the rabbits are unduly exposed to the weather.

Food and Water Concerns


Since rabbits dehydrate quickly, when temperatures plummet, it's also vital to keep your rabbits' water supply from freezing. If you use standard ball-type rabbit waterers, check their function every single day (at least once a day and maybe more frequently) by using your finger to extract water from the tip. In cold weather, the metal tube that rabbits drink from will freeze long before the plastic bottle part does. 

One way to deal with this problem is to have multiple waterers on standby; keep them in a location where they won't freeze and simply switch out any frozen waterers with fresh ones, as often as needed. (Remember to switch out the entire waterer, not just the bottle, since the metal tubes are most sensitive to freezing.) I've also seen homesteaders wrap bottles in wool socks, a bit of bubble wrap, or bubble foil aluminum insulation. Some people choose to use heated bottles, but they require great caution around rabbits; if the animals chew the electrical wires, the bottles can become a fire hazard. 

Another option is to switch to rubber bowls or water crocks. (Crocks with wide-mouthed bottles are slower to freeze.) Ideally, these crocks are kept off the floor so that rabbits don't step in them and get chilled. You will have to check the water several times a day as long as freezing temperatures persist. 

Think about feed, as well. As temperatures drop, rabbits instinctively eat more because they are burning additional calories to stay warm. Therefore, winter is a good time to free-feed your rabbits, or at least increase their daily ration.


If temperatures drop to 15 degrees F. or less, I recommend giving each rabbits a wood or cardboard box filled with straw. Some people prefer plastic boxes, but since rabbits tend to chew on everything and since I can't imagine that ingesting plastic is healthy, I recommend avoiding this. Wood or cardboard is warmer, anyway.

Some people are tempted to use other types of bedding, such as hay, shredded paper, or wood shavings, but these are less insulating than straw. Whatever you choose, however, be sure to check the box daily; if the box or the bedding becomes wet, it must be removed and replaced right away. If your rabbits defecate in the box, you'll need to clean up after that, too. 

Pet rabbit folks will tell you that temperatures this low require bringing rabbits inside, but the truth is that if proper housing and bedding are supplied, rabbits do just fine in very cold temperatures. However, if you choose to bring your rabbits inside during cold weather, it's vital to make sure the temperature change they experience isn't radical. Even a 15 or 20-degree change in temperature can put rabbits into physical distress, with death a very real possibility. 

One thing both farmers and pet rabbit experts agree on, however: never use a heating pad or heat lamp. Not only are both unnecessary, but they often cause horrific burn injuries to rabbits and can even lead to overheating and death. 

Rabbit Kits


Some homesteaders ask if they should avoid mating rabbits in winter, for fear the kits won't survive. But as long as mother rabbits prepare good nests, in most cases, cold weather shouldn't be an issue. I've talked with homesteaders who regularly have -15 degree F. weather in the winter, and all their rabbits - including kits - do just fine outside. One important thing to note, however, is that while you may prefer metal nesting boxes because they are easier to clean and don't get chewed on, if temperatures are cold, you should use wood nesting boxes - or even cardboard boxes - which are considerably warmer than metal. 

Give the mother rabbit plenty of fresh straw (not hay) to build her nest and consider putting a layer or two of cardboard in the bottom of the box for extra insulation. As long as the mother pulls plenty of her own fur for the nest and the babies aren't born outside the nesting box, the kits will not be too cold. If you get surprised with suddenly low temperatures, you may wish to bring the kits and their mother into a warmer building. Just be sure that they don't experience big temperature swings, because just like adult rabbits, kits don't quickly adjust to temperature swings. 


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