Now that it’s getting hot outside, it’s time to talk about rabbits and the heat. Rabbits have very thick fur coats and can’t sweat to stay cool like humans do. If you’ve ever put a coat on in the middle of summer, you know that you’ll get hot really fast. So we want to make sure we’re looking out for our little furry friends and find ways to keep them cool during these hot months.
Hot summer weather can be incredibly dangerous for rabbits. If you do not take care to keep your rabbit cool, they have a high chance of developing a heat stroke. Unfortunately most rabbits who suffer from this illness do not receive help in time, and it is often fatal. To help your rabbit survive the summer, take precautions and use these tips to keep your rabbit cool.
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What temperature is too hot for rabbits?
The ideal temperature for rabbits is from about 50-70°F (10-21°C), but rabbits can be comfortable in temperatures ranging from around 40-75°F. Depending on the humidity and air quality, rabbits will start to show symptoms of overheating at temperatures above 80ºF-85ºF. Long haired rabbits may begin to exhibit signs of overheating at temperatures as low as 75ºF. If the temperature reaches 95º F, the rabbit will no longer be able to regulate their internal temperature.
How do rabbits regulate their temperature?
Rabbits cannot sweat via pores in their skin, so they need to release their body heat in other ways. There are four main ways rabbits regulate their body temperature:
- Rabbits dissipate heat by evaporating moisture through breathing. As they get hotter, they will breathe faster so they can release more of their stored heat in their breathe.
- The mucus in the nasal passage facilitates an exchange of heat during the respiratory process. The temperature of the nasal mucus will change to help the rabbit lose heat during the summer and retain heat during the winter.
- Rabbits use their ears to help regulate their body temperature. There is a network of blood vessels running through their ears that expand to help the rabbit stay cool. Their ears will get much hotter during the summer months to dissipate the extra heat.
- Rabbits will also stretch out more in the hotter months to keep their body from retaining heat. They may lay again cool surfaces, such as tiles or frozen water bottles, to help their body internally regulate their temperature.
Keep rabbits indoors
If you live in an area where the temperature is regularly over 80ºF, the number one recommendation I have is to make sure you keep your rabbit inside. I advocate for keeping rabbits indoors all year round, but this is especially important in the summer when rabbits often suffer from heat related conditions, such as heat stroke. Keep the shades or curtains on the windows partially closed to limit the amount of sunlight coming in and heating the room.
Why wild rabbits can handle the heat
I sometimes hear the argument that if wild rabbits are able to stay out in the heat all day, why would it be so dangerous to domestic rabbits? The reality is, wild rabbits live in burrows underground. They will usually only come out for short periods of time during the morning and evening (the cooler parts of the day). So they are never subjected to the worst of the summer heat.
Outdoor domestic rabbits, on the other hand, are almost always kept above ground in a hutch. There is no way for these rabbits to escape the heat by going underground, so they are forced to endure in their thick coats all summer long. Understandably many of these outdoor rabbits get very stressed out and suffer from heat related conditions.
Tips to keep your rabbit cool
Even if you keep your rabbit inside, it can get pretty hot. Not everyone has central cooling in their home. Or there could be a power outage on a hot day, so you need to figure out how to keep your rabbit cool. Mix and match these tips to see what you can do to keep your rabbit cool in the summer.
1. Use the air conditioning all day long
If you have air conditioning in your home. Keep the AC on even when you’re not home. There are many pet owners that believe it’s not necessary to leave the AC on for their cats and dogs when they are away at work, believing that their pets can deal with the heat better than we can. It very well could be true that cats and dogs can deal with heat better than rabbits (it probably depends on how thick their coats are), but I worry that the ideology leaks over to rabbit ownership as well.
Don’t forget, rabbits can easily get heat stroke at high temperatures. If you’re living in an area where it is regularly gets above 80 outside, then you’re going to feel the heat inside when the AC is turned off. So if you regularly keep the AC around 70 degrees when you’re home, consider increasing it to 75 degrees when you leave instead of turning it off completely.
2. Move to the basement
For those of you who live in houses with a basement, you have the option to move your rabbits enclosure there. Basements usually don’t have as many windows, and therefore not as much direct sunlight heating the room. And of course, heat rises. The basement will naturally be the coolest part of the house. Sometime the basement can be as much as 15 degrees cooler that upper floors. You wouldn’t even have to use the AC in that case!
3. Ceramic or marble tiles
Were you ever so hot as a kid, that you went to lay down on the cool kitchen floor to cool off? That is exactly what your bunny does. The ceramic or marble tiles will stay cool even when other surfaces are starting to warm up. So they give your rabbit a nice place to lean against and cool off. You can even stick these in the refrigerator for an hour or so before putting them in your rabbits enclosure to make them especially cool.
My rabbit actually likes to lay against her marble tiles all year round. Many rabbits prefer to lay on a hard flat surface instead of any kind of soft bedding people get them. That’s why is most cases I actually advise that people not get any bedding for their rabbit’s enclosure.
4. Spray water behind the ears
Most of a rabbit’s body heat is released through their ears, so you can help them cool off by spritzing a little bit of cool water right behind their ears. You don’t want to make them soaking wet. Just a light misting to help them out. Also, you’ll want to be careful to make sure you don’t get any water inside their ears. That can end up leading to an infection since the moisture can get stuck in the inner ear, especially with lop eared rabbits.
5. Frozen water bottles
Fill up some old water bottles (or soda bottles, juice bottles, etc.) and freeze them. The next day, take them out of your freezer and wrap them in a towel or an old sock to place in your rabbit’s enclosure. Like the tiles, this can make a nice cool surface for your rabbit to lean against. Just be sure to wrap them in something. It will be a little too cold for your rabbit to lean directly against, and you also don’t want to risk their coat getting soaked by the condensation.
Some people will also use cooling pads or those frozen gel ice packs. This is okay if your rabbit doesn’t try to dig or chew into them, but in general I tend to stay away from anything other than frozen water. There is too much of a danger that the rabbit will break open the ice pack and try to eat the gel that’s inside.
6. Circulate the air
Open the door or window and use a rotating fan or ceiling fan to help circulate the air in a room. Stagnant air in a closed off room will trap heat, so you want to try to get the air flowing. You don’t want to blow a fan directly onto your rabbit though. It will do them little good since they don’t sweat from their skin, and it has the potential to cause respiratory problems with your rabbit.
7. Fresh water
Make sure your rabbit as plenty of fresh water so they don’t get dehydrated, and never let your rabbit run out of that water. You can refill the water a few times a day to make sure it stays fresh and cool. If it’s an extra hot day, try adding ice cubes in water bowl. These will keep the water colder for longer periods of time and it can be fun to watch a curious rabbit licking them.
It’s also a good idea to give them a water bowl instead of a water bottle. It’s easier and more intuitive for a rabbit to drink from a bowl, so it will encourage your rabbit to stay hydrated. Of course, some rabbits are troublemakers and have the tendency to flip over their food and water bowls. In this case it’s better to give them a bottle. You don’t want to risk them flipping over their bowl and having no water at all.
8. Makeshift cooling unit with fan and ice
If you don’t have an air conditioner, you can make a budget cooling unit using a bowl of ice and a fan. Place the ice directly in front of the fan and let the air blow over it and circulate the room. While it won’t work as well as a window AC unit, it will still cool the room significantly. You can also use a cold damp towel and hang it in front of the fan. I found that this usually doesn’t last as long, since the towel dries out pretty quickly.
9. Brush your rabbit
Groom your rabbit on a regular basis to help them shed any extra fur. As the weather starts to get warm, your rabbit should shed their winter coat to one that’s slightly thinner for the summer. The molting season can take a number of weeks though, so brushing your rabbit can help speed up the process.
If you have a long haired bunny, such as a lionhead or angora, you may want to keep your rabbits fur trimmed during the summer. Many rabbit enthusiasts choose to keep their long-haired rabbit’s coat to about an inch in length to prevent tangles and help them keep cool.
Provide ample shade for your rabbit, whether they are inside or outside, especially during the hottest points in the day. Direct sunlight can quickly lead to heat exhaustion if the rabbit has no way of moving away and into a shelter. Giving your rabbit a choice of sunlight or shade is best so they can do a better job of regulating their own body temperature.
11. Fresh greens washed in cool water
When you give your rabbit their daily fresh leafy greens, wash them in cold water. No need to completely shake off the excess water droplets. This will encourage a little extra hydration for your rabbit, and it will make the greens nice and chilled when your rabbit eats them.
12. Less bedding
If you use a lot of bedding in your rabbits enclosure, consider using less during the summer months. Most rabbits who are litter trained have little need for extra bedding anyway. Instead you can focus on giving them space to sprawl out on a cool, flat surface so they can cool off more easily.
Heat stroke is a serious danger to rabbits in the summertime, especially if they are kept outside. Rabbits have thick fur coats and that makes it a struggle to keep their body temperatures down when the weather gets warm. Temperatures above 80°F are the danger zone for rabbits, but in particularly humid areas, it would be best to keep the thermostat even lower.
Sometimes mistakes happen, or your AC might cut off while you’re away, causing your rabbit to start overheating. How do you know if your rabbit is too hot? You want to make sure you can recognize the signs of heat stroke and get your rabbit the care they need before it’s too late.
Rabbits are prey animals, and that means that they have evolved to hide their weaknesses so that they don’t appear vulnerable to predators. You want to make sure to watch your rabbit closely for changes in behavior so you can catch signs of illness early.
Heatstroke is caused when a rabbit is exposed to excessive heat. A rabbit’s body has a limited capacity for cooling down. Their long fur coat means that their ears are given the main job of cooling the body down. And sometimes they just can’t keep up. The rabbit’s body temperature will start to rise and their body will start to show signs of excessive stress.
- Sometimes it’s because the rabbit was a little too active in the heat, but sometimes even less active rabbits can suffer from heatstroke.
- Dehydration in summer months can also very easily lead to heatstroke in rabbits.
- Being kept out in the sun without any shady places to hide is another big problem.
- Rabbits kept inside without any air circulation or ventilation can overheat.
Signs your rabbit is overheating
This is usually one of the first signs that your rabbit is sick. Rabbit’s have a very sensitive digestive system and they need to keep eating constantly. If your rabbit hasn’t eaten for more than 10-12 hours, then it may be an emergency situation. A way to test if your rabbit is not eating is by offering her one of her favorite treats. If she refuses the treat, then make an appointment with your vet immediately.
Very low energy
If your rabbit is usually very active, but now seems to be low on energy, this could be a sign that your rabbit is overheating. It is normal for your rabbit to be a little less active in summer months versus winter months, but if there is an extreme amount of lethargy, that is when you need to check on your rabbit and make sure they’re okay. Rabbits are often more active in the morning and evening, so these are the times of day you want to be most aware of their energy levels.
Panting and Drooling
When a rabbit starts to hyperventilate, they will start rapidly breathing through their mouth. A rabbit’s respiratory system makes is difficult for them to breathe through their mouths. Healthy rabbits will always breathe through their nose. If you notice mouth breathing at all, that is a clear sign of distress.
Sometimes it’s difficult to tell if rabbits are breathing through their mouths, but check to see if they are drooling. If you find wetness around their mouth (and they didn’t drink anything recently) then that is a clear sign that your rabbit is panting and is probably in distress.
Rabbits release a lot of their body heat through their ears. This means that the temperature of the ears will rise as the rabbit tries to dissipate heat. As the rabbit reaches their limit in their ability to internally regulate their body temperature, their ears will be getting very hot and the skin will take on a distinct dark pink or red color. So if you notice the inside of your rabbits ears is red, it’s a sign that they are trying to lower their body temperature and are starting to overheat.
Trembling or shaking
If your rabbit is shaking or can’t seem to stand up properly without stumbling or falling over, that is a sign the rabbit’s body is under a lot of stress. Because rabbits have a tendency to hide their weaknesses, if you are noticing this behavior it likely means that the rabbit is beyond overheating is and is already in the midst of a heat stroke. You need to get your rabbit to the vet right away.
Head thrown back
In an attempt to use their breathe to evaporate more of the heat from their bodies, rabbits will try to get more air by sticking their heads up while they breathe rapidly. It’s a desperate attempt to cool themselves down. They will likely be sitting in an uncomfortable looking position and drooling a lot. This is a serious sign of heat stroke and you need to get help for your rabbit immediately.
Slow or confused movement
You should get help for your rabbit if they are displaying slow or confused movement. They might be wobbling as they move around, or they might be reluctant to move at all. Sometimes the rabbit will fall over frequently trying to get someplace, or they’ll seem to forget where they’re going and move in circles.
This is your rabbit is sitting around and panting without responding to any external stimuli. They won’t take a treat, they don’t notice if you touch them, they don’t even respond if you pick them up. This is a sign that your rabbit is in the later stages of heat stroke and needs emergency care.
What should do if you believe your rabbit is having a heatstroke?
It can be really scary if you come home and find that your rabbit is overheating. So I want you to be prepared just in case. Hopefully, you will never have to use these tips, but if you do, then you might be saving your rabbit’s life.
If you notice these symptoms, your rabbit is already in a very serious situation. You want to get your rabbit to the vet, but you will also need to take some immediate steps to help your rabbit cool down in the meantime:
Immediately call your local vet
The very first thing you should do if you notice these symptoms is to call your rabbit savvy vet. They will be able to give you more specific advice and get you in for an emergency appointment. If you have a second person available, one of you should call the vet, while you immediately work to cool down your bun.
Turn the temperature down
If you are outside, bring your rabbit indoors to an air conditioned room. If you are inside, turn the temperature down or move to a cooler part of the house. Your priority right now is to help your rabbit cool down. At this point your rabbit is unable to regulate their temperature internally, so you need to help lower their body temperature using their external environment.
Spritz their ears
Give your rabbit a little spray of cool water behind their ears to help them release more body heat. Do not soak your rabbit or attempt to put them into a bath, as this can cause your rabbit to go into shock.
Continue to mist the rabbits ears with some cool water. Rabbits regulate their body temperature most effectively with their ears, so it can help them to cool down if you mist their ears with cool water, But do not completely soak the ears.
Use a damp towel
Get a towel and wet it with cool water. Then wring it out so the towel is damp but not wet. Wrap the towel around your rabbit like a burrito (but not too tight). A cool, damp towel can help to cool down your rabbits body temperature externally and help them recover from heatstroke. Make sure the towel is not soaking wet though. You want it to be cool against your rabbits skin, but you don’t want to shock them or soak their fur.
Place some cool, fresh water near your rabbit to encourage your rabbit to drink. You don’t want to force your rabbit to drink, but having it available to them can help your rabbit start to regulate their own body temperature and rehydrate themselves. You could even put some ice cubes in the bowl to make it colder.
Get a frozen water bottle
If you have any frozen water bottles or ice packs in the freezer, take one out and wrap it in another towel. Put it next to your rabbit so they can lean against the coolness. You don’t want to force them to lean on the cold ice pack or water bottle, but giving them the option to move closer to something cool is best.
Rabbits that are at higher risk of heat stroke
Very young and very old rabbits are particularly susceptible to illnesses, such as heat stroke. They can get stressed out very easily, limiting their bodies’ ability to handle the rising temperatures.
Overweight and long haired rabbits are also in this category. Their bodies hold onto heat much more than a typical rabbit. Many people choose to trim their long haired rabbits during the summer to help them stay cool. Obesity is a dangerous condition for many reasons, not just the heat. It’s best to do what you can to put your rabbit on a healthy diet to help them lose weight.
What other illnesses should I be concerned about in the summer months?
Fly strike is a concern for rabbits in the summer, especially if they are housed outdoors. It happens when a fly lays eggs on the rabbit. When the eggs hatch, the maggots start to eat the flesh of the rabbit. This is a serious emergency situation, since the maggots can kill your rabbit within a 24-48 hour time period after hatching.
What temperature is too cold for rabbits?
For rabbits that are used to the cold, they can still do okay in temperatures down to about 15°F as long as they are kept dry and out of the wind. If you live in an area with temperatures more extreme than this, then you will need to take some significant precautions to make sure your rabbit can stay comfortable and healthy throughout the winter.
- Fayez I., Marai M., Alnaimy A., Habeeb M. Thermoregulation in rabbits. In : Baselga M. (ed.), Marai I.F.M. (ed.). Rabbit production in hot climates. Zaragoza : CIHEAM, 1994. p. 33-41 (Cahiers Options Méditerranéennes; n. 8). Accessed: ressources.ciheam.org/om/pdf/c08/95605277.pdf.
- “Heatstroke in Rabbits.” PDSA, www.pdsa.org.uk/taking-care-of-your-pet/looking-after-your-pet/rabbits/rabbit-heatstroke.
- “Rabbits For All Seasons: Summer.” Long Island Rabbit Rescue Group, www.longislandrabbitrescue.org/summer.
- “Warm Weather Concerns.” House Rabbit Society, Jul. 10, 2011, rabbit.org/faq-warm-weather-concerns.
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