You’re doing the best you can to take care of your sweet bunny. You house them inside to keep them safe from the predators and parasites outside. You make sure that they have a healthy diet and plenty of space to exercise. But now you wonder if some fresh air and sunlight could do a rabbit some good.
Do rabbits need sunlight? Recent research suggests that sunlight, or UV rays, is important for a rabbit’s health. Like in many other animals, sunlight helps the rabbit produce enough vitamin D. Rabbits that don’t get direct sunlight have a greater risk of developing weak bones or dental problems.
It is very important to house rabbits indoors, but that doesn’t mean we have to deprive them of sunlight and the nutrients they need to maintain a healthy body. There are steps we can take to help make sure our rabbits are healthy without putting them in danger.
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Why rabbits need sunlight
Making sure your rabbits get a little bit of sun is beneficial for their health. It’s certainly not the most important factor to consider when you are first learning how to care for your rabbit, but once you know the basics, it’s time to level up your rabbit care and help your bunny be even healthier.
The main reason sunlight is so important is because it allows your rabbit to synthesize Vitamin D. Rabbits get some Vitamin D through their diet, but their bodies are much more efficient at creating this essential vitamin through the help of direct sunlight.
Even just 30-60 minutes of sunshine in a day can be enough to help a rabbit produce the Vitamin D they need, especially if it’s combined with a healthy, fortified diet. Make sure your rabbit has hay available, which will have some Vitamin D, and pellets that have been fortified with Vitamin D3.
Vitamin D deficiency
Because of the lack of direct sunlight, many indoor rabbits end up with a Vitamin D deficiency. A small 2014 study in the American Journal of Veterinary Research showed that rabbits that were exposed to UV rays (mimicking the rays of the sun) once a week were able to maintain higher and healthier levels of Vitamin D in their bloodstream.
Why is Vitamin D so important? In rabbits, Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium. It’s essential to helping rabbits maintain healthy teeth and bones. A Vitamin D deficiency can cause weak bones and dental problems. A lack of this vitamin for an extended period of time can also potentially cause the rabbit to develop anemia and have a weakened immune system.
Since rabbits have teeth that are constantly growing, it is very important that they have adequate calcium, and therefore Vitamin D. Calcium is important for preventing tooth decay as it helps to continuously build up the rabbit’s teeth. House rabbits that don’t see any sunlight are more likely to develop osteoporosis (weak bones) in their jaws.
Is sunlight through windows enough?
Unfortunately, sunlight that is filtered through the glass in windows is likely not enough to help a rabbit produce Vitamin D. The problem is that rabbits need to be exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, not just the light of the sun. The glass on windows effectively stops these shorter UVB wavelengths. So even if you keep your rabbit’s enclosure in a place where they can get sunlight from the window, they won’t be getting the UVB rays they need to produce Vitamin D.
How to help your rabbit get enough sunlight
Even though rabbits need some daily sunlight, I still recommend keeping them indoors most of the time. There are a lot of dangers for rabbits that are kept outdoor, including predators, parasitic bugs, and extreme weather conditions. Instead, we need to find ways of getting our rabbits some sunlight without exposing them to too many of the dangers they’ll face outside.
Luckily there are actually quite a few options for you to choose from. Whether you have a big yard to let your rabbit hang out in for some supervised playtime, or you’re living in a small apartment, there are steps you can take to improve your rabbit’s health.
Bring your rabbit out for walks
One option is to bring your rabbit out for walks. Pet rabbits can be trained to wear a harness and walk on a leash. If you live in a calm neighborhood with a confident and adventurous rabbit, you can practice putting a harness on them and taking your rabbit out for walks.
If you’ve never used a harness with your rabbit before, you’ll want to practice walking around inside before heading out. This will help you make sure the rabbit can’t wiggle out of the harness and won’t hurt themselves walking on a leash.
You’ll also want to make sure you only allow your rabbit to eat grass or other plants from lawns that you know have not been treated with anything poisonous to rabbits. Many fertilizers and pesticides that are used for keeping lawns looking nice are dangerous for rabbits. If you’re unsure, then just make sure you stay on your own lawn.
Some people that have a large backyard are able to make an outdoor run for their rabbits. This can be a great way to give your rabbits some freedom and allow them to frolic around outside. Just like if you bring your rabbit for a walk, you want to make sure the rabbit run is free of anything that would be dangerous to a rabbit. This includes fertilizers, pesticides, and plants that are poisonous to rabbits.
You also want to make sure that the rabbit run you construct is sturdy and predator-proof as much as possible. This includes making some cover for the top of the run, to avoid the chance of a large bird making a dive for your rabbit.
For those of us who don’t have a yard available, there are other options. The easiest and most consistent way to give your rabbit the UVB rays they need is to purchase a lamp designed for that purpose. You can set it up over part of your rabbit’s enclosure to give them a couple of hours of ‘sunlight’ every day.
Many pet stores will have appropriate lamps for you to use located in the reptile section. Try one of these lighting set-ups to give your rabbit a little bit of ‘sunlight’ every day.
When you set up a UVB lamp for your rabbit, you want to try to keep it within 9 inches of the rabbit’s enclosure. You’ll also want to replace the bulb about every 9 months even if it hasn’t burnt out. This is because the ultraviolet radiation that the bulb is capable of will slowly decay over time. You also want to make sure the light does not cover the entire enclosure, so you don’t risk overheating your rabbit.
Open a window
Your rabbit won’t get enough Vitamin D through the glass of a closed window, but an open window is definitely an option. When the weather is nice out, you can open a window and allow your rabbits to bask in the sunlight. You’ll want to make sure there is still a screen on the window so that no mosquitoes or flies will get in to potentially attack your rabbit.
Like with the UVB lamp, you’ll also want to make sure your rabbit’s entire enclosure is not in the sunlight. If they are left with no way of escaping direct sunlight, rabbits run a serious risk of overheating or developing heat stroke.
Food sources of Vitamin D
You also want to be sure that your rabbit’s diet has some Vitamin D in it. This will help to give them just a little more of this vitamin along with their sunlight hours and help them on days when they can’t get as much sun due to the weather. Luckily most types of hay provide a small amount of Vitamin D. There are also fortified brands of rabbit pellets that contain a small amount of added Vitamin D to your rabbit’s diet
I personally use the Oxbow Garden Select brand for my rabbits. It’s made from natural ingredients and is fortified with many important nutrients (including Vitamin D) to keep your rabbit healthy.
Despite this, Vitamin D that’s ingested through a rabbit’s diet is not the best way for them to get this vitamin. It should really be a small amount that they get in addition to some natural or artificial sunlight.
Unless directed by a qualified veterinarian, you should not give your rabbit Vitamin D supplements. Excess vitamin D is actually more dangerous than a deficiency. Too much of this vitamin can cause too much calcium to be absorbed by the rabbit’s body. This will result in much more dangerous heart, liver, or kidney problems. So you want to help your rabbit get enough Vitamin D in natural ways, through their diet and exposure to sunlight.
Precautions you should take
Because the outdoors can be dangerous for rabbits, it’s important to take some precautions whenever you bring your rabbit outside. You want to make sure to keep your rabbit safe from any neighborhood predators and avoid any potential illnesses they can get from being outside.
- Always supervise a rabbit when they are outdoors. Make sure you watch your rabbit closely so they don’t get into any trouble, or get attacked by other animals.
- Check your rabbit for parasites after taking them outside. When you bring your rabbit back inside, check their bottom for any signs of a burrowing parasite. If you regularly bring your rabbit outside, you’ll want to have a habit of checking their bottom for parasites, since fly strike can become a problem very quickly.
- Make sure your rabbit always has a choice to move away from the light. Rabbits in direct sunlight can quickly become overheated and develop heatstroke. Make sure they always have a choice to move out of the sunlight and into a shaded area.
The best thing you can do to keep your rabbit cool in the summer is to bring them into an air conditioned house. Other ideas to prevent heat stroke include:
- Spritz the back of their ears with water
- Give them a bottle of ice to lean against
- Provide them with cool ceramic tiles
- Brushing them regularly
- Providing them with cool, fresh greens
The outdoors come with predators, parasites, and temperatures that can be harmful to your rabbit’s health. But most importantly, Rabbits are amazing and social pets. If you take the time to include them in your family, you will have an adorable and loving companion.
- Becker, Karen PhD. “Rabbits Kept Indoors Could Be Vitamin D Deficient.” Healthy Pets, June, 2014. https://healthypets.mercola.com/sites/healthypets/archive/2014/06/20/vitamin-d-deficiency-rabbits.aspx.
- G.G. Mateos, P.G. Rebollar and C. de Blas. “Minerals, Vitamins, and Additives.” Nutrition of the Rabbit 2nd ed. 2010. Page 141, Accessed: http://wabbitwiki.com/images/7/7d/Nutrition.of.the.Rabbit.2ed-deBlas.Wiseman.pdf.
- Harcourt-Brown, Francis BVSc FRCVS. “Calcium and Rabbit Food.” Francic Harcourt-Brown, https://www.harcourt-brown.co.uk/articles/free-food-for-rabbits/calcium-and-rabbit-food.
- Hess, Laurie DVM. “Should My Pet Rabbit Spend Time Outdoors?” Vetstreet. June, 2015, http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/should-my-pet-rabbit-spend-time-outdoors.
- Jessica A. Emerson, DVM; Julia K. Whittington, DVM; Matthew C. Allender, DVM, PhD; Mark A. Mitchell, DVM, PhD. “Effects of Ultraviolet Radiation Produced From Artificial Lights on Serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D Concentration in Captive Domestic Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculi).” American Journal of Veterinary Research. April 2014. https://avmajournals.avma.org/doi/abs/10.2460/ajvr.75.4.380.
- Mark A. Mitchell DVM, MS, PhD, DECZM. “Shining Some (UV) Light on Rabbit Husbandry.” College of Veterinary Medicine. University of Illinois. September 2014, https://vetmed.illinois.edu/shining-uv-light-rabbit-husbandry.
- Praag, Esther vaan. “Vitamin D Deficiency in Rabbits.” Medirabbit.com. September 2014, http://www.medirabbit.com/Safe_medication/Vitamins/VitD_results_en.pdf.