As you take a walk on a cold winter day, have you ever wondered where all the rabbits are. Do they hibernate like bears? Or maybe they migrate to warmer territory like birds do? The reality is that rabbits are hiding right under our noses. They hide in burrows and dens to get away from the snow and biting winds, only surfacing to get some exercise and forage for twigs. But what about our pet rabbits, they certainly don’t burrow underground so how can we help them get through the winter safe and sound?
Rabbits do much better with cold temperatures than with heat. However, you should keep rabbits away from cold drafts, and do not allow them to have a wet coat or damp bedding, since this can lead to hypothermia. If you live in an area that is regularly below 15ºF (-10ºC), consider bringing your rabbit indoors during the coldest months.
I believe it is best for our pet rabbits if we bring them inside and keep them as house pets all year round. But, I understand that ideas for best practices for rabbits are different in different areas of the world. I still want to make sure you have the information you need to keep your rabbit comfortable in the winter. Many of these tips will also be useful to those of you who keep rabbits indoors, but want to turn the heat off when you are not home.
Changes in rabbits in the winter
Whether they live inside or outside, all rabbits exhibit some behavioral changes in the winter months. They may not be wild anymore, but their instincts will still kick in as they make some changes to prepare for winter. That being said, these winter changes do tend to be less extreme for rabbits who are kept inside year-round.
Rabbits will shed their summer coats as they grow a nice thick winter coat as the weather starts to turn cold. For me, this has always resulted in a fur-storm around October to November from all the shedded fur. But the timing of their winter molt will depend on your geographical location and when the weather starts to turn cold where you are living.
Rabbits will usually have a larger appetite in winter months. This is especially true of rabbits that live outside, but even our indoor rabbits show a little bit of an increased appetite. This is just the instinct to eat more so that your rabbit can build up a layer of fat to help keep them warm when it gets colder. It also takes a little more energy, and more calories, to keep their little bodies heated up, so they’ll be eating more to make up for that.
Sleeping in a loaf
You may find that your rabbit is more likely to sit and sleep in a loaf position when it gets cold out, instead of sprawling out or flopping on their side. This is a way for rabbits to reduce the amount of surface area on their body that’s exposed to the cold. They retain more body heat in a loaf position.
Domestic rabbits often become more active and playful as it gets colder out. They love cool weather. So as the weather gets cooler, you might see your rabbit start zooming around and doing some binkies around the living room. They are also more likely to be active in other rabbit behaviors, such as digging and chewing. Be sure that you’ve taken the time to rabbit proof your house so they won’t get into anything they shouldn’t.
How cold is too cold?
The ideal temperature for rabbits is from about 60-70°F (15-20°C), but rabbits can be comfortable in temperatures ranging from around 40-75°F. 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.
As someone who volunteers at an animal shelter in northeast USA, I’ve seen rabbits come through who’s ears have fallen off due to frostbite since it gets pretty cold around here in the winter. This is why I highly recommend bringing rabbits indoors, especially overnight.
How to keep rabbits warm in the winter
While thick rabbit fur and their natural instincts can do a great job at keeping rabbits warm, they still aren’t made for extreme winter weather. In the wild, these rabbits would have been able to find shelter underground in their burrows, but if your rabbit is outside in winter, they won’t have that kind of protection. It’s up to you to make sure your rabbit will be okay before extreme weather hits.
Bring your rabbit inside
The best advice I can give is to bring your rabbit into your home. I really advocate for this year round because no matter the weather, there are always a lot more dangers for a rabbit outside than inside. Rabbits can also be great companion pets, like cats or dogs. Bringing them inside will have the added bonus of making them a part of your family, in addition to protecting them from the cold weather.
If you have been keeping your rabbit outside, but you’re ready to transition them indoors, there are a couple things to keep in mind.
1. Drastic temperature changes are not great for rabbits
Rabbit’s don’t do well with drastic temperature changes (a temperature difference that is greater than 20ºF). Your rabbit can get stressed out if they move from the very cold outdoors to a warm indoors. For this reason, it’s best to transition your rabbit inside during the fall months, when the outdoor temperatures are not very different from inside.
If it’s already very cold out, it’s best to transition your rabbits to a garage or covered porch first, and give them time to acclimate to a slightly warmer environment before bringing them all the way into the house. You can also turn the temperature down in the morning and then very slowly heat the house up again during the day.
2. What should the indoor temperature be?
Rabbits do best in temperatures that are around 60-70°F, so if you keep your home at the typical 68-70°F, your rabbit will do just fine. You could also consider keeping your rabbit in a room in the house that doesn’t get as much heat, since they do fine in colder temperatures too.
It’s also perfectly okay for you to turn your heat off during the day. I know many people do this to save money on the heating bill. Most homes are well insulated, and even if it gets very cold outside, the indoors will remain a comfortable temperature for your rabbit.
If you happen to live somewhere where it gets extremely cold outside, you may still want to keep the heat on while you’re gone, but even then, there is no problem with turning it down. Rabbit’s will still be comfortable with temperatures that feel quite cold to humans.
3. Bunny proof your home
If you keep your rabbit inside, you will need to rabbit proof any areas where your rabbit is allowed to explore. This is kind of like baby proofing, you need to make sure your rabbit can’t chew or dig into anything dangerous or important. Covering your wires so your rabbit can’t chew on them is the most important part. I have a full guide to help you out here.
Make the rabbit hutch winter ready
If your rabbit is staying outside, or lives in a shed or barn that’s not well insulated, you’ll have to take some precautions to make sure they are winter ready. It will be easier for you and your rabbits if you prepare for these changes before the extreme weather hits:
- Block any drafts. Wind chill can be significantly colder than the actual temperature of the air outside, so it’s important to make sure there are no cracks in the walls for the wind to get through.
- The open side of the hutch should be south facing. Colder winds come from the north, so to prevent these freezing winds from getting into the hutch, you’ll want to move it so that the front is facing south.
- Raised hutch. Raise the hutch up on legs or otherwise keep it off the ground. Frost easily forms and ground level and can creep into the rabbit’s hutch.
- Insulate the walls. Line the walls of the hutch with cardboard and thick blankets. Consider getting heavy duty insulation boards if you live in a particularly cold climate.
- Extra bedding. Line the floor and walls with newspaper and add lots of extra hay as bedding. This will serve to keep the rabbit warm and will also be healthy extra food for them to munch on, since they are spending more calories keeping their bodies warm.
- Thermal water bottle. Give your rabbit a hot water bottle or microwavable heating pad to sit against.
- Make sure their water doesn’t freeze. This is a big danger when temperatures reach below freezing. Check on your rabbit’s water and replace it multiple times a day to keep it from freezing over.
- A water bowl is better than a bottle because it is less likely to freeze. If it does freeze, your rabbit will still be able to lick the ice to get some water.
- Keep rabbits dry. Getting wet in the cold is a serious danger to rabbits. They are very likely to develop hypothermia.
- Put a waterproof tarp over the hutch to prevent any water from getting through.
- Check for leaks in both the hutch and the tarp to be extra sure no rain or snow will be able to drip through.
- Exercise. Your rabbit will still need daily exercise. You can either bring them inside to exercise or make sure to thoroughly dry them after they have had time in their run.
- Check on them multiple times a day. Check on your rabbits for any signs of health issues. Make sure they are eating, pooping and moving around.
- Clean the litter box and bedding daily. Rabbits are clean animals and it’s uncomfortable for them to live in a dirty hutch. Keeping the hutch clean is also a way to prevent infection and discourage parasites.
Watch out for health problems
Hypothermia in rabbits
If your rabbit gets too cold, they can get hypothermia. This is especially a problem if your rabbit gets wet. Rabbit fur does not dry off quickly. So if they get wet, your rabbit will be stuck with freezing wet fur for an elongated period of time.
As hypothermia takes hold, your rabbit will be unable to regulate their body temperature. They will lose heat faster than they can generate it and their temperature could drop to dangerous levels. All the necessary internal processes in the rabbit’s body will slow down, including their breathing and heart rate.
Normal rabbit body temperature is between 101-103°F. If their temperature drops below 100°F, they are at the beginning stages of hypothermia.
How to know if your rabbit is too cold
If your rabbit has hypothermia their whole body will slow down. They might seem like they are just acting grumpy. But if you ignore the signs, hypothermia can be fatal in rabbits. Symptoms to look out for include:
- Sitting without moving, or moving very slowly.
- Ears and feet that feel cold to the touch or look pale in color.
- Shallow breathing.
- Weak heartbeat.
- Non-responsive, or doesn’t move around or respond to you when you try to interact with them.
If you believe your rabbit has developed hypothermia, it’s important to contact your rabbit’s vet to set up an emergency appointment. In the meantime, you don’t want to wait before you start getting your rabbit’s body temperature back to normal. At this point you will want to start warming the rabbit up externally:
- Wrapping them in a towel.
- Bringing your rabbit to a warmer area of the house.
- Make sure your rabbit is completely dry.
- Place your rabbit on a heating pad (at the lowest setting) or next to a hot water bottle.
- Providing luke warm water for your rabbit.
Severe cold can stress a rabbit out and cause them to develop cold-like symptoms. This is a serious condition in rabbits called snuffles, and if not treated quickly it can be fatal. Snuffles is caused by bacteria that already live in the nasal passages of most rabbits, but often don’t become a problem until the rabbit gets stressed. The signs include:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Matted fur on their front paws
- Wet nose
- Difficulty breathing
- Skin sores around the eyes, nose, or mouth
- Head tilt
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of energy
If you notice these symptoms in your rabbit, treat it as an emergency and get your rabbit to the vet as soon as you can.
If rabbits are left in the cold too long without enough protection they could get frostbite. This is most likely to affect their ears because rabbits regulate their temperature through their ears, but a rabbit’s feet can also be subject to frostbite, as their body tries to keep the most important organs warm.
If a rabbits ears (or feet) start to develop frostbite, they will first turn bright red, then get very pale. If it is allowed to continue, the ears will start to turn black as the tissue starts to die. In severe cases, the rabbit’s ears will completely fall off.
Elderly rabbits should not be put out in the cold. Most of the time elderly rabbits will have a lower body fat density, making it more difficult to keep themselves warm. In addition, rabbits tend to develop arthritis as they get older. This can cause your rabbit to be in a lot of pain, especially in cold weather.
Wild Rabbits in the Winter
Wild rabbits can do very well with winter temperatures. Their thick, fluffy coats make it much easier for them to withstand the cold temperatures. Unfortunately these rabbits have to compete for food resources, and they often can’t find adequate hiding spots when they are being hunted by predators.
Do rabbits hibernate?
Neither wild or domestic rabbits hibernate in winter. When animals hibernate, they store up fat and go into a state of deep rest and hardly have to eat at all during the winter. But a rabbit’s health is dependent on their sensitive digestive system being continuously in motion. So their biology is simply not compatible with the mechanics of hibernation.
Instead, rabbits remain active throughout the winter. Wild European rabbits, the ancestors of our domestic rabbits, will dig burrows and huddle together in groups underground. They’ll come out periodically to forage for food, but will spend the majority of the winter safe from the elements in their underground homes.
American cottontail rabbits, however, rarely burrow at all. This species doesn’t do much digging at all. Instead they find dense shrubs or holes in tree bases to hide and hunker down for the winter.
What do they eat in the winter?
Rabbits don’t hide food to find later in the winter, like squirrels do. Instead they rely on twigs, bark, and roots to get them through the winter. Many rabbits will resort to raiding people’s winter gardens, especially if there is snow on the ground for a long period of time. The rabbits will do a lot of damage to shrubs and tear the bark off of trees.
Sadly, this is one of the reasons many rabbits don’t make it through winter. There’s just not enough food to go around, so the rabbits have to compete for the limited resources.
Extra dangers in the winter
Rabbits also have a more difficult time evading predators in the winter. For one, there are fewer active prey animals in winter. Many other rodents and small animals hibernate during the winter. They are hidden away and difficult to find. Instead predators will chase after rabbits, since they are active all winter long.
It’s also more difficult for rabbits to hide from predators in the winter. The shrubs and foliage are sparse and don’t provide the same kind of cover that they do in the summer months. In addition, many rabbits don’t change the color of their fur coat in winter. Their brown coat can stand out against a snowy landscape, making them more of a target.
What is too hot for rabbits?
Rabbits do not do well in temperatures above 80°F. They can very easily get heat stroke. To avoid possible problems with your rabbit, it’s best to keep them in temperatures of around 75°F or less.
What kind of indoor rabbit enclosure should you get?
My enclosure of choice is a rabbit playpen, since it’s easiest to clean. But there are many types of cages for housing your rabbit including wooden hutches and large metal cages. Here is more information on how to choose the right enclosure for your rabbit.
- “How Can I Make Sure My Rabbit Isn’t Too Cold or Too Hot?” Celia Haddon, www.catexpert.co.uk/other-animals/rabbits/how-can-i-make-sure-my-rabbit-isnt-too-cold-or-too-hot.
- “Hypothermia in rabbits – low body temperature.” VetStream, www.vetstream.co.uk/boness/html/Factsheets/Otherpets/24_295870.asp.
- “Medical Concerns.” House Rabbit Society, Jul. 10, 2011, rabbit.org/faq-medical-concerns.
- “Snuffles in Rabbits.” Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, Oct. 24, 2012, www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/snuffles-in-rabbits.