As you probably know, our bunnies live indoors all year round. While they do enjoy being outside and grazing on grass, clover, and dandelions, they are indoor rabbits through and through. However, there are rabbits that are much happier outdoors where they can chew tree bark or dig holes into the ground. We actually fostered a rabbit a long time ago that was terrified inside, but completely at ease in the yard.
Of course, even outdoor rabbits need more than a tiny hutch. To prevent boredom and depression, they need a large play area with a variety of “furniture” to hop on, run though, and hide in. Since they are somewhat separated from the family life inside, it’s essential that outdoor rabbits are not kept alone. Also, the enclosure has to protect them from predators and keep them from escaping into the wild. Even outdoor bunnies are not equipped to survive in the “real world”, after all.
We are working on an article with outdoor housing ideas, but for now let’s talk about the cold. In general, rabbits are better equipped to deal with the cold than the extreme summer heat. When we humans think it’s unbearably cold, the bunnies are often most comfortable. That being said, rabbits that are pregnant, old, and/or sick should not be left outside over the winter months. Also, not ever rabbit breed grows a sufficient amount of winter fur. Lionheads and other dwarf rabbits, for example, need to come indoors when the temperatures get below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, or live in a very well insulated and possibly heated large house.
Keep in mind that the body requires more energy to stay warm on cold days, so rabbits need more calories to keep up their weight in the winter. Any changes in diet need to happen slowly. Offer one new item at a time and slowly increase the amount. It’s a good idea to start around early fall to be ready for winter. Root vegetables such as parsley root, dandelion root, carrot, parsnip, and rutabaga make great additional options to the regular diet. A small amount of pellets or a small increase in pellets might also be beneficial. Consult your vet for more details.
It is also absolutely essential that the rabbits have already spent the entire fall outdoors before attempting to leave them outside in the winter. The reason for this is the winter fur. Without the exposure to the changes of the seasons, rabbits will not have enough winter fur to make it through the colder season outside.
Now that we have the basic requirements out of the way (2+ healthy rabbits with adequate winter fur), here are a few tips for outdoor living in the winter months:
- Offer at least one house within the enclosure. Rabbits usually prefer that house to be on the floor and have at least 2 exits and they might not take advantage of the house if that’s not the case. It should also be wind-proof on at least 2 sides and can be insolated with tarps or heavy blankets. The floor should be thickly covered with soft bedding plus hay and straw.
- Rabbits should always have access to unlimited amounts of hay, but you can also offer straw inside the house. Add a nice pile of loose hay and straw and let the rabbits dig their own cozy nest out of the material. You can also pile up several bales of straw if you have the room inside the house and create a cozy wall.
- Make sure that the rabbits always have a source of water. Hot water freezes faster than cold water – instead of filling bottles and bowls with hot water, try adding a small plastic ball. It moves and therefore prevents the water from turning to ice. Also, water offered in a stone bowl and placed on a slightly raised surface inside the house is less likely to freeze. Some manufacturers of water bottles offer thermo-covers that work to an extent. Don’t rely on them, though. The tips of water bottles can freeze, causing injuries to the rabbit’s tongue, so they should be avoided or used inside the house only. It’s best to have more than one source of water and check on each twice a day.
- Aside from the house, the rabbits need access to a larger area as well. Exercise helps keep the body warm and having an interesting enclosure full of tunnels, raised platforms, and different textures helps encourage exercise and keep the rabbits happy and healthy.
- Keep items made from metal out of the enclosure if possible. They get incredibly cold and can cause frostbite.
- Avoid trips into the house in the winter. Bunnies can handle the cold, but they can’t handle extreme and sudden changes in temperature. A cold basement might be the exception to that.
- Make sure that the hay and straw stay dry. Letting the bunnies play in the snow is fine, but they need to be able to go back to a dry place when they are done.
- If you have electricity in the enclosure, you can add a heat lamp (for reptiles) somewhere inside the house (protect the cables). Heating pads such as the Snuggle Safe or the Furimals Mat (you can find both on amazon) offer another safe way to keep the body temperature up. Placing the water bowl on top of a heating pad also reduces the risk of the water freezing.
- Don’t let your rabbits eat frozen vegetables/herbs. They can cause serious issues.
- Get your rabbits checked by a good vet before the winter starts to make sure they are healthy and to discuss changes in diet. Do a health check up on your rabbits at least daily over the winter. If a rabbit is inactive and doesn’t eat, you know it’s an emergency!
With a little preparation, rabbits can enjoy living outside even when it’s cold. Hope this helps and if you have any other tips or tricks, we’d love to hear about them in the comments!