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When winter approaches, you will need to make a few changes to the way you take care of your pet rabbits in order to enable them to weather the colder months comfortably and safely. In the wild, rabbits live in warrens underground, which protect them from the coldest weather and the elements- domesticated rabbits kept in hutches will need you to provide for them so that they don't get too cold or suffer because of the changing of the seasons.
Rabbits can manage the colder temperatures of the winter months safely and comfortably, as long as they have a warm, snug home to protect them from the elements. You may already keep your rabbits' hutch in a shed, garage or outbuilding year round, but if you do not, it is worth considering if you can do this over the winter months in order to make caring for them in the cold a little easier. Remember if you are planning to keep the hutch in a garage, that you should not use the same one that you park your car in as rabbits are extremely sensitive to the carbon monoxide and other toxins present in exhaust smoke. These hints and tips on winterising the hutch are especially important if your rabbits will remain outside and exposed to the elements during the winter, but are also relevant when the hutch is kept inside as well.
While the hutch should be free of draughts and poorly fitting joints at all times, you will need to pay special attention to the doors and mesh areas in order to make sure that the hutch is sufficiently insulated and comfortable for your rabbits as the temperatures plummet. You can buy a specially made hutch cover to protect your rabbits' home from the elements, or make your own DIY version using plastic covers, tarpaulin or old carpets covered in a weatherproof outer layer. Remember that fresh air and good circulation are important to your rabbit, so you will need to design the cover in order to provide protection from the cold and harsh winds while still ensuring that your rabbits are getting enough air. Try and make sure that the hutch is placed in a sheltered area if possible, out of the way of wind and driving rain. You may also want to consider insulating the floor of the rabbits' sleeping box area with thick newspaper which is changed regularly, and extra straw for them to snuggle up in. During the coldest weather, you may need to provide a couple of pet safe heated sleep pads, which you heat in the microwave each night before placing them in the hutch. Do not use any mains powered heating pads or hot water bottles, as your rabbits may chew the wires or rubber casings.
Remember that if your rabbits' water bottle freezes they will not be able to drink, so check their water bottle several times a day to make sure that it is not frozen or too cold. Remember that even if the water in the bottle appears unfrozen, the metal spout may have iced up, and so check this carefully to avoid potential problems. Rabbits need to consume more food in winter than during the warmer months, in order to maintain their body temperature and condition. You will need to allow for this when allocating their daily meals of food and hay.
Your rabbits will still need to stretch their legs and run about during the colder months, so try to allow for this during the warmer times of the day rather than early mornings and evenings. You may also want to consider if it is at all possible, allowing your rabbits to use a room of your home or other indoor area for exercising when the weather is really cold. Rabbits take to house training very well, and so this should not pose a problem once a routine is established. During the lead up to winter, rabbits shed their light summer coats and grow a thicker winter coat to protect them from the elements. This provides vital insulation for rabbits kept outside year round, so be aware of the temperature of any indoor rooms which you take your rabbits into, as they may get too warm indoors if the heating is on. Also, rabbits that spend a lot of time indoors will not develop or keep the thicker coat they need for winter, and too much time spent inside can cause your rabbit to be unprepared for the vagaries of the elements outdoors and within an outside hutch. Try to avoid moving your rabbit between rooms or areas with large temperature variations in order to keep them comfortable and healthy.
Remember that rabbits do not hibernate in cold weather. If your rabbits appear to be listless, sleepy or limp, this is a sign of ill health and will require veterinary attention- it is not a normal side effect of the colder weather which can be ignored.
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