Keeping rabbits cool

Apparently, there is a heat wave coming to the UK next week. The forecasts are estimating that it will be as high as 30 degrees C… for at least a day anyway!

I’m making sure I’m prepared for the hot weather so that my rabbits, Dobby and Hazel can keep as cool and comfortable as possible.

In the wild, the underground burrows that rabbits live in stay at a fairly constant temperature, remaining cool in the summer, warm in the winter and free of draughts. However, above ground rabbits are exposed to much larger fluctuations in temperature and they can struggle to tolerate hot weather.

Rabbits cannot sweat or pant to lose weight like humans and other animals. Instead, they use their large ears to dissipate heat.

There are several ways you can keep your rabbits cool:

  1. It sounds obvious but make sure you provide plenty of shade and ensure that as the sun moves there will be shade no matter what time of day it is. I use old linen sheets or old shower curtains but parasols and boxes or hiding places inside the run would also be suitable. It’s important that you don’t restrict airflow to the run or hutch when you put up sheets for shade.
  2. Keep your rabbits well groomed. A thick coat will help them retain heat, furthermore brushing out dead hair and making sure that there are no mats in the coat helps air flow to circulate around the skin.
  3. Hutches can get very hot. Sadly, earlier this year there were reports of guinea pigs and rabbits dying in their hutches due to the heat. These hutches had their waterproof covers over them, reducing ventilation and trapping heat like a greenhouse. Move hutches into the shade and remove plastic covers to increase air flow.
  4. Water bowls. You can read how rabbits prefer to drink from bowls not bottles in my previous blog here. Water bowls have been shown to help the rabbit drink more water at a faster rate. Offer extra bowls and bottles on hot days and keep the water cool by adding ice cubes.
  5. I encourage water consumption by offering foods with a higher liquid content such as cucumber. You can also spray their veggies/greens with cool water before feeding too.20160814_120803-1
  6. Get with the science and try evaporative cooling! In humans, we keep cool as our sweat evaporates. This is because heat is used to turn water (sweat) from liquid into water vapour. You can use a cool damp cloth or plant mist sprayer (previously unused, you don’t want any chemical residue) to wet your rabbit’s ears. As the water on the ears evaporates it will help cool them down.
  7. Use an electric fan. Don’t have the fan so it’s blowing right at your rabbit but improving airflow in the general area your rabbit lives in can help keep them cool. Some people use a fan in conjunction with cold wet towels draped over the run. The idea is that the fan blows the towels and as the water evaporates from the towels it helps the air stay cool. I’ve never used this method personally but if you decide to try it, make sure any electrical cords are kept out of the way or are safe from being chewed.
  8. I do however, have two of these Scratch & Newton Ice pods. Freeze them overnight then put them in with your rabbit for them to lie on or near, to keep them cool. As an alternative you can fill 2 litre plastic bottles with water and freeze them. Wrap in an old pillow case and pop them in your rabbit run for them to lie against.
  9. Another recommendation is to freeze an old ceramic wall or floor tile for them to lie on.
  10. Be aware that overweight rabbits and those that are poorly or elderly may suffer more in the heat. Warm weather also increases the incidence of fly strike which you can read about here.
  11. My final tip is to offer a digging pit/box. Rabbits like to burrow but this is not usually practical for most owners. However, Dobby and Hazel like to lie on bare earth. They scrape away the warm top soil and lie on the cooler earth below. Providing a box or tray of soil will give them somewhere to dig, and like my rabbits they may like to lie in the cooler earth.

 

Hopefully, these tips will help you keep your rabbits nice and cool. However, below are the signs of heat stroke. If you suspect heat stroke you should contact your vet immediately. Whilst contacting the vet try to reduce the rabbit’s body temperature by wetting the ears or body in cool (not cold) water and get them into the shade. Do not submerge your rabbit in cold or freezing water as they may go into shock. An electric fan (again not pointed directly in their face) can help increase air flow to help cool the environment down.

Symptoms of heat stroke in rabbits

  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Mouth breathing (always a bad sign in rabbits)
  • Anorexia
  • Problems with coordination
  • Weakness
  • Seizures

 

References & Further Reading

Virginia Richardson (2000) Rabbits: Health, Husbandry and Diseases, : Blackwell Publishing Limited. p137

Varga, M (2014) Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, 2 edn., Elsevier. P400

House Rabbit Society: http://rabbit.org/faq-warm-weather-concerns/

Rabbit Welfare Association – It’s summer http://www.rabbitwelfare.co.uk/pdfs/Cooldudeorhotcrossbunfinalforwebsite.pdf

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