Preparing Your Rabbit For Cold Weather
As winter approaches there are a few basic needs for your rabbit that should be addressed. First and foremost are environmental concerns. A rabbit will stand the stress of cold weather much better than they handle the stress associated with extreme heat. Cold weather will invigorate your rabbit and bring out its natural playfulness. That does not mean that you can ignore your rabbits needs with winter's onset. If you live in extreme climatic areas, it is probably best to try moving your rabbit into a garage or barn. It does not need to be a heated facility. and the rabbit will actually appreciate and flourish being in an unheated area. The key function of the housing is to avoid the drafts and swirls of winter air which can leave your rabbit stressed and lead to colds, just as in humans.
If it is not possible to bring your rabbit into a structure, then some form of protection from the wind must be provided. You would want to move the rabbit cage to the South side of any building or wind break that you had available. (That is assuming that your prevailing cold winds come from the North in your area.) Plastic sheeting stapled to the sides of the cage works well in further breaking the wind from your rabbit, and has the added advantage of allowing sunlight to penetrate and assist in naturally warming your rabbit. if you use plastic sheeting or any other type of wood side covering for your cage, you must remember to run it down near to the ground to prevent drafting from below. I say "near" the ground because you must leave a space for the rabbit to get fresh air. Next to drafts, closing rabbits up too tight is the next largest mistake many breeders make during cold weather.
Rabbits must have fresh air! Closing a rabbit off too tight will lead to just as many colds and respiratory problems as leaving the rabbit out in a draft. Whatever form of building material that you use on the outside cage must leave at least one area for the circulation of fresh air to reach the rabbit. This may be in the form of running plastic to the ground on one or two sides and leaving 6 inches or so of circulation room on the other two sides, or just running the protective layer on three sides of the lower portion of the cage. Likewise, rabbits that have been moved into garages or barns must have fresh air circulation during the winter. Too often rabbits are caged in tight facilities with too high a concentration of rabbit population to allow natural ventilation to reach the rabbits. If a barn or garage is used for any quantity of rabbits, then provisions must be made to vent the old air to the outside and bring fresh air into the facility. This may be accomplished in small areas with a simple kitchen exhaust fan or box fan which is set to blow outward. Leaving a garage door or a remote barn door slightly open will allow for the inflow of necessary fresh air. A good rule of thumb is that if you walk into a rabbitry and find that the smell of ammonia is distinctly noticeable to your nose, then it is bad for your rabbit as well.
The next critical need of your rabbit for winter is water. Just as in the summer, water is necessary for the rabbit to adequately digest its feed and provide the energy for resisting the stress of colder weather. Even on freezing days, the rabbit should have fresh, ice free water to drink at least twice a day. It is especially important to insure that the animal has water at feeding time, as this is the time when the largest amount of consumption takes place. One easy solution on extreme cold days is to keep two sets of rotating crocks and take a set of frozen crocks into a heated area to thaw while you interchange with the defrosted crocks to water. Another solution is to add only lightly more water to the crock than the rabbit will drink before it freezes. You can sometimes get several days watering out of one set of crocks by this method, but at some time you are going to have to break out the built up ice and start with a fresh crock.
Feed needs to be slightly increased during the colder weather. A rabbit burns off more calories just trying to maintain its body heat during this period. Don't overfeed to the extent that you are building fat in the rabbit or you will find that breeding in the Spring will be difficult. This is a time for nature to slim down some of the internal fat in your rabbit and your feeding program should only insure that your rabbits maintains during this period of cold weather. For a mature animal, it should not be a time of fattening up, or you will have more problems during breeding season. For a young developing animal, it should be a time of sustained growth and development, without over-fattening.
In summation, provide your rabbit with an adequate supply of fresh air in an environment which is draft free. Keep fresh water and use an appropriate feeding program and you will be rewarded in Spring with a healthy and happy rabbit.
1999 National Rex Rabbit Club