Keeping rabbits cool in summer can be daunting. This has been the hottest week of the year in the UK, and with temperatures pretty much soaring worldwide in the Northern Hemisphere (sorry, Oz), it’s important to keep bunnies safe from sun and heatstroke too!
We all know that dogs die in hot cars, but rabbits regularly die in hot hutches as well, especially young rabbits (less than a year old). Lack of ventilation, hutches placed in direct sunlight, and the ammonia from a hutch that hasn’t been cleaned in a while all take their toll on rabbits. I’m not being OTT here, these are all things I’ve learned from having tons of buns for years. Here’s how to keep bunnies cool and safe and happy and snuggled in all this hot weather we’ve been having:
Don’t: Leave rabbits in a hutch on hot days. They need to be able to move around and find shade (or a cool breeze) and additionally, they panic if they feel trapped, which will only make them hotter.
Assume their water bottles are sufficient. Rabbits have been not drowning in puddles for thousands of years, and a bowl of water that they can put their face in to cool down will really help them out. Be aware that they might knock it over, and refill as needed.
Put sunblock or other human sun protection products on rabbits: It sounds good in theory, but please never do this. Rabbits will lick it off and ingest it, and sunscreen’s not good for them, and it won’t reach their skin in any case.
Leave hutches in direct sunlight. Even when the rabbits aren’t in them, they will get hot and cause the ammonia from their urine to degrade. This can cause a potentially toxic vapour that can suffocate rabbits when you put them to bed.
Forget to clean the hutches out at least once a week in summer. The temperature and the amount of insects around means that it’s easy for a hutch to acquire maggots, which will lead to bunny fly strike, a deadly disease.
Ignore warning signs: If your bunny is visibly too hot, not really moving much, breathing heavily, and clearly uncomfortable, you need to take action (see how below).
Never, ever, ever touch a nest with newborns (younger than 8 weeks) baby rabbit kittens in it: Even to move them somewhere cooler. If the mother smells the babies have been interfered with by anyone who isn’t herself, she will reject them and they will die (yes, you can try to hand rear them, no, it often doesn’t work). The mother will move them if she thinks they’ll have a better chance of survival, and she comes from a long line of rabbits who didn’t fail to care for their young (or she wouldn’t be alive herself), trust her to know what’s best for her babies, unless she’s got brain damage. Rabbits have very good mothering instincts that are better than those of most human mothers. Additionally, if you go near the nest while she’s around, she will attack you very viciously. Put an ice block or a frozen bottle of water next to the nest, but not in it, and let the mother move it herself. The only exception to this is if one of the babies needs a vet.
Do: Get them a good sized enclosed rabbit run and put them out all day in hot weather (check they can’t dig out, or make sure your garden fence/wall will stop escapes if they do, if you’re at work all day). Leave the run in the shade and remember the shade changes direction as the sun changes position in the sky. An old doormat or cardboard box over one corner of the run will provide shade. Don’t forget to give them water in the rabbit run!
Freeze some ice blocks for them and put these in the rabbit run so they have something cold to lie next to if they need it.
You could also put bricks in the freezer (if you remember from my article on keeping bunnies warm I mentioned putting a brick in the oven then put it in the rabbit hutch at night) and put these out in the hutch to cool the air in the hutch.
Get them a water bowl as well as their bottle (or a second water bowl) so that they always have some water, and check it every few hours if it’s a really hot day. Water is the most important thing for keeping bunnies alive in hot weather. If you do nothing else from my article, do this.
Keep topping their water up. Water water water water water. That’s what rabbits need in hot weather.
If bunny gets too hot: Emergency bunny first aid for heatstroke: If your bunny is visibly uncomfortable from the heat, get a jug or bucket of water and get the bunny wet. Avoid the face and ears, you just want to get their body wet to increase heat loss. If the bunny doesn’t jump up and try to run away (they really don’t like getting wet), check the temperature of their ears.
If the bunny’s ears are hot and the bunny is not moving much, breathing heavily (or not breathing), and generally unresponsive, they probably have heat stroke. It is preceded by heat exhaustion, which stops them raising the alarm about their state (this is true of humans too, although in people, the face tends to go red and they can even stop sweating). This is more deadly to small animals than it is to humans (and it’s pretty dangerous to humans). At this point, you need to make an emergency appointment with the vet and get your bunny the care he needs to survive.
Personally, I wouldn’t waste any time, and I’d get a sick bunny to the vet (any vet) as soon as possible because they are stuck with a fur coat and feel the temperature a lot more than we do, they don’t have a very good cooling system and they’re not designed to be above ground trapped in a hot environment in summer weather, usually they’d be in their underground burrow at this time of day in the summer, chilling out with their friends. We have, over centuries, forced them to live in our environment for our own entertainment, the least we can do is try to make it comfortable for them.
So I’ve been reading some other rabbit sites recently, mostly trying to find out whether there’s a law in the US governing hutch size, which is the topic of a separate article. What I have noticed is there is a definite hole in the bunny-site market for a good quality, well thought out article on toymaking.
Some people will be thinking to themselves “why does a rabbit need a toy?” You, my friend, need to read this article. Other people are looking for inspiration, which you will find here in buckets.
Rabbits need toys for several reasons. Primarily, rabbits have higher intelligence than many people think they have. If you compare the skull size of the average rabbit with that of a cat, you’ll notice they’re a similar size. Rabbits, in fact, have bigger brains than most kittens. Would you put a kitten in a box full of sawdust with no toys? I sincerely hope not. Rabbits need just as many stimuli and growth opportunities as larger pets. They need puzzles to solve, projects to work on, variety of environment and shared experience. What does this look like to the average rabbit owner? Toys, and someone to play with (that’s you).
Puzzles to solve:
Bunnies like thinking with their teeth. This means puzzles, such as:
1. A box with a hole that’s not quite big enough for them to run through quickly (get a box, seal off the top and bottom with duct tape, cut a hole in the front and another in the back that’s just the same width as bunny in hop mode – that’s about 30% narrower than his sitting down width. Bunny will chew the hole bigger). They can then solve this puzzle with their teeth.
2. A box that doesn’t quite sit in the natural environment is a puzzle they can drag around the room until it’s solved (get some shapes and sizes of boxes and just randomly scatter them in a corner. Bunny will either fall upon them and start rearranging, or occasionally nibble them, it’s a bit hit and miss).
3. A treat on a high platform is a puzzle they can solve by exploration and discovery (make it visible, accessible, but make it require some thought to get to, e.g. put it on a table with a dining chair in front of it).
4. A slinky with the base attached to something solid is a puzzle they might never solve (but you get hours of fun watching them try).
5. A tunnel with only one entrance and exit is a puzzle they can solve by chewing extra holes in the side to add multiple escape routes (get a long thin cardboard box, cut a hole at either end to make a tunnel, put it against a wall or piece of solid furniture; it sometimes takes time but eventually bunny will probably chew the entire wall-facing side out of the tunnel. We’ve seen this three times with three different rabbits and tunnels).
Rabbits just love puzzles, once they get the idea that they can interact with them. Puzzles are often incorporated into other toys, as a secondary purpose, as you can see with many of the examples above.
Projects to work on:
Bunnies like projects – these are things they can work on over a longer period, having a nibble, then doing something else, coming back to it later that day, week or month. Pragmatic rabbits love projects like these:
1. A hay box with an overhanging edge of cardboard (get a box, fill with hay, make an entrance for rabbit if the top is too high. Avon delivery boxes are really good; paper ream boxes are a little too small). Remember to empty the hay every once in a while because bunnies often poo in hay.
2. A box filled with smaller cardboard boxes. Rabbits seem to prefer three dimensional cardboard to chew, although occasionally they will chew flat card. Banacek loves chewing labels from new clothes, and has been known on several occasions to chew around them in such a way as to turn the words on the labels into cryptic messages, such as “happy” “magical u” (was magical unicorn) “cheer” (was cheerios) and “millionaire” (was Millionaire’s shortbread). I think it happens because he goes with patterns that he finds pleasing in terms of light/dark balance (words, to those who can’t read, are after all just shapes), and I think these are projects he likes to work on, for example, magical unicorn was “magical uni” for quite a while before he eventually finished it. He also once chewed us a perfect triangle out of a square. I measured 60 degrees at each corner with a protractor. Rabbits are way clever.
3. A large chunk of wood; make sure it’s clean and not infested with slug eggs or something equally horrible, then place it near a rabbit. If it’s tasty wood, they’ll be all over it in seconds (this extends to pieces of furniture so watch out for that antique pine cabinet your grammy left you) and it will take weeks or months to devour. Check which woods are safe for bunnies, and be sure which species of tree the wood chunk came from, to ensure you don’t accidentally poison your bunny with something deadly such as yew sap.
4. A wicker basket. This is a project any bunny would love, especially if there’s bits of wicker ends sticking out visibly. Make sure it’s not treated with anything that makes it taste bad – we got one from a charity shop that’s the only wicker basket our rabbits have ever not pounced on – a year later it’s still virtually pristine, we can only conclude it’s not very tasty. Usually, though, rabbits plus wicker = om nom nom.
5. A dig box made of packing materials. You know the masses of brown paper that Amazon insists on sending you every time you order something small that arrives in a large box? Take out the something small, and the delivery note, then give the box and the brown paper to the rabbits. They also love tissue type paper that comes as gift wrap. Avoid metallic colours or anything glittery or plastic backed – a sick bunny is a sad bunny.
Variety of environment:
I would love every bunny to have all the environments described here, but I know most will get one or two. It’s still worth knowing what’s there, in case you get an opportunity to treat your bunny to a new place:
1. The garden: This is far and away the absolute best rabbit environment for indoor or outdoor bunnies. Once they’re satisfied that it won’t try to kill them, they all love the garden. There’s so much to do out there, and you can make the garden environment even more fun with a few quick hacks. Put rabbit runs in grassy areas, away from any plants that might be toxic. Add a paving slab or two for the discerning sunbathing rabbit, or in case it rains so they can avoid the mud if they want to. Don’t forget to buy a second water bottle to attach to the run (or bowl to put in there) in case they get thirsty. Add a couple of sticks for nibbles, and a small area that’s sheltered from hot sun or cold rain, and it’s a perfect, compact outdoor play space that’ll all fit inside a standard run. But why stop there? There’s so many other things you can do with a rabbit garden over time that I’ll discuss them in a separate article closer to spring.
2. Carpeted flooring: Bunnies interact completely differently on carpeted flooring to any other environment. They love to lie out on it and sleep. I think they find it more comfortable than solid surfaces, although come summer, they tend to sleep on the metal bit in the doorways or on the tiles around the (utterly disused) hearth, or wooden platforms in their hutch, I think they’re regulating temperature by doing this. Carpet is the indoor rabbit’s racetrack of choice, because it offers the best friction without being uncomfortable on little paws, and they love running fast around the carpeted parts of the house. Do be careful with transitioning a rabbit from living predominantly outdoors to indoors – some of them don’t understand the difference between carpet and grass, and will dig and chew the floor. Training them out of this is part of acclimatizing them to indoor living, along with letting them gently adjust to the temperature.
3. Tiles: Bunnies love tiles when it’s hot. The cool ambient temperature of ceramic tiles are their preferred sleeping spot on hot days. If you’ve got no tiled areas in your house or in their hutch, consider laying a two foot square of tiles on some plywood or cardboard for bunnies to cool down. They’re also easy clean.
4. Platforms: Bunnies love to climb. Give them things to safely climb on and make it worthwhile for them to reach the summit. No-one wants to climb Mount Coffeetable if it’s got nothing on it except a dangerously slidy surface. Mount Cardboard Box is good as long as the top is sturdy enough to take rabbit’s weight – over time, they can start to get a bit crushed from over-use. McFries boxes from McDonald’s make excellent bunny platforms to enable them to reach higher places. If you plan platforms that bunnies ARE allowed to play on, they’re less likely to make the effort to get onto high places where there’s nothing interesting, and where you don’t want them to go.
5. Laminate flooring: It’s not most rabbits’ idea of a good time, they struggle to get a friction coefficient so their paws slide all over the place. But it can provide a good exercise and also teach them that there are many different surfaces in the world so they know how to carefully navigate slippery surfaces – possibly a good idea before they break a rib slipping on an icy puddle in winter. I wouldn’t make this their usual environment, or at least put them some rugs or lino down so they can move comfortably, but it’s an educational environment for the inquisitive rabbit.
Bunnies are social creatures. In one study, female rabbits chose companionship over food or territory. They need interaction with others. Here’s some thoughts on firing their imagination with friends:
1. You’re their best friend. As a bunny owner, you are the best friend and companion they will ever have. You talk to them, take them places, feed them when they’re hungry, stroke them when they’re not moving, play with them by holding boxes so they can give them a good chew, fill up the hay when it gets low (don’t leave it until empty, they rarely polish it off due to a natural urge known as preservation of resources), play chase with them when they want to practise their moves, and provide mountain rescue for them when they’ve got themselves stuck on top of a bookcase or shelf. Take time to play with bunny, give them all the input and attention (and healthy boundaries) you would lavish on a child, and they will reward you by being your most loyal supporter.
2. Get them a girlfriend or boyfriend. This needs proper thought, don’t just bung two rabbits in a hutch and leave. Rabbits are picky, like humans are, and won’t just bond with any old rabbit. They need to be introduced carefully in a way that doesn’t threaten either rabbit or their status or territory. For this reason, a neutered male and female often make the best pairings. Take it slow. Read up on it, the Houserabbit Society of America has the absolute best articles on introducing rabbits, and I don’t want to try and explain something that’s already been discussed very well by other people, because reinventing the wheel is not working smarter (although I intend to discuss how I bonded my own rabbits in a separate article, but mine seem to have all been the exceptions). Check the Houserabbit Society out.
3. Get them a different animal companion: People have had success pairing rabbits with small cats, guinea pigs, tortoises and even dogs (give them separate living quarters in every case). There is a huge huge huge (I can’t convey how huge this is) welfare issue if you shove two different species who have never met into a hutch together and lock the door, never to think about either animal again. Aside from that, I can’t see how you would manage mealtimes if the animals were housed together. Keep your cat in a cat place, your dog in a dog place, your bunny in a bunny place and your guinea pig in a guinea pig place, and let them have contact during supervised, managed playtimes. This is apparently a good option if you’ve got a rabbit who doesn’t get along with other rabbits – cats and rabbits have had good pairings. The main point is to do your research, gradually introduce the animals, be ready to separate them at the slightest, and make sure they’ve got their own places to go. Never, ever leave a rabbit unsupervised with a non-rabbit – there have been plenty of stories of rabbits and guinea pigs being left in hutches together and it always ends with dead guinea pigs. I could forsee this happening with the rabbit ending up seriously hurt if you left it alone with a dog, and with the cat, it could go either way depending on the temperament of the cat and the rabbit. Rabbits don’t often have the ability to make very loud noises to alert you to distress, so need housing separately to other pets. Train the dog or cat, make sure they’re tolerant, and make sure if you’ve got a cat or dog in the house that the rabbit gets regular vaccinations/boosters because the cat/dog could bring home RHV or Myxomatosis by contact with wild rabbits whilst walking or roaming.
4. Cuddly toys: If you can only have one rabbit, and don’t have as much time as you’d like (24/7 please) to adore your bunny and spend time with him, put some soft toys in their living space and around their hangouts. Banacek was an only rabbit for 18 months before we could get him a friend, and during that time he’s been given about four different cuddly toys, which he still looks after now. Sometimes we’ll see him positioning Squeakytoy (a 50p soft bodied dog toy) at the water bowl to drink. Sometimes he’s washing White Rabbit’s ears so they stay clean. Other times, he’s gone to sleep snuggled up to Brown Bunny. A little tinkle alerts us to the times he’s grooming Cat Ball (a baby toy) or Baby Bunny (another baby toy – Mothercare wanted us to know they’d replace it if it became damaged, then retracted this when we informed them it was for a rabbit). Check soft toys for safety when you buy them (this is why baby toys are the gold standard as far as I’m concerned, plus they’re usually more stimulating in the ways which rabbits are able to interact with toys) – button eyes, bits of edible plastic, etc are dealbreakers – and check them regularly for damage and remove/repair accordingly so they don’t ingest stuffing.
There are plenty of other ways you can make a fun and stimulating environment for your rabbit, to help avoid Bunny Brain Death: You’ve seen those rabbits in hutches that just sit there, not moving, not doing anything? Sometimes they gently rock back and forth for hours. I call it Bunny Brain Death, and I firmly believe it’s one of the reasons “outdoor” rabbits have traditionally had shorter lifespans than houserabbits.
Sebastian and Neville, our 100% outdoor rabbits, are kept well stocked with toys and interesting environments both in their hutch, shed and run (all of which they have 24/7 access to), and they are curious, interested rabbits who never just sit there. To summarize, make life interesting for your rabbit, and your rabbit will be interesting. Make your rabbit bored, and they will be boring. Unlike certain other “small” pets (c’mon, some rabbits are dog sized), they’re not stupid enough to repeat futile activities endlessly to amuse you.