Rabbits are fairly hardy animals, but heat can cause them stress – pet rabbits, especially those who live outside, are reliant on their owners to provide conditions where they can be safe and comfortable. It is essential that rabbits are shaded from direct sunlight and have plenty of ventilation. With proper care you can ensure that your rabbit will be cool and comfortable during the summer.
by Richard Saunders BSc(Hons) BVSc MSB CBiol DZooMed (Mammalian) MRCVS
Even though rabbits originate from much hotter parts the world, they are crepuscular, which means that they are most active at dawn and dusk. In the wild, they would be able to hide from the more intense heat in underground burrows where the temperature varies by only a few degrees.
Go and look at where your rabbits are and when the sun hits them, is it at the hottest part of the day? Can you move them in toa shadier part of the garden? If not, can you provide shade with some plant cover? Plant a tree, but while you wait for it to grow and bush out, also plant something that is going to provide cover quickly, for example a Montana Reubens. Ensure your rabbits can’t get to it and eat it though.
You can buy purpose-made covers from pet shops and online, which are a good addition. A tarpaulin might not look as nice, but itwould still do the same job.
Garden sheds can be fairly inexpensive – sometimes you might be able to get one from your local Freecycle or Freegle group, if you do get anything second hand make sure you clean it properly, as there is a risk of disease spread, particularly RVHD2. Sheds provide an extra insulation against the sun, with the extra bonus of being somewhere to store rabbit possessions, winter insulation, somewhere you can sit with the rabbits, give them more sheltered living/exercise space and so on. Site it somewhere shady or plant some reeper/tree cover as mentioned above. Be wary though as sheds too can get very hot, so consider double-skinning it and putting insulation between the layers – cavity wall and roof insulation for rabbits. Insulation keeps heat OUT as well as IN, so whatever you do along these lines for the summer will be of benefit in the winter months too. To keep the shed cool, you will need to keep the door open, so it’s a good idea to fit a wire screen to keep it secure but still let in the fresh air.
Other things you can do include:
Fans: These can be wind or solar powered, battery driven or connected to the mains. But be sure that if they are connected to a power source, your rabbits can’t get to those wires and nip them. Rabbits have a natural instinct for snipping things that look to them like tree roots. Use some hosepipe or trunking to cover wires and keep checking it…you’d be amazed just what rabbits are able to nibble their way through. Remember too that fans only move the air around and while that makes our skin feel cooler it doesn’t reduce the temperature
of the air. So consider having the fan blowing over a frozen pop bottle and that will reduce the air temperature by a few degrees. But don’t aim a fan directly at a rabbit somewhere that it can’t get away, many of them find this very distressing.
Frozen water bottles: Fill up used plastic pop bottles with water and freeze them. Have a few so that some are re-freezing while one or two are in use. You can put one in the path of the fanned air to act as a mini-air conditioning system. Your rabbits might also like one to lie on to keep them cool. Cover them with a towel so that your rabbits don’t have to be in direct contact with them. Once frozen, these will stay cool for hours.
You can also freeze ordinary ceramic floor and wall tiles for hot buns to lie on and cool down. Some materials are naturally cool to the touch, marble for example – remember nothing’s too good for your rabbits!
Water: Obviously always supply plenty of fresh cool water, as even though they only sweat through feet and tongue, a cool drink will make rabbits feel better, and some will even find it helpful to lie in a water dish.
Rabbits can access much more fluid from a bowl than from a bottle so it’s best to provide both so they have the choice. Remember to check and refill regularly. If you do find a rabbit panting, it is in distress and should be brought immediately into a much cooler environment, but don’t dunk them in freezing water as the sudden temperature change could do untold harm and send their system into shock. Cool them as gently as you can by laying a damp towel over them to slowly reduce the temperature, and cover the carrier with a damp towel on the way to see a vet if you’re really worried, but generally just providing them with a much cooler space is best. We do not advise giving rabbits ice, or frozen vegetables as this can cause a problem for their digestive system. If this is an emergency, they need to see a vet.
A burrow: Have you somewhere they could safely tunnel underground? Could you sink wide pipes under your garden? Buns could keep lovely and cool in these, but always think about being able to get access to the rabbit – this is less advisable if your bun is already hard to catch.
MAKING THE MOST OF NATURE’S BOUNTY
Forget the cabbage and broccoli! Summer is a great time of year for foraging, and finding lots of free food for your rabbits! Dandelions, plantain, lots of different types of grasses, willow branches, hazel branches and milk thistle are all readily available and easy to recognise. There are loads of plants that are growing wild and safe to feed, look at our website for more details. Be careful where you forage, you don’t want to pick forage at the side of a busy road, or somewhere that is a busy dog walking area.
There will also be things growing in your garden that they can eat, such as rose heads, but there are also things that you can grow in your garden for them, such as nasturtiums, or grow some herbs like parsley and coriander in pots for them.