Most rabbits live either outdoors or in rabbitries that are not heated or air-conditioned.
Therefore, it is important to understand the effects of weather on a rabbit’s needs and comfort and how to best manage them to mitigate these effects.
Rabbits and cold weather
Let’s start with winter. Thanks to their fur and other methods of adaptation, rabbits have a thermoneutral zone (that temperature range at which they can comfortably maintain core temperature without an increase in energy expenditure) that goes to considerably lower temperatures than ours. When we are cold and reaching for a warm coat, they are perfectly comfortable. Rabbits and cold weather are an excellent match. However, rugged winter weather will increase energy expenditure and have an impact on growth, weight maintenance and productivity if feeding rates are not adjusted accordingly.
It is important to understand that outdoor rabbits will eat more — sometimes a LOT more — during winter months in order to stay warm. Do not assume that the rabbit who does fine on five ounces of feed in the summer will continue to need only five ounces in the winter. Feel your rabbits often to make sure they are not losing weight, and observe them for evidence of being cold. Make sure that while your rabbit has adequate ventilation, it is not exposed to drafts. Rabbits should have a “house” they can go into, and if you have wire flooring in the cage, it is advisable to set a small plank or other solid item for the rabbit to sit on to avoid the cold wind coming up under its belly. With these environmental adjustments and plenty of food, your rabbit will sail through the winter with flying colors.
Rabbits and hot weather
What about summer months? Heat and humidity can be very hard on rabbits. Rabbits are unable to sweat; they can only dissipate heat by panting, but they aren’t very efficient at it, so they can easily become overheated. Rabbits will often reduce feed intake during the hot summer months to reduce the heat produced by the metabolism of food. This can negatively impact growth, weight maintenance and lactation.
You can help your rabbit survive the summer by being sure it is always in the shade and has plenty of air movement around it. You may even use a small fan to keep air moving on a single rabbit, or large fans at either end of a rabbitry. Provide plenty of cool, fresh water, and refresh it often. In extreme heat, rabbits enjoy a sealed plastic bag full of ice placed in their pen. They will lie against it or even on it to help keep their body temperature down. Switching gradually to a more nutrient-dense feed at the beginning of summer can help to maintain production (weight gain or lactation) when rabbits reduce intake due to heat.
A little extra vigilance on your part with the changing seasons will keep your rabbit comfortable and healthy, no matter the time of year.