Winter Accommodation for Rabbits
If your rabbits live outside then it's important to prepare their accommodation for winter. Rabbits cope well in moderately cold temperatures as long as they have a warm dry area to shelter. Wild rabbits' warrens are insulated as they are underground which prevents them dropping below freezing. As a hutch is above ground you need to takes steps to ensure it provides enough protection to your rabbit to keep their bed area above the freezing outside temperatures.
Rabbit Hutch Repairs
A hutch can only provide protection if it's in good repair, so, if you haven't already, now is the time to make any repairs to your rabbit's home and make sure it's water tight. Start by checking the inside of your hutch for signs of water stains or damp that may indicate water is getting in. Signs of damp near the top of the hutch may indicate a problem with the roof or walls where as damp near the bottom may be an indication of water rising through the base of the hutch.
If the roof has minor damage or leaks you may be able to repair it with roof sealant (available from DIY stores). If the roof is in poor condition then it may need completely replacing. Most hutch roofs are made from marine plywood covered in roofing felt. Roofs with a slight slope, to prevent sitting water, will have a longer lifespan than flat roofs.
The side walls of rabbit hutches also need to be weather proofed. The protective coating will wear and needs to be reapplied every few years - more if necessary. This will stop the damp entering the hutch and also protect the wood from rotting. To renew the stain/paint/varnish, give it a good brush with a stiff brush to remove and dirt and lose paint, sand it lightly, rebrush to remove any dust and then repaint. If you are painting over the same colour you won't generally need as many coats as starting from scratch. Most water-based wood preservatives are pet safe, for a list click here.
Rising damp is also an issue for rabbit hutches. Hutches should be raised off the floor to prevent the base becoming damp and rotting. If your hutch doesn't have legs fitted then placing a brick at each corner will raise it enough to allow air to circulate and reduce damp. If you're in an area that is at risk of flooding, you will need to ensure the accommodation is sufficiently high of the ground not to cause a risk to your rabbits. If you aren't confident with building a DIY stand, use a second hand table to raise the hutch.
Keeping Warm & Dry
A well built hutch in good repair is a good start to keeping your rabbit warm over winter but there are a few extra steps you can take to insulate it further.
Large mesh doors can be partially covered with clear Perspex or plastic, allowing your rabbit to see out and the sun to come in but preventing wind and rain from enter. Look for panels designed for greenhouses. Ventilation is still important though, so leave a gap of several inches for this. Turning the hutch so the front faces away from the wind will also help reduce wind and rain through the mesh areas. If it's not possible to turn the rabbit hutch around then put something just in front to block direct wind and rain.
Insulating the Hutch
Covering the whole hutch with an old blanket/carpet and then a tarpaulin will help keep the heat in and the weather out. During the day leave the front open for ventilation and at night cover the majority of the hutch leaving a smaller area for ventilation. You can also purchase hutch covers that offer a smarter looking alternative or make a DIY cover for about £15.
Moving the hutch into a shed or garage is another way to help keep it warm. However, do not put it in a garage that you also use for your car as the fumes pose a health hazard. If your rabbits live in a shed or playhouse all the time, rather than a hutch, you can add insulation to the walls to help keeping it warm: insulating a shed.
Rabbits need a warm snug bed area. This should be the equivalent of a box with an entrance hole. Often hutches have a bed area divided from the main hutch. If a sleeping section isn't available or it's very large, then provide a smaller box as well. A smaller area will warm up around your bunnies and keep them snug. Newspaper can be used to line the floors/walls underneath the bedding, see insulating a rabbit hutch. Also provide extra bedding and a thick layer of litter for the floor. Staw is a better insulator than hay, so add it to the bed area over winter for extra warmth, it's fine if your rabbit nibbles some but they'll still need hay for eating.
If your rabbits live in a shed then you can use a greenhouse heater to help keep the temperature above freezing. In a hutch, a snugglesafe microwavable heat pad (about £15) is a good option (don't use a hot water bottle as your rabbit may chew it).
Rabbits still need daily exercise in the winter. It is fine to allow your rabbit access to an exercise run as long as they have the option to retreat to a warm sheltered area if they choose. The ideal option is linking your hutch and run so your rabbit can move between them freely. If your hutch and run are not attached then you need to place a shelter in the run such as a small hutch or wooden box - there are some examples of shelters here.
You can offer some protection by covering the run roof in plastic e.g. a tarpaulin or corrugated roofing plastic or part covering some panels with plywood.
Food & Water
Left: Trixie Therm'o'Drink
Bottle Cover (£3.75 via Ebay)
Right: Scratch 'n Newton
Bottle Snug (£8 via Amazon)
Outdoor rabbits may need more food during the winter months; they use more energy heating themselves so need to take in more energy through their food. The best way to manage this is to monitor your rabbits weight, to see if they are maintaining a healthy body weight.
Stopping Water Bottles Freezing
Water bottles/bowls will freeze and need checking regularly. Even if the main bottle is unfrozen, it's important to check the spout as this can freeze solid and block. Insulating the bottle can help, you can buy covers specifically for this (see right), or DIY your own by wrapping the bottle up with bubble wrap and an old sock or using insulators designed for wine bottles.
Moving the bottle to a warmer area of the set up may help too, for example mounting it inside the hutch rather than outside on the front mesh.
If you use bottles then it's helpful to have a spare bottle(s) so you can leave one inside whilst the ice defrosts and use the spare, it's much easier that trying to chop the ice out. The plastic bottles tend to become brittle in the cold and are more likely to crack or shatter, so it's handy to have a back up too.
Stopping Water Bowls Freezing
Bottles tend to be slower to freeze than a bottle but if it's cold you may still need to take action to stop it freezing over. At milder temperatures adding a ping pong ball to the water may disturb the surface enough to stop it freezing over. If your rabbits are on soil, you could try sinking the bowl so the top is level with the ground so that the soil provides insulaton. Otherwise you maybe need to heat the bowl. There are two options for this:
Heated Water Bowl
from US $29 Amazon (about £25)
Snuggle Safe Heatpad
Rabbits don't hibernate, if your rabbit becomes limp or sleepy its ill not hibernating for the winter, take it to the vet.