Rabbits are a pretty unique homestead animal in that they actually perform and fare better throughout the cooler seasons of fall and winter than they do during the warm, humid days of spring and summer.
The main concerns with overwintering your rabbit herd will be keeping their water source thawed, keeping them out of the wind, and keeping them dry. Of those three things, keeping their water thawed is probably the most difficult, while keeping them dry is the most critical.
During the heat of the summer, we often focus on keeping water that is fresh and clean available all the time. One of the easiest and cheapest ways to do that is through a gravity fed, automatic watering system. Metal water nipples are widely available, and many folks seem to be using them quite successfully – the downside though is that the water lines and the nipples they feed will freeze even if the container of water feeding them does not.
Many of us use water bottles to keep water constantly available to our rabbits, but they too freeze so you will want to have a minimum of two bottles per rabbit so that you can switch out frozen bottles for thawed ones no less than twice a day. There are heated water bottles available, but they are fairly expensive and you have to have a suitable power source available for each bottle. Whatever kind of bottles you might have or use, they can be difficult to clean and they often begin leaking after a year or two.
Bowls are another option that work well, but they do require regular cleaning. You also have to consider that rabbits will, and usually do, play with and chew on anything they can get their teeth on. Plastic bowls are not a good choice as the plastic can lead to potentially fatal digestive issues if they swallow it. They also break easily in cold weather, and can be hard to get ice out of. Ceramic bowls solve the chewing issue, and are generally heavy enough rabbits can’t move them around too easily, but to say they are fragile in cold weather is almost an understatement.
A solution that I, and many other rabbitry owners, have found are rubber bowls (usually sold in the large animal section of farm stores as feed pans). They do tend to collect more algae and such, so I keep a cheap toilet brush in the rabbitry to scrub them out at least once a week.
While rabbits will still chew on them, they have a harder time actually chewing away any of the heavy rubber material. If they do, and I have a couple of does who have totally destroyed a bowl or two, the pieces that they chew off are soft and malleable and seem to move through the digestive system with little or no adverse effect compared to more rigid, sharp pieces of chewed or broken plastic. Rubber bowls are super easy to get the ice out of too – you just flex them a little bit and it pops right out like ice cubes, which makes refilling them super convenient and easy!
The other two main concerns, keeping your rabbits dry and out of the wind, are pretty easily addressed with something as simple as tarps or recycled feed bags. You really don’t want your cages completely sealed up because ventilation is extremely important – you have to protect the quality of the air they breathe at all times – but depending on your cage setup you may have to get a little bit inventive to keep the rabbits from being able to chew on whatever you use.
My personal cages are all wire, but sit on wooden frames. In the fall, I remove the rabbits and pressure wash the cages and frames one last time before freezing weather hits.
The frames extend past the wire cages, which allows me to attach the plastic sheets that I use on the backs and sides directly to the wooden frames. I simply staple the plastic to the wood.
For the front of the cages, where of course the doors are, I build curtains out of old feed bags by stapling feed bags with about a pound of sand in them to a board and then mounting that to the wooden frame.
I see a lot of questions in online rabbit care forums about how to keep your rabbits warm during the winter, and I see a lot of unsafe and potentially unsanitary practices suggested that I just want to quickly mention here.
First and foremost, please, please, please do NOT use heat lamps in any area where the rabbits may touch them or chew on the cords, where the rabbit (particularly young kits in the nest) cannot escape the heat, or where they may cause a fire.
Fire hazards are serious and very real, and I hope you take that into consideration! Even better, realize that so long as they are kept dry and out of the wind, outdoor rabbits truly do not need added heat, even in some of the coldest, human inhabited regions on Earth! As seasons change they acclimate to the new weather patterns and adding supplemental heat can actually be even more dangerous than not doing so – if there’s a power outage and your rabbits have acclimated to having a heat source, they will be seriously affected by its loss.
Secondly, there is quite a bit of discussion about using various bedding materials in the cages. While many do this with no adverse effects, you do have to realize that that bedding HAS to be removed as soon as it is soiled or wet. You can’t simply pile some straw in the cage and not clean it until spring. Rabbits who sit on dirty, wet bedding are not dry (which of course is one of our main goals in winter), and they often will develop sore hocks and urine scald – both very painful, largely preventable issues.
If you do provide bedding of some sort, or even a box of some sort, be sure to check and clean it not less than once a day. Dirty bedding that accumulates due to being frozen to the cage very quickly becomes a health hazard for your rabbits, and can and will rot out your cage floors.
Even newborn kits do not need added protections in winter beyond a well built, solid nest box full of clean hay and their mother’s fur, so keep that in mind when winterizing your rabbitry. Aim to make care of your rabbits as simple as it can be when the weather is cold and wet while still assuring that they have a clean, dry environment in which to live and plenty of food and fresh, thawed water.
If you have any questions at all about winterizing your rabbitry, leave me a comment below – I’d love to hear from you!