Keeping Rabbits Outside in Colonies

Learn how to keep your rabbit colony safe and healthy, even in cold weather.

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Check out this practical advice on the best ways for keeping rabbits outside, including winter rabbit hutch setups, cold weather, and much more.

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Raising rabbits in colonies can give them a more natural life, one where they live in groups and can socialize, rather than each rabbit having a cage to itself. This allows rabbits to play, groom one another, and possibly — depending on the style of the setup — mate when they choose. This is impractical for commercial-style breeders who need quantity on a consistent schedule, but it can work well for a family or homestead.

Colony setups come in a number of styles. Some people have access to outbuildings they turn into indoor colonies, usually by filling them with dirt or other bedding and letting the rabbits roam throughout the structure. Other colonies are outdoors, either aboveground or belowground. An example of a belowground colony might be an old swimming pool that’s been fenced in and filled with dirt. In this case, the cement prevents escape while providing plenty of space for the rabbits to design their own tunnels and mark out individual and group areas. An aboveground colony might be a large run with a wire bottom and sides, with or without a cover of some sort.

Colonies in the Cold

All styles of colonies have pros and cons, depending on many factors: breed, climate, environment, ground type, predator load, and tree cover, just to name a few. However, most people are concerned about cold weather first and foremost. Breeding, care, snowstorms, and temperatures are all common worries. For those who live in an area with exceptionally bitter or snowy winters, the question frequently comes up: “How can I leave my rabbits outside all year?”

grey rabbits sleeping close together

First, it’s important to know that most rabbits are quite tolerant of cold weather. In general, rabbits can endure low temperatures better than heat. Rabbits regulate their body temperature with their ears and their body posture. A warm rabbit will stretch itself out as much as possible, press its stomach into the ground, and raise its ears to lower its body temperature. A cold rabbit will tuck its limbs underneath itself, round its body, and press its ears backward against its body to retain heat.

Rabbits also adapt to weather differences by changing from warm-weather fur to winter coats in the same way we put on extra clothing when the temperatures begin to drop. This means a rabbit used to temperate environments shouldn’t be moved into a colony during winter or summer, as they won’t be able to adapt to the differences in weather without a chance to adjust their coats. Imagine being indoors in jeans and a T-shirt and then having to run outside on a winter day without time to grab a jacket!

Cottontail Rabbit in Snow

Setting up a colony when rabbits are young and the weather is temperate is the best way to help them get ready for winter. By the time the weather cools, they’ll be used to the new environment, they’ll have hopefully developed a stable social structure, and they’ll have developed a fat layer and winter coat to help them physically. Setting up at this time will also give you a chance to find any issues with the colony setup and change them before snow falls and adjustments becomes more difficult.

Choosing a Shelter

Once winter arrives, your main concerns should be keeping your rabbits dry, watered, and sheltered from the wind. An outdoor colony should always contain several covered, well-insulated shelters. Even though the rabbits are likely to share a shelter in cold weather, it’s a good idea to have one per rabbit — or at least one per doe in case of winter litters. On our homestead, we use 1-1/2-inch half-boards to build our shelters. We then attach artificial tunnels to the boxes and bury the boxes to provide extra insulation. This protects our rabbits from wind and rain and gives them an extra barrier from the cold. The boxes can be packed full of hay for additional warmth and insulation.

rabbit in an outdoor underground enclosure

Some breeders use prefab hutches or some other form of shelter, though we haven’t found that these “big box” hutches provide the protection needed for more than a year at most. They’re simply not insulated or durable enough to endure our climate, but others in more temperate areas may disagree. Choose what shelter works best for you based on your local weather and colony setup.

With a good shelter in place, rabbits will keep each other warm and dry. The colder the weather, the more of them will pack together to share body heat. This is why it’s important all the rabbits are known and accepted into the colony before winter weather arrives — being an outcast can be deadly for rabbits in extreme temperatures. It’s a breeder’s responsibility to recognize individuals that might be in trouble due to illness or social problems and to have a backup plan in place for those animals.

rabbits in straw

Remember, though, that “extreme temperatures” for rabbits aren’t the same as for humans. “If you’re cold, they’re cold” doesn’t apply here. Like many animals, rabbits will happily play in snow when those of us without fur coats would prefer to be by the fire. Trust them to go into the shelters when they feel the need. Don’t worry about blizzards either; rabbits will dig themselves out if their tunnels get snowed in.

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Keeping Kits Healthy

Domestic rabbits may even breed and birth in winter. Heavy winter coats mean the mother can pull extra fur to build her nests, and with a thick layer of hay on the bottom of the covered nest box, the young can be as protected as they’d be during any other weather. Problems can arise when young rabbits begin to explore outside the nest. This is one of the reasons our breeding shelters have longer tunnels, to decrease the likelihood of kits ending up outside in the cold.

Extra hay and fur from the mother rabbit’s coat keep the kits warm in winter.

Knowing if you have new kits can be difficult if the boxes are buried under several inches of snow. Rabbit fur on the snow can mean new babies, but it can also mean two rabbits had an argument. If there are new kits, they’re usually perfectly safe in the boxes, and exposing them to cold air and potentially getting them wet can be dangerous. However, leaving them entirely alone can cause its own problems. We once opened the box — on a relatively warm, sunny day — to find a baby rat taking advantage of the warmth and sleeping with the kits!

Keeping Rabbits Outside in Winter

Although rabbits tolerate cold weather well, winter colonies can make extra work for breeders, so be prepared. Catching rabbits for health checks can become harder, and you’ll need to water more often. Changes in weather patterns can make even a well-established care plan fail, so have a backup plan in place.

In winter weather, ice poses by far the most dangerous threat to outdoor colonies. For the past few years in the upper Northeast, our usual snowfall has been replaced with days of rain, followed by days of below-freezing temperatures. This leads to water freezing constantly. It’s a bad idea to use water bottles during winter because of breakage, but even rubber bowls can freeze so quickly during cold snaps that it will become hard to make sure your rabbits have adequate water.

rabbit in straw

If there’s snow on the ground, rabbits will eat it if their water freezes over — most of ours even seem to prefer it. When rain washes away the snow, hauling buckets of warm water multiple times a day can become time-consuming and tiring. There’s also risk to the breeder if they’re carrying buckets while the run is icy. Rabbits can move easily over ice crusts that people might break through. Tread carefully when it’s icy outside.

Additionally, not all rabbits adapt to weather changes well. As mentioned earlier, rabbits will sit outdoors during snowy weather, even with a perfectly comfortable box to retreat to. This is true of rain too, which can result in wet rabbits in subzero temperatures. While rabbits can tolerate those temperatures when dry, frozen fur makes for a different story altogether. These conditions make it even more important to keep an eye out for signs of distress and illness in your colony.

Cute funny rabbits in zoological garden

Feeding rabbits in their boxes can be a good method of coaxing them out of severe weather. Since colony rabbits don’t suffer from boredom the way caged rabbits do, they’re less prone to overeating, and free-feeding is less compromising to their health. During winter, if bowls are placed outside and snowed on, rabbits will simply dig up their bowls and eat when hungry. Since rain results in soggy, unappetizing grain, placing the bowls inside the largest rabbit boxes will encourage the animals to get under cover for both food and warmth, and this will also help to prevent food waste. Keep in mind that rabbits will eat more when the weather is cold to retain body fat.

Another thing to consider is that wooden boxes become less secure during bad weather. Poor drainage and heavy rain can result in water soaking into the wood, which can cause frost — …and then mold — to develop inside the boxes. We lost our first winter litter this past year, and we initially couldn’t figure out why. There was plenty of fur, the box looked great, and the babies were large and well-fed. However, when we pulled the hay out of the box, everything under the nest was rotten. Inside the closed space and hidden from view, the mold spores had sickened the babies without us ever knowing there was an issue. We discovered we needed to change the hay regularly to prevent this, and in the future, we’ll be making changes to the entire colony to improve drainage.

Four domesticated rabbits being raised in farm outdoor hutch

Rain in winter also makes pens difficult to clean. In warmer seasons, colony-raising means easy cleanup with a rake and a wheelbarrow. In winter, snow usually covers the fecal buildup, preventing rabbits from being exposed to large amounts of it until it can be removed in springtime. These patterns of rain and freezing mean fecal matter will build up in the rabbits’ living area, and then freeze down so you can’t remove pellets easily or at all. You’ll need to add layers of bedding — hay or shavings — to keep rabbits clean and healthy, but these, in turn, will insulate and prevent thawing come springtime.

As a breeder, you must adapt to these types of issues, whether they’re due to changing environments, new predators, or other circumstances that may change while colony-raising rabbits. Some choose to simply revert to using cages, feeling they’re safer for the rabbits and more convenient for the breeder — or at least more predictable. For those who hope to provide rabbits with a better, more natural quality of life, working to learn from and overcome the initial complications that accompany colony-raising can be well worth it.

And for the breeder? Little beats the sight of watching rabbits play together in freshly fallen snow.

Sherri Talbot is the co-owner and operator of Saffron and Honey Homestead in Windsor, Maine. She raises endangered livestock breeds and educates on heritage breeds, sustainable living, and the importance of eating locally.

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