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Summer safety for rabbits

By now we are all well aware of the dangers that too much sun can cause to our health, but it's not just the sun that can pose many potential problems for rabbits during the warmer months.

Your questions answered

Summer heat

A rabbit's optimum environmental temperature is 15-20°C (65-70°F), although rabbits can easily withstand much colder temperatures than this, given extra bedding and adequate protection from the elements.

However, excess heat poses more problems for rabbits, as they have dense fur which is a good insulator in winter, but disadvantageous during the summer months.

During the warmer months, many rabbits do enjoy a spot of sunbathing (and there may well be health benefits to some exposure to sunlight), but you will notice that they will dive for the shade as soon as they begin to feel uncomfortable with the heat. Rabbits are unable to sweat and cannot pant effectively, so if they do overheat they don't have these mechanisms to enable them to cool down. A rabbit's major route of thermoregulation is its ears.  These have a thinner layer of fur and large surface area, so excess heat can escape from this area quicker than anywhere else on the rabbit's body.

What do I do if I think my rabbit is too hot?

If you suspect that your rabbit is getting too hot, make sure they are in the shade and offer them wet towels to lie on and ensure they have plenty of cool, drinking water.

Signs of heat stroke in rabbits may present as: a loss of appetite, lethargy, floppiness, increased breathing rate, nibbling around the nose and mouth which may be blood-tinged.

If you suspect your rabbit has heat stroke and is displaying any of the signs mentioned above, phone your vet immediately for advice. Your vet may advise you to try to cool your rabbit down at home, rather than stressing it out by taking it to the surgery.  If this is the case you can try wetting their ears with cool (but not cold) water, placing damp towels on their body or using a fan or a hair dryer on a cool setting. You must NEVER place the rabbit in cold water.

However, if your bunny seems to be getting no better despite these measures, you must call your vet back immediately for further advice and be prepared to take them to the vets. Injections of fluids and steroids may be needed to save your rabbit's life.

Prevention is far better than cure

To help keep your rabbit cool you should:

  • Ensure that your rabbit has plenty of shade, bearing in mind that the sun will move around during the course of the day. If the rabbit lives outdoors in a hutch, the hutch itself needs to be positioned in shade, or have a sunshade erected over it. In direct sunshine the rabbit hutch becomes like an oven.
  • Fresh water must always be available (both bottles and bowls are appreciated in summer), and some rabbits appreciate damp towels or plastic soft drink bottles three quarters filled, sealed and then frozen to lie up against.
  • Houserabbits or those in a shed may appreciate a fan set on a low/medium setting but make sure the rabbits can't reach the electric cable and aren't in a constant draught.
  • Rabbits will be cooler outside in the shade, rather than in a hutch, so put rabbits in a run with adequate shade rather than leaving them in their hutch.
  • NEVER put a rabbit in a greenhouse or conservatory. Greenhouses and conservatories very quickly heat up with minimal sun.

Sunburn

In common with most other white animals, white rabbits are susceptible to sunburn, especially on their ears and nose.

To try and prevent sunburn, always ensure that the rabbit has adequate shade and try not to let them out in the sun for too long, especially if they are a sun-worshiper! 

A high-factor sunblock cream designed for babies can be used on the rabbit's ears and nose, but bear in mind that the rabbit is liable to lick this off very quickly, and is not a substitute for providing shade.

Grass cuttings

Most rabbits love grass, and allowing your rabbit time to graze on the lawn is something that should be encouraged. However, if you are mowing your lawn, be careful not to allow your rabbit to eat clippings from the lawn.

After being cut, clippings from the lawn mower quickly begin to ferment, and if eaten will continue to do so inside the rabbit, possibly causing excess gas formation within the digestive system, which can be serious and life-threatening.

Flystrike

Flystrike is a condition most prevalent in the warmer months of the year (but has been reported as early as January or as late as November), where certain species of flies lay their eggs on a soiled or wet area of the animal's body (usually the tail area). Bloodied areas, such as open wounds or cuts will also attract flies.

Once laid, within 12-36 hours (depending upon the type of fly), the eggs will hatch into maggots that immediately proceed to eat into the rabbit's flesh, causing immense suffering and tissue damage.

Immediate veterinary treatment is essential to have any chance of saving the rabbit, but sadly even with emergency trreatment, sometimes the maggots have caused too much damage and the vet will recommend that the rabbit is put to sleep to save it suffering any further.

Prevention cannot be emphasised too much. You should always ensure your rabbit is spotlessly clean, paying special attention to the tail area and check the whole rabbit thoroughly twice daily for soiled/wet areas, cuts or eggs/maggots.

 

  • Claire King, The Rabbit Welfare Association.

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