How to keep outdoor pets warm
Rabbits and guinea pigs are not designed to cope with sudden temperature changes and, since we keep our pets above ground where the temperature can vary, we need to take extra care of them when winter comes.
Even if we take great care of our pets, it’s still difficult to recreate the living environments to which they’re adapted. Wild rabbits live in underground warrens, where the temperature is around 10°C all year round with little variation. When it’s cold, they can snuggle up with other rabbits to keep warm, but they’ll also come outdoors to forage and run around, which helps them to warm up.
Guinea pigs may have been domesticated for as long as 3,000 years. Their wild cousins, being naturally at home in a wide variety of terrain, often in harsh conditions, also nestle down together in disused burrows and hollows to keep warm at night and when it’s cold.
So, how can you protect your outdoor pets from the cold, when might you need to bring them indoors, and is it okay to let them out to play during the winter? Here are our top tips to ensure your outdoor pets stay snug this winter.
Top tips for keeping outdoor pets warm
It’s vital that your outdoor pets have friends of their own species.
Apart from companionship being essential from a behavioural point of view, it’s also the best way for them to keep warm. Huddling together in their sleeping compartment is the natural way for rabbits, guinea pigs and other sociable pets to keep warm.
Your pets are also more likely to move around if they have friends, and exercise helps them to generate body heat.
Site the hutch and run in a sheltered area, protected from oncoming wind, rain and snow. If your garden isn’t well sheltered, you could hammer in some windbreaks or short fencing panels around the hutch to provide some protection.
Your pets will need their home to be waterproof and draught free, so check that the roof is properly covered and that all the doors close and fasten snugly. Ensure any hutch maintenance is carried out before the bad weather arrives.
Adding extra layers to the outside of the hutch can help to reduce draughts.
A tarpaulin with eyelets around the edges can be fastened snugly to the hutch using cable ties. It’s even better if you can find some old blankets or duvets and sandwich these between the hutch and tarp, to add more insulation. Tarpaulins can also help to protect your pets from the weather when they’re in their run.
You might like to fix some sheets of clear, corrugated plastic to the top and one or two sides of the run so your pets can still benefit from daylight while being kept dry. You won’t need to put clear plastic around all sides of the run, as it could make the run feel too warm on a sunny day, but you could put clear plastic sheets over some of the hutch windows to protect the interior during wet weather.
You can insulate the sleeping compartment in various ways. Placing a cardboard box inside it and packing the space between the box and the floors, walls and ceiling of the compartment with newspaper is an easy way to keep your pets warm, and you can replace the box when it gets damp. Fill the inner box with soft, dust-extracted bedding, straw or hay. Your pets will probably spend more time than usual inside their sleeping compartment during cold weather, so you’ll need to clean it out more often than you do in the summer.
Another way to insulate the sleeping chamber is to make a plywood inner wall and ceiling for it and to pack the space between the inner and outer bedroom walls with roof insulation. It’s important that your pets can’t get access to the insulation, so keep an eye on the inner lining to make sure it’s not being chewed.
When it’s really cold, you could place a pet-safe heat pad underneath the bedding in the sleeping compartment.
There are risks attached to using anything with an electrical cable, because pets may chew them, with disastrous consequences. Safer alternatives, such as Snugglesafe heat pads and similar, are a better choice.
When using heat pads, watch out for your pets getting so warm in their bedroom that they start sleeping out in the open. Sleeping in the open is not the best thing for them! If you think they’re too warm in their bedroom, simply remove the heat pad and reserve it for extreme weather only.
If your pets’ hutch is well insulated, their water may not freeze but, even if the hutch is under cover in a shed, very low temperatures will cause the water to freeze or the little ball in the spout of the drinking bottle to stop moving.
You could rotate water bottles, replacing a cold or frozen one with a new one you’ve kept in your home, two or three times a day. Insulate the bottle using bubble wrap or something warm and protective that will trap a layer of air. Use your hand to warm the drinking spout and ensure the little metal ball can still move freely, allowing your pets to drink.
If your pets drink from a bowl, you could place a heat pad underneath it, or at least sit the bowl on several layers of newspaper or cardboard.
A garden shed, garage (provided it doesn't have a boiler flue and isn't used for vehicles, as car exhaust fumes could be fatal to your pets), or other outbuilding can make great winter accommodation for outdoor pets. You’ll also stay dry while feeding and cleaning them out. You can put your pets’ hutch and run inside the shed. You may want to put a low barrier across the door so you can step in and out without your pets following, your pets can use the whole space as a run.
You’ll need to ensure the shed is secure enough to keep your pets inside and any wildlife outside. A shed can also be insulated and you might be able to attach your pets’ run to it, to allow even more room to exercise safely.
Some people bring their outdoor pets into their home for the winter and let them out again once the weather warms up. This can work well, provided you do it gradually and if you’re careful to help your pets to adjust to the sights and sounds of indoor life.
Begin acclimatising your pets to living indoors before the weather gets too cold. When you first bring them in, place them in an unheated room or conservatory, so the temperature change is more gradual. Allow them plenty of time to get used to artificial lights, people coming and going and possibly other pets. If you provide plenty of hiding places and bring in familiar objects and furniture from their outdoor run, your pets will begin to find their new surroundings easier to cope with.
Once you start keeping your pets in a heated environment, you’ll need to look after them like this until the weather warms up again in spring – they won’t be able to adapt to the outdoor weather again during the winter months.
Living indoors overnight and having a daytime outdoor set-up is fine if your pets are healthy, live in an unheated part of your home or a shed at night and if the weather isn’t particularly cold or wet. The more consistent their environment, the closer it will be to the way rabbits and guinea pigs would live in the wild, using their burrows. So, if you can set up the hutch and run in a shed or unused garage, your pets should be better for it.
Pets still need to exercise during the winter
If your rabbits or guinea pigs are healthy, already live outdoors and have free access to their run, they will probably still want to go out to play, forage and get some daylight.
Rabbits should have constant access to a safe exercise area of at least six square metres, with headroom of at least one metre.
Guinea pigs can quickly become damp and chilly if they are out on wet grass so, if possible, set up their hutch and run inside a shed or give them a temporary play pen somewhere dry and sheltered from the weather.
How can I tell if my pet is too cold?
Much of the behaviour we see in healthy outdoor pets is designed to prevent them from getting too cold. For instance, huddling up together in their bed or having flurries of activity to generate some heat, are both normal ways for healthy pets to keep warm.
Knowing your pets well and recognising their usual behaviour should help you to know when something isn’t right. If your pet seems sluggish, slow to react, or if they’re sitting huddled outside of their bedroom or shivering, they could be too cold – they could also be unwell. You might also see changes in their eating patterns.
It’s quite normal for rabbits’ ears to feel cold if they’re outside in cold weather, so trying to tell pets’ temperatures by touch isn’t always helpful. Pets can become chilled quickly if they get wet, especially if the weather is cold, so if by chance your pets get stuck outside of their shelters and become wet, they’re likely to be cold and will need to be dried off and put somewhere warm while they recover.
If something about your pet’s behaviour doesn’t seem right, act immediately:
- check to see how much they’ve eaten and whether they’ve produced their usual number of droppings
- get a large box or a pet carrier, line it with bedding or towels on top of a microwaveable heat pad, if you have one, and bring your pet indoors to a warm, quiet room
- offer your pet some of their usual food
- look at your pet’s accommodation and see whether you could do anything more to improve the insulation and cold protection
If your pet isn’t looking more like themselves within an hour, they may be unwell besides being cold, so arrange for them to have a vet check as soon as possible. Your vet will then advise you on what to do next.
Specific circumstances when outdoor pets may need to live indoors
Baby rabbits or guinea pigs who have been born indoors may not be able to cope with winter weather. If you’ve just welcomed young pets into your family, check with your vet whether they’re happy for your pets to live outdoors straight away, or whether they advise keeping them indoors until the following spring.
Guinea pigs who have been wintered indoors can only move fully back outside once the weather is consistently warm.
Pets who are unwell or who have had surgery need to live in a warm, quiet environment until they are strong and well again. Talk to your vet about the best place for your pet to live while they recover. Your pet might be able to go back outside to the surroundings and friends they know if the weather isn’t too bad. At the other extreme, if they’ve had to stay indoors for any length of time and the weather is cold and wet, they may need to remain indoors until spring.
However you decide to manage your outdoor pets this winter, plan for all eventualities, adapt their hutch and run for cold weather, make sure they have friends to snuggle up with and ensure they have plenty of hay to chew through. Your pets should then be happy and healthy by the time spring comes along.