Behind dogs and cats, rabbits are one of the most popular pets around. They’re smart, playful and are generally able to be trained to even use a litter box like a cat. This is why many rabbit parents choose to keep their pets indoors free roam or in an enclosure.
When the weather turns cold, rabbit parents may wonder whether it is safe to bring their pet outside in the snow for playtime. After all, these cuddly creatures do love to burrow and dig. But is it safe to bring a rabbit outside in the snow?
Rabbits enjoy the snow, and playing in it for short periods creates no health or safety issues. Playing in the snow provides welcome stimulation and enjoyment. However, it is recommended that pet rabbits live primarily indoors, so access to the snow should not be over a prolonged period.
According to Anne Martin, executive director of House Rabbit Society, it is perfectly acceptable to bring your rabbit outside in the snow. But there are a few guidelines you have to follow in order to ensure the safety of your pet.
Safe Playtime in the Snow
The recommended place for pet rabbits to live is indoors, either free roam or in a large exercise pen. There, they can truly be a part of the family and be able to interact with you on a regular basis. In the house, they are also kept safe from the risk of predators like foxes, raccoons and hawks. They are also able to be kept warm, as opposed to living outdoors where they are exposed to the elements.
But just because it’s recommended for rabbits to live indoors doesn’t mean they don’t get to enjoy safe outdoor time. If you have a securely fenced-in yard or an exercise pen, then you have the perfect opportunity to bring your pet outside safely for them to enjoy some time in the sun and fresh air.
This includes during the winter when there’s snow on the ground. Because rabbits love to dig and burrow, going out in the snow is the perfect enrichment activity, Martin says. One can also bring the snow inside in a box to avoid the risk of frostbite, she adds.
“I would think of snow as a brief enrichment, something to explore and then go back inside,” Martin says. “We wouldn’t want delicate rabbit feet or ears to get frostbite! Some people will bring snow inside in a litter box for their rabbits to explore more safely inside.”
When bringing a rabbit outside for playtime, it is also best to avoid using a harness and leash, Martin says. Because rabbits have delicate spines and dislike being confined, it is unsafe to put them in a harness. Instead, carry them outside securely against your chest while supporting their feet in your hands.
“We don’t recommend harnesses or leashes, as it’s a safety issue – rabbits can get spinal injuries from them, or escape them, and they generally really dislike being confined in them,” Martin said.
While outside with your rabbit, keep attention on them at all times, Martin suggests. Because they are outdoors, there is still the risk of birds of prey swooping down and trying to catch them.
“If the rabbit lives safely indoors, but someone wanted to take them outside when snow is on the ground, there would need to be an adult outside to supervise them the entire time they were outside, to protect from predators,” Martin says. “It would need to be an enclosed space (like a fenced yard or using a puppy exercise pen) so that the rabbit wouldn’t escape.”
The Risks of Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus
While it is generally safe to bring your rabbit outdoors for playtime, there are some areas of the United States that it should be avoided due to Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease Virus (RHDV). This highly contagious virus is a risk for rabbits, both domestic and wild, in the Western United States, Florida and Mexico. It can cause loss of appetite, high fever, seizures, difficulty breathing and even sudden death in rabbits. (Source)
In these areas, taking your rabbit outside for playtime can yield deadly results and should be avoided at all costs, Martin says.
“We wouldn’t recommend taking rabbits outside in states with current RHDV spread, and we wouldn’t recommend bringing snow inside in areas with the spread of RHDV,” Martin says. “We expect it will spread to the entire US in the next year or so.”
The danger of RHDV is very real and should be taken seriously. There is currently no cure or medicine available for it, which makes it a true risk to rabbits living in areas where there are outbreaks. (Source)
Other Ways to Enrich Playtime for Your Rabbit
If you live in an area that is affected by RHDV, or you simply don’t get snow where you live, there are plenty of other ways to create an enriching playtime for your pet rabbit. One of these includes a dig box, which involves taking a box and filling it with a simple material that the rabbit can dig and burrow in.
The best, and least messy, filling for a dig box is shredded paper — like that from a paper shredder. Just avoid glossy magazine print in case the rabbit decides to chew on it. A cardboard or plastic box can serve as one of the best dig boxes around, and it’s very inexpensive to create one for your rabbit.
Another great (and recyclable) way of enriching playtime for your pet rabbit is by stuffing paper towel or toilet paper tubes with fresh veggies like green leaf lettuce or dandelion greens. They will have a blast swatting them around and chewing the cardboard to get the prize inside!
One more example of a safe way to enrich your rabbit’s playtime is with a treat ball. These toys are plastic and are sold online by popular retailers like Amazon. Pellet food can be placed inside of the ball, and when moved around, the food will fall out of the ball for your pet rabbit to enjoy. They will have a blast chasing it around for hours trying to get their treats out of the ball!
Safe Playtime for Your Rabbit
Overall, it is generally safe to bring your rabbit outside for playtime if you live in an area unaffected by RHDV. Just like people, sun and fresh air is very beneficial for rabbits and can help them live a more enriched life. Even when there is snow on the ground, rabbits can safely go outdoors to have playtime — just watch for signs of them getting cold such as being huddled in a ball. When outdoors in the snow, you will probably see your rabbit digging around or trying to burrow. This is perfectly normal behavior and actually mimics what they would do in the wild.
Another great way to enrich this outdoor playtime is to offer a hideaway-style tunnel made out of a cardboard box. The rabbit can run through it or jump on top of it to get a better view of the outdoors. A hiding spot will also help to make the rabbit feel more comfortable and secure in their surroundings, especially if they have never been outside or in the snow before. Just take a cardboard box and cut two entrances in it, and you will be good to go.
There are many ways to enrich your rabbit’s life, and that all begins with being innovative with playtime and their living area. Bringing them outside in the snow is a great way to enhance their daily playtime routine, especially because it helps promote natural behaviors such as digging and burrowing. By offering playtime in the snow, rabbit owners will likely see an increase in activity levels and even health benefits due to the extra exercise.
When you have a pet rabbit, playtime is extra important because it helps bust boredom, which can sometimes cause rabbits to be destructive and try to chew things in your home such as carpets, baseboard trim, computer wires or even walls. Bringing them outside for playtime is very beneficial since it helps to keep them fit and healthy. The snow just adds another layer of fun for your pet rabbit since it is a break from their daily routine. So, the next time it snows in your area, keep these tips in mind for a great time all around for your pet.