To ensure your small pets keep cosy in winter, we’ve lots of practical ideas and must-read advice...
1. Find out how well your outdoor pets cope with the cold
With their warm fluffy coats and thick fur pads on the bottoms of their feet, rabbits can manage colder temperatures quite well – as long as they have the right shelter. Outdoor pet bunnies should be housed in a warm, insulated den during the winter, with space to run about when it’s wet and chilly. During cold snaps, provide a couple of pet-safe heat pads that you can warm up in the microwave each evening for your pets to lie on. If your rabbits are old, thin or young and have not built up a winter coat, the RSPCA recommends moving their home indoors. Create a quiet, cosy space for them in a porch or utility room. You could even provide them with a Den Snug. Ferrets are actually more tolerant of cold than they are of heat, but if kept outdoors, they need to be inside a shed with a pet-safe heater to ward off the worst of the wintry chill.
DID YOU KNOW?
Rabbits kept outdoors shed their light summer coats and grow thicker fur to protect them from the elements. Indoor bunnies don’t do this.
2. Make sure your indoor pets are cosy and safe
Hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils, degus and chinchillas, may also need some extra warmth to help them through the bleak midwinter. Move their accommodation away from drafts – cold air from windows and doors can give small pets a chill. Choose somewhere secure where they can stay warm without overheating. Provide extra bedding to snuggle into on cold days – and change it regularly to keep things fresh and dry. Also protect them from toxic household fumes – all sorts of things from non-stick frying pans and aromatherapy oils to wood burning stoves produce fumes that can be harmful for small pets.
3. Do a thorough property inspection
If your rabbits or ferrets are kept outside in a shed, make sure that it’s waterproof, draught-proof, damp-proof, dry and well-ventilated. Check the roofing to make sure it’s completely watertight and that all the walls are in good condition, with no water staining, which could mean rain is seeping in from under the roof. If you need help with shading and insulating your small animals runs, visit our winter essentials collection for inspiration.
4. Add extra insulation
Insulate the floor with thick layers of newspaper and change this daily. Pile extra hay in sleeping areas (such as carboard boxes with entrance holes cut out) for your bunnies to snuggle up in and change bedding materials regularly to keep things fresh and dry. Don’t give rabbits blankets as chewing them could result in an intestinal blockage. Ferrets, on the other hand, tend to love fleecy blankets and sleeping sacks.
HOW COLD IS TOO COLD?
- A temperature of between 10-20°C as ideal for pet rabbits. Anything below 10°C is too cold for them.
- Guinea pigs are sensitive to temperature changes. Temperatures above 26°C can cause heatstroke and below 15°C can cause them to become chilled. They should be housed indoors, away from direct heat sources (radiators/sunny windows) and draughts. Room temperatures of 17-20°C are ideal.
- Ferrets need well ventilated, dry and draught free housing at a temperature of between 15-21°C.
Source: The RSPCA
5. Make good housekeeping a top priority
Keeping things dry is essential – a damp environment in freezing weather will seriously affect your pets’ health. Wet bedding will freeze on cold nights, which could lead to your pets becoming ill. Clean the toilet area daily and their whole home regularly, at least once a week. Always replace a small amount of used, un-soiled bedding to maintain familiar scents and reduce stress.
6. Be on constant water watch
Check water bottles several times a day to make sure the contents is not too cold or has frozen. Also check the metal spout hasn’t iced up. Wrapping water bottles in bubble wrap or an old sock can help. Access to clean, fresh drinking water at all times is essential or your pets could be coming seriously ill. Bunnies may drink more in the winter if their access to a moisture-rich grass is limited.
7. Up the rations
Small pets may need a little more food in winter to maintain their body temperature and condition, so allow for this when serving up their daily nuggets. As fresh grass is less readily available, bunnies and piggies will require plenty of good quality feeding hay to munch on. Never feed greens or vegetables that are frosty or frozen.
8. Make time and space for playtime
Our small pets still need regular exercise during the winter. Give them free access to the outdoors to roam in the warmer parts of the day to let your rabbits or ferrets have a run-around in the garden – but don’t let them get wet and cold. If there’s never ending wind and rain, allocate a room indoors (not too warm) where they can have some playtime every day and provide suitable shelter for runs that need it. Fun-loving ferrets will appreciate some toys to play with. Rabbits and guinea pigs will enjoy foraging for treats in piles of hay and tunnels and boxes to hide in. If it snows, you can safely let your ferret out to play for around 10 minutes – many ferrets love tunnelling in the snow – but keep a close eye on them or these slinky wrigglers may well do a disappearing act.
9. Keep a very close eye on your pets’ health
it’s really important to give your small pets a weekly health check, especially in the winter months. As with all healthcare issues, prevention is better than cure – and spotting problems early can make all the difference to your pets enjoying a speedy recovery or becoming very ill. Ferrets can’t catch a cold but they can get a form of influenza which can be passed from human to ferret and ferret to human. Healthy animals can normally fight it off, but older and younger ferrets may find it difficult to recover and should always be taken to the vet for treatment. While bunnies cannot contract a human cold, they can suffer from infections of the upper respiratory tract, causing a runny nose, runny eyes and sneezing, which is commonly called ‘snuffles’. Chinchillas are very susceptible to upper respiratory tract infections, which can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia – a condition that can be very serious for guinea pigs, too. Symptoms include sneezing, coughing, discharge from the nose and eyes, a dull and depressed appearance and loss of appetite. Both gerbils and hamsters can catch a cold from humans, so if you have one, don’t handle your pets. Find out more about pets and winter illnesses here >>
10. Enjoy some special pet time every day
Interacting with their human is often a highlight of a small pet’s day and is even more important in winter when the days are short and life can get a bit boring. Keep daily feeding and exercise times consistent and schedule in some time every day for play, grooming and some extra special attention.