Essential checks for your small pets this winter
From checking that outdoor accommodation is weatherproof and providing extra bedding, to scheduling suitable exercise time (small pets still need to keep active) and regularly checking water supplies, our handy checklist outlines what to do to help your pets cope with chilly, wintry weather.
CHECK #1 How well do your pets cope with cold weather?
Rabbits can manage colder temperatures quite well – as long as they have adequate shelter. Most domestic breeds of rabbits have warm furry coats and thick fur pads on the bottoms of their feet to protect them against the cold. However, while wild rabbits are tucked away in underground burrows, where the temperature is kept constant, pet rabbits don’t have this protection. That’s why outdoor pet bunnies should be housed in a shed or outbuilding during the winter, with space to run about inside when it’s chilly and wet.
However, if your rabbits are old, thin or young and have not built up a thick winter coat, the RSPCA recommends moving their home indoors. The charity also advises a gradual transition, to minimise stress and to get them used to the change. For more tips on bringing your bunnies indoors, check out our Rabbit winter care advice (pdf 428KB) from the RSPCA.
Guinea pigs really don’t like the cold and need to come inside during the winter. Create a quiet, cosy space for them in a porch or utility room. This sort of area of your home is ideal so your piggies don’t get too hot.
Ferrets are 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.
How cold is too cold? Check out our temperature guide
- The RSPCA recommends 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.
CHECK #2 Is your outdoor accommodation up to the job?
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 felt to make sure it’s completely watertight and that all the walls are in good condition, with no water staining that could mean rain is seeping in from under the roof.
Insulate the floor with thick layers of newspaper and change this daily. Pile extra bedding hay in sleeping areas (such as carboard boxes with entrance holes cut out) for your rabbits to snuggle up in. Make sure there’s enough sleeping space for them to sleep separately or together if they choose to. Change bedding materials regularly to keep things fresh and dry.
During cold snaps, provide a couple pet-safe heated pads that you can warm up in the microwave each evening, which your pets can lie on. 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.
Install a pet-safe shed heater to take the chill off, but ensure any wires are covered and your pets cannot get too close to it to avoid overheating.
CHECK #3 Is your housekeeping up to scratch?
Keeping things dry is a number one priority –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.
CHECK #4 Are you winter water wise?
Water bottles need to be checked several times a time 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.
CHECK #5 Are you dishing up enough food?
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.
CHECK #6 Are your pets getting enough exercise?
Our small pets still need regular exercise during the winter. Find time during 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 unrelenting wind and rain, allocate a room indoors (not too warm) where they can have some playtime every day, with toys and treats to forage for, with 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 might do a disappearing act.
CHECK #7 Are your indoor pets feeling nice and cosy?
Indoor pets, such as hamsters, rats, mice, gerbils, degus and chinchillas, may also need some extra warmth on the coldest days.
- Move them out of drafts – cold air from windows and doors can give small pets a chill.
- Make sure their enclosure is in a secure area 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.
- Protect them against household fumes. There are lots of things – including non-stick frying pans and wood burning stoves – that produce fumes that we don’t notice, but which can be harmful for small pets.
CHECK #8 Are you spending enough time with your pets?
Spending quality time with your small pets is essential throughout the year – interacting with their human is a highlight of their day. It’s perhaps even more important in winter when the days are short and life can get a bit boring – both for us and our pet animals! Keep daily feeding and exercise times consistent and schedule in some time every day for play, grooming and some extra special attention.
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