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Rabbits and Heat

It is high summer here in South Africa, and the living is easy – but not always so for our rabbits! To put it bluntly, summer is a dangerous time for domestic rabbits.  Rabbits and heat are never a good combination and even more so in any hot climate – heat stroke remains a leading cause of death for rabbits. Remember, it is not just the rabbit “getting too hot” -  heatstroke is a dangerous rise in body temperature which is accompanied by physical as well as neurological symptoms. Also keep in mind that with climate change, temperatures may be higher than you think, and higher than what you are used to in your area.  Rabbits with thick or long coats of fur, or overweight rabbits and young or old rabbits are always at a greater risk. If you are a rabbit owner who attend shows with your rabbit, always be aware that rabbits can suffer in their cages in venues that are not cooled down properly.  Also, heat exhaustion or stroke is an even bigger risk if you stay in a humid climate - heat and high humidity is an particularly dangerous combination. Heat exhaustion precedes a heat stroke but since heat stroke is so very dangerous, and most of us are not veterinarians, I will blur the lines. So what to look out for?  On days where the temperature reaches 26 degrees Celsius or above (about 80 Fahrenheit), watch for these signs:


  • Your rabbit not eating or drinking. Many rabbits actually drink less water the hotter they feel.  How weird!   

  • The tongue hanging out with or without panting. Panting makes the problem worse as panting is not easy for rabbits.   

  • Salivating

  • The rabbit is hot to the touch

  • Convulsing   

  • Limp, Lethargy, weakness, floppy or slow movement   

  • Eyes remain half closed   

  • Reddening and or heating up of the rabbit's ears (with or without enlarged blood vessels)  

  • Acting confused, uncoordinated, disorientated   

  • Flaring of the nostrils with or without a clear nasal discharge   

  • Tossing the head back while breathing very rapidly from opened mouth


If your rabbit seems to be already suffering, help your rabbit in this way:

  • Most importantly, take the rabbit to a rabbit-friendly vet and in the meantime

  • Immediately move your rabbit to a cool place - your tiled bathroom is a good area.   

  • Spray the rabbit with tepid to cool (but not cold) water. Spray all over and on the tummy and especially the ears. Gently work the cool water into the fur in order for the water to reach the skin.  Do not drip water into the ears.  The ears are critical for cooling. (The blood moves to the farthest and coolest points away from the body.)

  • If you do not have a spray bottle, chill your fingers with ice cubes and then rub your cool and damp fingers over the rabbit’s ears. Again, do not drip water into the ears. (Cooling the ears will in fact cool the entire body. )

  • You can also dampen cotton balls in cool water (not wet and dripping) and place the ball in the exposed area of the rabbit’s ears.  Your rabbit may resist this – rather use the spray bottle then.   

  • Drape a cool damp towel over your rabbit. Remember that colder is not always better as this may cause shock – always cool the body down gently. Be on the lookout for flies if you decide to wrap the bunny in a cooling towel.   


Heat exhaustion or stroke will be very stressful for both you and your rabbit, so one should rather prevent it all together:

  • Fill large plastic bottles with water and freeze. Then wrap the bottle in a towel and place it with (but not against) your rabbit. The rabbit will move closer and against as required. Freeze more than one bottle so that you can rotate them as the ice melts.  Your rabbit may also lick the cool condensation forming on the frozen containers – nice!  However, watch the rabbit and make sure he doesn’t chew the bottle.   

  • The rabbit will stretch its body out as far as possible to cool down through radiation - place a tile with the rabbit so that it can lie on it. You may even refrigerate the tile for a while to get it even cooler.   

  • Wet bricks – soak a brick in cold water. Wrap in a towel. The brick absorbs the water and retain the coolness for a long time.  You can also refrigerate the wet brick (try explaining the brick in the fridge to your family!)

  • Simple one: place ice cubes in your rabbit’s water bowl.   

  • If your rabbit is in a pen, drape a wet cloth over the side and then direct a fan onto the wet cloth (but do not direct the fan onto the rabbit). Let the fan oscillate. To create a cooler micro-climate, you can even drape a wet pillow case, sheet or other thin cloth over the pen or cage – but always leave space for air to move freely.  For rabbits, a lot of heat dissipation can occur through moisture evaporation during normal breathing.  With heat exhaustion, you may actually notice moisture around the rabbit's face (by the mouth and nose). This is moisture not evaporating, so fans can help the cooling process by speeding up the evaporation.  However, use an (evaporative) water cooler fan only if you stay in a dry climate.   

  • This sounds logical, but remember to keep the rabbit out of direct sunlight - a fur coat in constant, direct sunlight can be deadly.   

  • If you have air-conditioning in your house, switch that on.  Alternatively, open the windows to get a breeze through the room. 

  • Provide fresh clean water always.   

  • Feed wet veggies to help with hydration. 

  • Groom / brush your rabbit in summer to remove excess fur. 

  • Bring outdoor rabbits inside during the heat of the day. 

  • Close the curtains or blinds where the rabbit is but allow for the air to move. 

  • If you are leaving your house and you do not have air-conditioning and you know the frozen water is going to simply melt away too quickly, then rather move the rabbit into your bathroom. That can be your rabbit's "cool-room".


Again, rabbits do not cope well with heat. Sadly, the prognosis for recovery after heat stroke is often very very poor. The lucky ones that do survive, still need to be monitored for signs of kidney failure for instance. I have not been able to verify this, but I understand that if a rabbit has suffered heat stroke once, he or she will be more susceptible to it in future.  When the temperature rises, you need to keep a close eye on your rabbit - rather be paranoid. Anyway, being sensitive to your rabbit’s comfort in the heat is so cool!


Rabbit Health Check

Rabbits are complex little animals and one should always be on the lookout for signs of illness. I made a quick (but by no means comprehensive) checklist to help you stay aware!


When last have you heard your rabbit?

Being prey animals, rabbits are by nature, very quiet creatures. Some domestic rabbits arequiet while some are vocal. The vocal rabbits also tend to become more vocal the older they get. My Beatrice ‘growls’ when she is unhappy (when she does not want to be picked up for instance) and softly yelps when she is content and in my arms. Very few people have had the privilege of ever hearing a rabbit, so I am attaching a recording (mp3) of the sounds Beatrice made last night as she was cuddled in my arms, under a blanket, gently dozing and dreaming bunny dreams...


What does your rabbit see?

I confess to being 100% guilty of anthropomorphism and will always assign human characteristics and reason to Beatrice’s behaviour. I decide, based on body posture and whatever phobia I suffer from that day that Beatrice is sad, depressed or happy.  This morning in fact, I saw that her litter box was a bit drier compared to yesterday and decided that based on the way she was reclining on her mattress (I know...), she was in pain – so she must have bladder infection.  Yes, I’m beyond help. But I digress... just watching Beatrice, often makes me wonder what exactly she sees when looking at me. So I did a bit of research and to be honest, finished a little disappointed.  Let me explain...


A human retina (light-sensitive layer at the back of the eye) contains two types of photoreceptors – rods and cones. There are more rods than cones and only the cones are sensitive to colour. The cones are concentrated in an indented area called the fovea. The fovea contains no rods. The rods are spread over a large area of the retina outside the fovea. Rods give us night vision, motion detection and peripheral vision. Cones give us colour perception (red, green and blue) and high resolution.


Back to rabbit eyes. Rabbits also have more rods than cones but have fewer cones than our eyes do. Also, the rabbit will not perceive green and blue the way we do which gives them limited colour perception. The rods give rabbits better vision in low light conditions than humans, but with lower resolution (a grainy image) than our daytime images (because we have cones for red, blue and green and simply more of them).  Rabbits have only two types of cones (blue and green), and fewer of them so a part of the rabbit’s spectrum is in the colours that blue and green can produce as well as black and white. The rabbit’s eyes are on the side of the head causing the rabbit not to have full depth perception.  However, they do have an almost 360 degree field of vision with a small blind spot (of about 10 degrees) right in front of the nose.  This leaves the rabbit with an area of about 20 degrees in which it has depth perception (compared to our 180 degrees). Rabbits are also far sighted. This helps them spot a predator from afar.

So the rabbit sees a colour shifted, almost black and white, ‘flattish’ and somewhat grainy world. They judge distance by observing the size difference between objects.  Also, a closer object seems to move more than a distant object (this is called parallax). So if one object has more movement than another, it must be closer to the rabbit.  Now you know why your rabbit bobs its head up and down – it is judging the distance!

How well does the grainy, colour shifted image serve the rabbit?  Quite well actually. Rabbits see OK in half-light rather than excellently in light or dark. Now you know why rabbits are crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk and dozing during the day). Rabbits do not see so well at night because they do not have a tapetum – the structure that amplifies light in the eye.  Your rabbit thus recognises you by your shape, movement and smell rather than your face.  Now you know why your rabbit can be startled when you enter the room carrying a big object!  By the way, rabbits don’t blink as often as we do – humans blink about 15 times a minute whereas rabbits blink about 12 times an hour. The reason for this is the third eyelid (called the nictitating membrane) that protects the eye and keeps it moist.


I have tried to re-create the rabbit’s vision based on what we know. The image on the right has the red spectrum removed and the grainy effect added.  Notice the colour shift and reduced detail. Of course we can't really know what it looks like. And we don’t know what the rabbit really sees - when the rabbit turns sideways and looks at you with one eye, what does the brain do with the other eye’s image? Are the images combined into one? Back to Beatrice. In my anthropomorphism soaked world, Beatrice is supposed to see what I see, to see me, her loving farther in full focus and detail, noting my greying temples and eyes full of love for her. Alas, it is not be... but she kisses me when I hug her. She knows me. And that's good enough.















Your rabbit and the vacuum cleaner

Indoor rabbits face a few lurking dangers such as poisonous plants, electric cables and so on. Let’s look at another, often overlooked, danger – indoor pollutants.

The rabbit respiratory system is much more sensitive than ours is. Also, our human noses are some distance above the floor whereas the rabbit’s nose is only a very short distance from the floor. This means that your bunny is in much closer contact to the pollutants trapped in your carpets and rugs than you are. If you are not regularly vacuuming the floor or carpet, you may be exposing your rabbit to pollutants that can cause respiratory ailments. (Must confess, this is an eye opener to me…)

Household cleaning materials can also be hazardous to a rabbit. Many products cause strong fumes or smells which can affect your bunny. When cleaning the rabbit’s area, move the rabbit somewhere else or let it enjoy its supervised outdoor playtime while the indoor area is being cleaned. Also, do not spray furniture-cleaning products, room fresheners or personal care products (such as deodorants) in the same room as the rabbit, even if the spray is of a non-aerosol type.

Now you know :-)


Are you a true rabbit lover?

Ever wondered if you are a true rabbit lover or just a rabbit keeper?  Being a rabbit keeper is OK, but being a rabbit lover is more OK!  Let’s get the obvious out of the way:

  • a rabbit keeper normally knows the commitment and responsibilities required to keep a pet rabbit.   

  • The rabbit keeper provides for the rabbit properly in terms of general care, diet, safety, accommodation and health needs.   

  • The rabbit keeper interacts with the rabbit or rabbits.   

  • The rabbit keeper hopefully provides caged rabbits with lots of supervised free roaming time.


But what else?  What sets you apart from a mere caretaker? What elevates you a true rabbit lover? You want to be brave and check yourself?

See how many of the following points you can mark as applying to you – what is your score out of 15? Every time you do not agree, subtract 1 from your score, starting with 15. My personal score is 13 out of 15. I am waiting for somebody with a 15 out of 15 score!


  1. For me personally, the true rabbit lover will prefer the rabbit to be indoors with the family - a house rabbit, rather than caged outside with only occasional interaction at feeding times.   

  2. This close interaction helps you to much better ‘read’ your rabbit and helps you to quickly become aware of any abnormal behaviour.   

  3. Abnormal rabbit behaviour will cause you to worry or stress.   

  4. The true rabbit lover accepts the complex nature of rabbits - that the rabbit is completely unlike a cat or dog and you will not try to apply the same set of dog or cat rules to the rabbit.   

  5. The true rabbit lover accepts that a pet rabbit may not react in the same way to discipline as a dog for instance, but rather just become scared and stressed. You need to adjust your behaviour when dealing with the rabbit in order to house train it.   

  6. You realise that rabbits are motivated by reward, not punishment.   

  7. The true rabbit lover will thus try to understand the rabbit’s motivation for its behaviour and not constantly try to force a change in the rabbit’s behaviour, accommodating the natural behaviour where possible and appropriate.   

  8. The true rabbit lover will never even consider ‘getting rid’ of the rabbit when the rabbit does not meet the family’s expectations. A pet rabbit is thus never disposable.   

  9. The true rabbit lover instinctively understands that having a pet rabbit is a lifelong commitment – that the rabbit is a companion to you for its life. You find this logical and non negotiable.   

  10. You may adjust or even postpone your holiday plans around the needs of your pet rabbit.   

  11. A true rabbit lover will look beyond any behavioural shortcomings or physical disabilities. So instead defaulting to euthanasia because the rabbit that does not meet your human standards, you will care for the challenged rabbit and grant it its chance to life.   

  12. You will only consider euthanasia in extreme cases where suffering cannot be alleviated.   

  13. The idea of eating rabbits fills you with horror and the idea cannot even be contemplated. The topic may not even be open to discussion for you.

  14. True rabbit lovers will always strive for and try to promote rabbit adoption.   

  15. You will most likely give your rabbit a funeral of some kind to mourn its passing and to help you come to terms with the rabbit’s death.

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