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Taking in the Outdoors
By Julie Smith
(Wisconsin House Rabbit News)
Dangers of all kinds-humans, raccoons, cats, dogs-make the outdoor rabbit hutch a trap for a bunny, even if a predator cannot enter. A few weeks ago I was outside the windows of the foster room taking down the storms and putting on the screens, and I got a demonstration of what happens in the outdoor hutch. Sensing a presence outside the window, several of the rabbits tore around their cages with a terrible velocity that might have caused serious injury had I not intervened. Extreme temperatures, greater vulnerability to parasites, isolation are all reasons to house the rabbit indoors. However, bunnies love to take in the sun, breezes, and smells of the outside. Our challenge is to find a safe means for them to do this.Enclosed Porches, Balconies, Courtyards, Windowboxes
A screened-in porch is the ideal compromise between indoors and outdoors. Unfortunately not all of us have one. What we may have, however, is some sort of niche that with a little bit of ingenuity on our part can be turned into a safe sunning place for the Bun.
I have a small balcony on my second floor that went unused for years because the railing was not high enough to be safe. Then Carolyn Long built a tall frame over the balcony and screened it in on all sides. Now the balcony is safe for rabbit and cat (and a robin's nest):
Thumper and Thimble reach the balcony from a pet door, and I cannot exaggerate the pleasure they take from this place.
Porches, balconies, or courtyards must have walls that are high and tight enough to prevent the rabbit from escaping. I know of more than one rabbit who can jump a 4-foot barrier, and I also know of ones who have plunged to their deaths over apartment balconies without walls that were high enough. Inspired by the success of the porch, I am going to provide our foster bunnies with screened window boxes in their playroom. These will jut out from the windows and have ramps to make them bunny accessible.Outdoor Runs and Pens
An outdoor pen in a shady backyard can offer the bunny a very pleasant running space, particularly in the morning and evening of early summer and fall, when the temperature is cool and the insect count low. Midsummer days in Wisconsin, however, seem too hot, humid, and buggy for the rabbits to enjoy themselves. I've noticed that the bunnies are bothered by the mosquitoes on these sultry days. In the HRS runs, I put water, something to hide in, and a hay box. All runs have a top and bottom; even so, I stick close to the house when the rabbits are outdoors. Escape and predation can happen very quickly, before I could possibly get outside. The tops of our runs are removable and are fastened to the bottoms by matching, top/bottom holes drilled in all four corners. Large nails (not shown) are then pushed into the holes to secure the tops. If the sun is out but the temperature cool, carpet pieces, blankets or plywood over the top turn the runs into shady cabanas. The wire bottoms prevent the rabbits from digging out or pushing themselves out between the ground and the pen wall. The safest temperatures for outdoor play are between 60 and 70 degrees.
Outdoor runs can be moved around the yard to distribute the bunny's waste evenly and to let him have access to constantly new patches of lush (chemically untreated) Wisconsin grass. I don't recommend giving the rabbits a preventative flea spray. They would spend their time licking off the yucky substance rather than enjoying the outdoors. But I do keep the runs away from the bushes, water the lawn to kill flea eggs, and keep the bunnies indoors in August, the height of the flea season.
Plans for the HRS runs can be found in the HRS Journal 1.10 (summer 1989). A number of pet equipment catalogs have exercise pens for sale: Omaha of Nebraska (1-800-367-4440), K.V. Vet Supply (1-800-432-8211), Foster and Smith (1-800-826-7206). The premade runs are expensive, ranging from about $74-$200. Many are unsafe for rabbits, so select carefully.Fenced Yards
Rabbits in yards will build many underground chambers and tunnels. A sight to see, the bunnies use their front legs like little snowplows to bring out the dirt and pile it into huge mounds. This activity is clearly very satisfying for the bunnies but also presents special safety problems.
The tunnels are constantly caving in and may do so when the bunny is inside. Also the tunnels may make catching the rabbit to bring her in at night impossible. Harmful bacteria, infectious worm eggs in raccoon feces, fleas, fly strike, poisonous plants, predators who can jump the fence are all danger in a yard.
Two former HRS bunnies now living in New Glarus have a small fenced yard that solves many of these problems and provides the rabbits with great pleasure. The rabbits can enter and exit the yard at will through a pet door into an insulated garage where they live. In the yard they have ceramic chimney pipes to hide in and, of course, their tunnels. Metal rods driven into the ground 3" apart and 2' down all around the fence have kept the bunnies from digging their way out. The human guardians regularly cave in the tunnels when they get too deep. They also daily inspect the buns for any health problems, including fecal matter in the genital areas that would attract flies. Flies are largely controlled by the use of a pet door, but good quality fly traps are also used, (these vary greatly in effectiveness). The flea problem is controlled by spraying the premises when needed. The ingredient preferred by the House Rabbit Society's veterinary advisors is Carbaryl rather than Pyrethrins. The rabbits need to be kept away from sprayed premises for 24 hours.
Rabbits in this arrangement do not stay litterbox trained, and this means cleaning the garage pen regularly, including scraping frozen pee off of the ground in the winter. The New Glarus adopters report that the waste in the yard is not a great problem: they carted out one pile of soiled straw and waste in the spring. Although the garage is insulated, the cold winter necessitates keeping the drinking water thawed and giving the bunnies a burrowing place, such as a big straw box, for extra warmth. A work or brood lamp with a 100-watt bulb hung about 2' from the floor can provide welcome warmth (make sure the cord is inaccessible).
The House Rabbit Society almost always places its rabbits in human homes, but this combination of garage and yard is a workable one for multiple rabbits who have attentive humans. It was the only one possible for the New Glarus adopters, because they have many rescued animals who must be accommodated. I think it provides an excellent model for a sanctuary for additional rabbits to those in the house. If you have a secure garage, another arrangement that might work for some extra rescued rabbits is a rabbit run, such as the HRS ones described above, attached to the side of a garage with a pet door leading into the garage.Leashes
Rabbits respond to leashes very individually. Some rabbits will go crazy with joy to be outside in their harnesses, leaping up in the air and doing 180 degree turns. The humans must be ready to go any which way and to stop instantly - they won't be able to predict what the bunny will do nor should they yank on the leash. They must keep slack; when the buns go, they run, remaining ready like tennis players to go in any direction.
Some rabbits don't love the leash but won't put up a fight either. Once outside, they just stand there crouched down. The third eyelid may come up to indicate fear. They may start eating what is under their feet or hop a few feet and then stand and eat. This is not great exercise, and they would be better running around a pen or the house. Some rabbits are in abject terror of the harness or the leash. In these cases, the human should not work over and over at getting them to accept it. If the bunny likes it, fine; if not, give it up. The leash should be for the enjoyment of the rabbit.
Even rabbits who love being out on the leash are exposed to great dangers. They can escape from the harness, get tangled up in it, become terrified by noises from motorcycles or airplanes, munch on chemically sprayed lawns, become overheated quickly. An unleashed passing dog can come down on a rabbit so suddenly that the human would not have time to respond.
If your rabbit loves the leash and you have a safe place for her to run, she might go out with you for a short time when the temperature is between 60 and 70 degrees. But she should never, ever be harnessed and tied up outside alone.
I am indebted to Carolyn Long, Marian Bean, and Susan Smedley for information in this article. I also consulted Holly O'Meara's "Outdoor and Indoor Hazards to Companion Rabbits," Rabbit Health News 12 (August 1994); 6-7.