This is a common question and it makes sense as these fluffy bunnies do seem to be less of a sight when the cold weather comes around, but do rabbits hibernate?
Rabbit hibernation is a bit of a misconception. Rabbits do not hibernate.
Wild rabbits survive off bugs, tree bark and grass, they are able to find enough food to stay alive throughout the cold temperatures of the winter season.
And pet rabbits, given the proper care, have a place to stay warm and a good food supply. Many animals do hibernate, however, but wild rabbits and pet rabbits will not.
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Why do Animals Hibernate?
Before we discuss rabbit hibernation, we need to understand why animals hibernate, and its all down to food.
Some wild animals have adapted to the changes in their environment brought on by cold weather. The word hibernation comes from the Latin term hibernare, which according to wiktionary, means to pass winter.
When the season enters winter and long periods of cold weather set in, the landscape changes and food availability reduce. Unable to get the nutrients they need to survive, animals enter a dormant state known as hibernation.
Their metabolic rate drops, to as little as 2% of its normal rate. The heart rate slows, their breathing slows and their body temperature decreases. Their body does just enough to keep the blood pumping and their organs working.
They enter a state of deep sleep and this enables them to survive the darkness of winter. Some species of animals are able to survive weeks without the need to eat, drink or poop.
To prepare for this, animals that do hibernate spend the weeks and months leading up to winter eating as much as possible, taking advantage of weather conditions to build up a good store of a special brown fat that their body will use as energy during the big snooze.
Which Animals Hibernate?
When you think about wildlife hibernating, the first one that springs to mind is the bear. You can just picture big bears, snuggled up in underground burrows, taking shelter from a harsh winters snow.
But, believe it or not, bears do not actually hibernate! Instead, they go into a deep sleep known as Torpor.
But, many different animals hibernate, not just mammals, and some are surprising!
Bumblebees – The Queen Bee will spend the winter months in a borrow, only emerging to lay eggs once the weather warms up.
Snakes – Many species of snake hibernate, and some actually form large groups to help retain body heat. Not a sight we really want to see!
Groundhogs – Aside from the bear, groundhogs, or woodchucks as they are also known, are famous hibernators, typically bedding themselves in their burrow from November to February.
So why don’t Rabbits Hibernate?
As we now know, Hibernation is used by many animals that wouldn’t be able to find the food sources they need to survive normally.
But for wild rabbits, they are able to find enough food to get the nutrition they need. No rabbit species are known to hibernate.
They do however need to adapt.
What do rabbits do in the winter?
In the warmer months, when nature provides an abundance of greens for our wild rabbit to feed on, food is less of a concern. But, when the grasses die back, and shrubs and bushes lose their leaves, food is harder to come by.
In the winter, rabbits adapt their diets to what is available. In the absence of grass and leaves, they start to eat more of a wood-based diet, which is easier to find.
Bark, twigs and branches from trees, pine needles from evergreen trees and tree buds will now form the bulk of the wild rabbit’s diet.
Rabbits eat their own pellets.
Rabbit poop is partially digested and contains a good amount of vitamins and minerals to help supplement their winter diets.
Food is not the only concern for wild rabbits in winter. With the cold weather and low light conditions, vegetation density decreases.
The cover that the bunny once used to hide from predators is a scarcity, and its harder for the animal to find hiding places away from danger. And with much of its prey in hibernation, the predator is extra hungry.
Again, a rabbit in the wild will adapt and seek shelter wherever it can. Holes in tree stumps, evergreen brush piles or hedgerows all provide not only cover from the attention of predators, but insulation from the elements to help rabbits stay warm.
To combat the cold wind and rain, rabbits grow a thicker fur coat, which can also be a different color to help camouflage them to the changing landscape and further protect them from predators.
Winter is a tough time for the wild bunnies, and as much as the creatures have adapted, survival rates are low and many rabbits don’t make the spring.
Using the eastern cottontail rabbit (sylvilagus floridanus) as an example, it’s estimated that only 30% survive the winter.
How cold a temperature can rabbits survive in?
Wild rabbits can adapt to cold temperatures, some as low as 32 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the Arctic Hare is king of the winter rabbits. There have adapted to live in conditions as low as -40 F. They do this by maintaining a high body fat content and by spending the harsh winter months in deep burrows, where they’ll rest and converse energy.
Are rabbits less active in the winter?
While rabbits don’t hibernate through the winter they still aren’t as active in the winter as they are throughout the spring and summer seasons.
Food in the winter is harder to come by though so rabbits change what they consume slightly. This paired with them staying in woody vegetation, as it is the best food source for them when the weather gets colder, would explain them not being seen as much through the winter months.
Do rabbits have babies in the winter?
The average breeding season for rabbits starts mid-February and lasts until late summer.
The mother rabbit will not give birth to litters in the winter. It’s a hard enough season for adult rabbits, let alone newborn kits and young rabbit, which is why reproduction is saved for warmer climates.
Why Do Rabbits Mainly Appear In The Spring Months?
It’s true that you will see a lot more rabbits in the spring. But, this isn’t due to them awaking from hibernation.
Longer days, warmer conditions, and the onsite of the mating season is the reason why you see more rabbits out in the fields. In fact, the spring brings out more humans too doesn’t it!
Caring for rabbits in the winter
A domesticated pet rabbit has it a lot easier than its cousins in the wild, which would explain why their life span is generally longer.
But as caring pet owners, we should make a few adjustments to the rabbits hutch when the weather turns cold to make them as comfortable as possible.
Preparing the rabbit hutch for winter
The rabbit hutch should provide adequate protection from exposure to winds and rain.
Make sure it’s raised off the ground to prevent moisture from entering through the base which can cause damp.
Check the felted roof and walls for holes or leaks to stop water from entering the hutch. If possible move the hutch to a sheltered part of the yard.
Rabbit hutch covers are also a great idea for the winter as they provide extra protection and insulation.
Make sure you provide plenty of warm bedding, like hay. Rabbits love to make a nest from their bedding in the winter. A layer of straw under the soft hay will help keep their bodies warmer.
If the conditions are really bad, and you have room in a shed or garage, consider moving your pet inside for the winter.
Have a look at our guide to the best hutches and shelters for more ideas and information.
What to feed your rabbit in the winter
When food is readily available, rabbits will eat more in the winter, so make sure you keep their food and water topped up. Supplement their diet with fresh vegetables for that important vitamin c.
It’s important that your pets get exercise in the winter.
If possible, let them out to stretch their legs. If it’s not too harsh, then a run around the garden is great. Don’t forget, predators are still problems in the winter, so a cage or similar will keep them safe.
If it’s too cold outside, then bring them into your homes for a snuffle about with the family. A kitchen or utility room with a hard floor makes it easier to clean up the poop after!
We hope this blog answers all your questions, including ‘do rabbits hibernate?’
If you would like any further advice, ideas for extra equipment, or tips to make things easier for your pets, check out the rest of the website or drop us an email with any questions. Another great resource is the House Rabbit Society Website.