By Dr. Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Small animal pets, such as rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, are very popular companions for families and individuals who live in smaller homes, as these animals don’t typically require a great deal of space. However, all small pets need to spend time out of their cages for exercise, and bunnies, specifically, benefit medically from time outdoors.
Which small pets should go outside?
Small rodents, such as guinea pigs, hamsters and gerbils, are all prey species. For this reason, they may get stressed easily when they are outside, exposed to all the sights and sounds (including the vocalizations of predators) of the great outdoors. While some small rodents may enjoy being exposed to fresh air and sunlight, outdoor time for these small pets isn’t required for their health and well-being.
Outdoor time for rabbits, however, can be very beneficial. Rabbits are prey species, as well, so like their small rodent counterparts, they also may become stressed when they are brought outside. Pet rabbits are a completely different species from the wild bunnies that hop outside on our lawns, so they must not be left out to walk on the grass, as wild rabbits do. Yet, being outside can be good for pet rabbits under the right circumstances.
Studies have shown that many indoor rabbits develop a medical condition called metabolic bone disease in which their teeth and bones don’t develop properly because they are not exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, which is required for adequate vitamin D formation in their bodies. Without adequate vitamin D, they don’t absorb calcium from their food properly, and their teeth and bones don’t form correctly. In particular, they develop dental problems, such as malformed and infected teeth, which left untreated, can be life-threatening. Taking pet rabbits outside exposes them to direct sunlight, unfiltered by window glass, enabling their bodies to form vitamin D and absorb calcium from their food. While sunlight exposure may not completely prevent the development of metabolic bone disease in pet rabbits, it may decrease the likelihood of its occurrence.
How much outdoor time is necessary for small pets?
If pet rodents, such as guinea pigs, hamsters and gerbils, are brought outside, 10-15 minutes a day is enough. These animals typically thrive at indoor temperatures, so if small pets are brought outside, they must not be exposed to extreme temperatures—either too hot or too cold. In direct sunlight, they can become overheated, and in freezing temperatures, they can suffer frostbite. They must have a shaded area, such as a cardboard box or paper towel roll, in which to hide, and bedding in which to bury themselves if they get cold.
Pet rabbits, too, do not need to be outside for more than a few minutes each day to get benefits from UV light. Like small rodents, they can become overheated (typically at temperatures over 80°F) since they are not able to sweat when they get hot.
They should never be left in direct sunlight, without access to shade, and they should always have a source of water—either through a sipper bottle or bowl—available to help them stay cool. Pet rabbits are also susceptible to frostbite on sparsely haired body parts, such as their ears, nose and toes, so they should never be allowed out if it is below freezing, and ideally not at temperatures below 50-60°F, especially without access to shelter.
What’s the best way to take your small pet outdoors?
If you plan on taking your small rodents outside, they must be kept in secure, locked cages and should never be left unsupervised. These tiny escape artists are excellent at getting out of even the safest enclosures. Plus, predatory wildlife, such as hawks, are notorious for swooping down and reaching into cages with their long talons to scoop up rodents. Thus, small pets should constantly be monitored when they are outside, even when they are in cages.
If pet rabbits are allowed out of their cages to run around, they should be allowed access only to untreated grass, as many fertilizers and pesticides can be toxic to bunnies if ingested. They, too, must be watched constantly, since predators such as foxes, coyotes, hawks and even neighborhood dogs are quick to snatch a pet bunny outside. They can be kept in cages in the shade or allowed out in safe, penned-off areas, such as enclosed porches or runs.
Some rabbits can be trained to walk outside with a leash and harness, but not all rabbits enjoy this. Rabbits that walk outside should be checked afterwards for fleas, ticks and parasites such as maggots or botflies that bury under their skin. They should also be kept away from puddles and other sources of standing water that may contain bacteria or toxins. If you are planning on taking your rabbit or other small pets outside, be sure to speak to your veterinarian first for advice on particular precautions to take.