Summer is here and we are enjoying long, hot days. While the sunshine is delightful did you know that it can be downright dangerous for our rabbit and guinea pig pets? These little critters are at increased risk of heat stress and it can be fatal!

Rabbits and guinea pigs find it difficult to cool themselves. They don’t sweat and panting is a very poor way for them to cool themselves. Avoidance is their main method of coping – in the wild they would retreat to a cool, shaded spot or down into a cool burrow. In a cage, stuck in the hot sun, they cannot retreat and can overheat very easily. Temperatures in excess of 25 degrees Celsius can be associated with heat stress and we certainly get many days much hotter than that in Canberra!

What does a heat stressed rabbit or guinea pig look like?

Rabbits and guinea pigs will be:

  • quiet and still, they often stretch out and lie flat
  • they may pant or have an elevated respiratory rate
  • they may look dazed or have their eyes partially closed and be less responsive than normal
  • the ears have large blood vessels near the surface of the skin so they can be used as natural “air conditioners” to release extra heat. The ears in an overheated rabbit will become very warm.
  • the rabbit’s gums and conjunctiva, which is the pinkish tissue under the eyelids, will become dark red and look congested.

A rabbit or guinea pig suffering heat stroke may collapse, become hyperactive or behave in a bizarre way or have a seizure. The ears may actually become cool as the animal slips into shock.

What should you do if your rabbit or guinea pig shows signs of heat stress?

Move them to a cool place immediately. Give them a bath in cool, not cold water. Don’t use ice packs or iced water as this can send them into shock.

Bring them straight to the veterinary clinic for assessment. In some cases simple cooling is sufficient. In other cases further treatment such as intravenous fluids, glucose or other measures are necessary.

What else can you do to prevent heat stress?

The most important thing you can do is ensure your pet is housed in a cool environment or can retreat to a well-insulated and cool resting place. By cool, ensure the temperature does not rise above 25 degrees Celsius. Frozen water bottles can provide a good basic ‘air conditioner’ and it’s very important to ensure your pet has free access to water at all times. On very hot days, outside is not appropriate for these animals and you should bring them indoors to protect them.