This condition is not common in healthy rabbits, since rabbits are able to cope with the cold temperatures in a usual UK winter, and rabbits have a fur covering on their entire body, including their feet. Their ears are the only part that is not fully furred.
What cold temperatures affect rabbits?
Rabbits can adapt and cope with the cold weather, but do not cope with damp, wet and draughty conditions. If rabbits are ill, very young, elderly or recovering from surgery, they are less able to maintain their normal body temperature and problems arising from cold weather are much more likely to occur.
During autumn rabbits grow a thick winter coat, which helps to protect them from cold weather in the winter. If they are suddenly placed outside in cold weather, and their coat has not adapted, they will struggle to keep warm. They also snuggle together to keep warm, so should always be kept in pairs, and be supplied with extra bedding and hides to keep warm in. Healthy rabbits can live happily in sub-zero temperatures, as long as they are kept in the right conditions and are healthy.
Why does frostbite happen?
Although not common in rabbits, frostbite can occur and happens when the extremities (such as the tips of the ears, nose and toes) are exposed to freezing temperatures, or immersed/dipped in water, which freezes on these areas. If the rabbit is a lop-eared rabbit and the ears drag on the ground, or the tips get dipped in their water bowl this may lead to the condition. The water will freeze on the tips of the ears, causing the blood supply to the tip of the ears to be reduced, leading to tissue necrosis and the tips of the ears dying and falling off. This can also happen on the toes and nose or potentially other areas of the body.
What are the signs?
Initially, you are unlikely to notice anything, but the skin on the affected areas may become very pale with a blue/white colouring, resulting in the lack of blood flow to the area. The affected area will feel cold, and the rabbit may not react to it being touched, since the sense of feeling may have already been lost. As the condition develops the affected area will start to change colour and die off, before falling off entirely.
When should I take my rabbit to my vet?
You should take your rabbit to see your vet if you notice the signs of frost bite or you are concerned in anyway. Frost bite is unlikely to be fatal, but there may be an underlying cause for it. Heart disease can be a factor since this will affect blood flow to the extremities. Frost bite can also be a factor in hypothermia (low body temperature), which is serious and potentially life-threatening. Your rabbit may also need pain relief and other supportive treatment.
Is it painful?
As the skin dies off, so do the nerves, so it is unlikely to be painful, but may be uncomfortable for the rabbit to varying degrees, depending upon the location and size of the area affected. For this reason, you should always consult your vet, who can prescribe the appropriate treatment.
What can I do to prevent it?
Make sure your rabbits are kept in clean and dry conditions and their litter trays are kept clean. In colder weather, supply them with extra bedding to allow them to sit on extra hay and dig and bury into it if they want to. Lop-eared rabbits are more at risk if they accidently dip their ears into water bowls in the cold weather, so using smaller water bowls may help with this, so they cannot get their entire head into the bowl.
If you are concerned that your rabbit may suffer from frostbite or other associated conditions in the colder weather of the year, consider their housing arrangements, and bring them inside or place them in a more sheltered building, such as an unused shed or garage, bearing in mind they still require access to a large area to exercise and must still have daylight and fresh, circulating air each day.