Information for owners of Rabbits, Chickens, Guinea Pigs, Birds, Dogs and Cats
Keeping pets is one of life’s great pleasures. They are great companions, and depending on your animal of choice, potentially productive. The ability to just pop to the end of your garden for a freshly laid hens egg for your Sunday morning fry-up is a fantastic luxury to have. But just as you need a nice shady area to relax when the sun is high in the sky, chances are so do your pets. Likewise, when the great British weather makes an inevitable reappearance, your beloved companions are desperate for a warm and dry area too.
So what options do you have? There are literally hundreds of purpose built covers for your outdoor pets available on the market today, all with their advantages and disadvantages. But what if you need something more versatile? Constructing your own cage or coop for your animals is a fantastic way of saving some much needed cash, but when it comes to protecting your pets in inclement weather your ‘ready-made’ options may be limited by your choice of design. For any sort of domestic animal enclosure, regardless of shape and size, I would recommend either a good quality tarpaulin, or some heavy duty polythene sheeting.
Top Tip: It is important to allow a through-flow of air for obvious reasons. Try and get the balance right between covering the cage or coop and making sure that your animals have enough fresh air. Information on each animal can be found further down the page.
A tarpaulin is a large sheet of flexible, waterproof or water-resistant material. This can vary from light duty polyethylene right up to heavy duty PVC or canvas. Most tarps have prefixed eyelets (Figure1) at regular intervals along each edge and in the corners which allow for easy attachment to a structure, in this case, an animal enclosure. For the purposes of this article I’m going to look at 2 types of tarpaulin in particular. A monotex (clear with reinforced rope running through it); and a glass clear (PVC) tarpaulin. These offer the most in terms of value for money, and in my opinion they are the best type of cover for the job.
A monotex tarpaulin is basically 2 polyethylene sheets with a fine filament mesh interior. The PE outer layers are light and waterproof, whilst the inner mesh construction reinforces the tarp, making a strong, durable cover. Most monotex tarpaulins are around the 175 grams per square metre (GSM) mark, which means they are considerably more durable than economy tarps (80gsm), but much more lightweight than a canvas tarp (approx. 500gsm). I would recommend choosing a reasonably lightweight tarp for this sort of application, as a heavy duty cover may put excessive pressure on some structures, especially those that are a few years old. An advantage this variety has over the glass clear tarpaulin I’m going to detail shortly is that it will create partial shade, which is invaluable in the hot summer months making this sort of cover great for all year round protection. However, it must me noted that coloured monotex polytarps aren’t see-through, so may perhaps be more suited to a roof rather than walls, although there are clear monotex tarps available that do offer limited visibility.
A glass clear tarpaulin is a more heavyweight sheet, normally made with polyvinylchloride (PVC). Commonly used on market stalls, they offer protection from the elements where excellent visibility is required, making them ideal as a cover for your pets enclosure. It’s completely transparent, so ideal for surrounding a pet enclosure you want to keep an eye on, and although slightly more heavy duty (310gsm), it’s light enough not to cause a problem. However if you choose to use this type, it should always be removed in strong sunlight. If you’ve ever stood in a greenhouse for a long period of time then you’ll know exactly why, and you’ll understand that this type of tarp will have the same effect. To secure either type to your structure, you can use a number of different available fixings. The most widely available are cable ties. Loop them through the eyelets, and around the wooden or metal supports of your enclosure. I’d avoid using the cage itself, as it’s unlikely it will be strong enough to support the weight of even the lightest of polytarps. Alternatively you could use a bungee type fixing for the same task, which offer a stronger, more weatherproof option. My tip would be ball bungees. They’re strong and easy to use, long lasting, and very handy for a multitude of other tasks. Make sure you spread the force evenly over the whole area of the tarp to avoid any damage to eyelets, and always keep an eyelet repair kit in your garden shed for any necessary running repairs.
Polyethylene, commonly shortened to polythene or PE, is the world’s most widely produced plastic.
There are 2 industry standard units used to measure the thickness of polythene sheets, gauge and microns (Mu). To make life easy when comparing suppliers who may use different units, the gauge measurement is 4 times the microns. I’d recommend using 1000 gauge polythene for animal enclosures. This achieves the best balance between flexibility and strength, whist remaining puncture resistant and lightweight. Depending on the supplier and the quantity you order, it may arrive either as a folded sheet or on a roll (figure 2).
When constructing your cover, try and order sheets big enough to minimise the need for seams. They will always be the weakest part of the cover and may tear in high winds, or leak in torrential rain. Make sure you tape any joins securely to minimise draughts. Buy a good eyelet repair kit and create your own eyelets. This will make the job of securing your custom made sheet to the structure considerably easier, and allows the use of a much wider range of fixings. Then use your chosen fixing to secure your cover to the animal pens supporting poles. When fixing eyelets to the sheet double up the edges to create hems. Hems give the edges extra strength and help to keep the sheet secure. Make sure the cover is pulled tight, and if you’re using polythene for the roof, you need to create a slight angle of at least 8°. This will allow rain to run off, and prevent standing water. You could also use this to channel water into a gutter, supplying your animals with drinking water every time the heavens open. But remember, as with the glass clear tarps you need to remove polythene in strong sunlight to prevent a ‘greenhouse’ effect possibly causing distress or ill health to your pets.
Keeping different pets warm in winter
Finally, let’s look at different sorts of outside pets that you may have, and what their individual needs are. As previously mentioned, chickens are fairly good at regulating their body temperature so in reasonably temperate climates they simply need a rain cover. Ensure they have adequate ventilation, as the build-up of ammonia from their waste can cause problems for both the animals and the poor soul that has to enter their coop to feed them.
Rabbits are a little more complicated. Although it’s a common myth that they hibernate throughout the cold winter months, their behaviour will change. They will become considerably less active, preferring to spend hours in a cosy corner than merrily hopping about. You may find that they start to eat more. This is their instinct causing them to associate cold weather with scarce food, and they will also be looking to build a nice insulating layer of fat. As with all outside animals, make sure their hutch is appropriately covered with plastic sheeting or a polytarp, and there is ventilation but no strong draughts. If possible elevate their hutch off the floor, and if possible keep them in pairs. Rabbits are very sociable animals, and will huddle together to keep warm. Resist the urge to bring them inside as they will shed their winter coat very quickly in the warmth of your house, and they will suffer when returned to their hutch.
Guinea pigs originate from much warmer climates, South America in particular, so their needs will be far greater in winter. As with rabbits, make sure their hutch is adequately covered, raised off the floor, and keep them in pairs if possible. A great tip is to buy some garden frost fleece as an extra layer of insulation. It’s cheap to buy, widely available, and will help create a temperate microclimate for them. Make sure the fleece goes under the exterior polytarp or plastic sheet, as it’s considerably better at insulating when it stays dry. You could also use fleece offcuts as additional bedding.
Finally, birds should always be kept in a shed or outhouse if possible. The majority of domestic birds originate from much warmer climates, and the rest would certainly fly south for the winter. Make sure the outhouse is adequately insulated, draught free, and waterproof. If prone to leaks, follow the steps I’ve recommended with polythene or tarpaulins to create a warm, dry and comfortable area for your pets to await the summer months.