Now that I’ve lived with rabbits for more than twenty years, and learned about older bunnies (hereafter affectionately called elderbuns), I feel more qualified to write about this topic.The first question to ponder is: “How old IS old?” Age in rabbits is determined by many factors; actual chronological years are but a small part. The oldest bunny on our records passed away when he was close to 18 years of age. Two years old when rescued, Wolfie lived with HRS volunteer Pam Dortch another 16 years.Very small and very large rabbits generally live fewer years, but they pack “quality-of-life” into those years. The eldest small bunny I have on record (1.5 lbs) lived ten years. I believe that the emotional bond a rabbit has with his human plays a huge role in longevity, although I have no scientific material to back that statement. What I do know, however, is that many of our Sanctuary bunnies far outlived their “clinical” expectations. Dr. Susan Brown has stated “I think that being in a bonded pair or group is important since rabbits are social beings. The emotional energy around a rabbit is important. For instance, a calm, balanced situation with a human or other rabbit is far more conducive to longevity then an anxiety ridden one or one that has a lack of stimulus.”.
Thus, answering the question “How old is old?” is complicated. Actual years, heredity, emotional bonds and no doubt, a rabbit’s entire care history, all play a part in determining age.
“Oh No! I See Gray Hares!”
Believe it or not, those little white hairs that show up around and behind the ears and elsewhere may be one of the first visual clues that your bunny is getting older. As bunny ages, the fur coat may become thinner and finer, or more “grizzled” and coarse.
Other clues you can expect as your bunny moves into the senior years: Older bunnies’ nails often start to turn outward. Calluses may appear at the nail bed, and the nail itself often becomes thickened. Pay attention to your bunny’s gait. Is he having more difficulty leaping into the litter box? This is another sign of aging and may be an indicator of joint inflammation, arthritis or something more serious. Your veterinarian may have ways that she can help medically, but making small changes in the environment are also beneficial.
Molar malocclusions are common in smaller breed rabbits (and “flat-faced” breeds like lops.) The first thing you may notice is that bunny has difficulty eating, is drooling when eating, or is moving his jaw uncomfortably and perhaps pawing at his face. If your rabbit picks up and then spits out food, if his face is unusually wet after he eats, or he WANTS to eat, but for some reason, turns away from his foods…have his teeth examined by your veterinarian. Molar malocclusions can be cared for easily.
Although incisors are more affected by heredity than age, you should examine bunny’s incisors for abnormalities during a monthly home health check (which should include ears, nose, eyes, teeth, scent glands, nails and fur coat for any age bunny.) Incisor and molar problems may occur at the same time. Geriatric problems such as molar or incisor malocclusions will need a little extra preparation at feeding time. Provide “bite-sized” chunks of fruits, veggies and greens, which are both easier to chew and can be eaten regardless of crooked or missing front teeth.
Once over the Hill, Aging Speeds Up…
Another less common, but more serious sign of age is “rear limb paresis,” paralysis of the back legs. This may be caused by a myriad of factors, including spinal subluxations, tumors, arthritis, parasites, stroke and callused heels. If you see ANY evidence of rear limb problems your veterinarian can determine the cause. Some problems may be relieved with medications to control pain or joint inflammation. There are also measures you can take to help bunny adjust to a less mobile lifestyle.
Is your Elderbun running into things? Maybe he’s not able to see as well as before. Several eye problems may be present in older bunnies, including glaucoma and cataracts. Your veterinarian may refer you to a veterinary ophthalmologist to verify the diagnosis. There may not be medical treatments for some ocular diseases, but environmentally, you can provide a safer and reliably consistent space for bunny to live within. I have known several totally blind elderly rabbits who managed quite well with the companionship of a bonded rabbit friend. Your bunny’s gastrointestinal tract may slow down, too…he may develop signs of bloat more often, such as a hard, “fat” tummy. If the droppings become in any way different than normal, have your veterinarian examine him immediately. Learn how to recognize gut stasis, which is life-threatening (2).
Other problems that may develop as bunny ages include kidney failure and/or bladder or kidney stones or bladder sludge. Evidence you should look for include; sitting in the litter box for a LONG time and/or straining to urinate, excessive urination (more than you normally see), drinking large amounts of water, thick calcium deposits on or in the litter and incontinence (losing previously good litter box habits.) Other signs may be painful abdomen because of kidney stones). A urinalysis and other tests performed by your veterinarian will help determine the exact nature of bunny’s problems.
If your rabbit is not spayed or neutered, the risk of testicular or ovarian/uterine cancer becomes increasingly high as bunny ages. Females especially, are at a very high risk from as early as one year of age. Altering greatly increases bunny’s life expectancy. Even healthy older rabbits can be spayed safely. There are many other health issues that rabbits may develop as they age, so how can you help keep your elderly bunny Elderbun healthy? Read on.
CBC+PCV+WBC+X-Rays=Bunny’s Health Equation
Because so many serious elderbun diseases are not visually apparent, an annual or semi-annual “Wellness Examination” is very important for your bunny’s health. The HRS advises that the following tests are done by two years of age to provide a baseline to which later senior tests can be compared: A Complete Blood Count (CBC), Packed Cell Volume (PCV), and White Blood Count (WBC,) all help measure how well a bunny’s immune system is functioning, as well as displaying evidence of subclinical(3) dehydration and disease. Radiographs(4) (full-body x-rays), can help identify kidney or bladder stones (uroliths), tooth root infections, abnormal masses and other potential problems.
After the baseline examination, HRS advises beginning annual Wellness Examinations at about four years of age to monitor the health status and look for any developing problems. The sooner you find a potential problem, the better your veterinarian will be able to investigate methods of disease management. For older bunnies, annual or semi-annual tests may save you and your rabbit a great deal of unnecessary pain…and his Life.
Small Comforts in the Twilight Years
For starters, give him “a room with a view.” Most bunnies are social creatures (if your elderbun is the exception, then give him the quieter space he craves.) Set up his safe space where the daily activities happen around him. He can watch the family, the friendly cat or another rabbit. Sometimes a beloved companion bunny or a “nurse” bunny will provide loving care for him. At our home, Gardenia Bunny was our Florence Nightingale, lovingly attending to any and all.
Physically disabled bunnies appreciate soft flooring, such as synthetic sheepskin rugs. They are easy to wash and replace. Make sure Bunny is able to reach his food and water by using low bowls or placing the water bottle close to the floor for him. Keep supplying that fun, nutritious hay.
If bunny is still mobile, but has difficulty jumping into the litterpan, cut the front down to a manageable height (smooth the edges) for him. Litterpans sold for dogs already have one lower side. An Elderbun might need help performing simple grooming tasks, such as ear cleaning and scratching.
If his back-end seems messy all the time, rule out medical causes first. It helps to keep the fur trimmed short (your veterinarian can show you how to do this). The back-end can be spot-cleaned with warm water and a mild solution prescribed by your veterinarian. Dry the fur WELL with towels and a hair-drier set on low, placing your hand nearby to gauge the heat level.
Many of my former sanctuary bunnies lived ten to fourteen years, even those with on-going health issues. Here’s hoping that you enjoy your rabbit’s companionship for many, many years!
- Some coat changes may signal disease, such as hormonal imbalance with adrenal disease or ovarian disease (if not neutered); kidney disease; liver disease, etc. The skin and hair coat can be a reflection of internal condition…also dietary issues.
- See the health section for articles on GI stasis.
- Sub-clinical: disease is not apparent by visual examination.
House Rabbit Journal Winter 2008: Volume V, Number 3