Rabbits are prey animals, and as such, can hide their symptoms when sick. It’s up to you, then, to watch them carefully, and to note the slight changes in their personality and behavior that might indicate that they are sick. Following are some medical issues that you should take note of when living with a house rabbit.
GI Stasis/Not Eating
GI Stasis is probably the most common rabbit ailment. You will almost certainly encounter it sometime in a rabbit’s life. GI Stasis refers to the condition where a rabbit suddenly stops eating. Such a rabbit won’t even eat his favorite treat. The danger when this happens is the rabbit’s body temperature begins to fall rapidly. You can lose a rabbit to hypothermia in a matter of HOURS. You need to determine NOW how you will restore or stop the drop in body temperature while you’re rushing your rabbit to the veterinarian. One of the best ways to do this is to place a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel in the bottom of a carrier and place the rabbit on top of it. Microwave bags that can be heated, or even a bottle or jar with a good seal could be used instead. Warning: It is imperative you do not allow your rabbit to get wet! Getting wet may cause the rabbit’s body temperature to drop faster!)
GI Stasis is can be treated, but it is deadly if the body temperature drops low enough or appropriate treatment is not given quickly enough. Typical treatment includes a motility drug, warm subcutaneous fluids, and Simethicone if there is bloating. If bloating is causing pain, it is very important for pain medications to be given. Find out more here.
The first indication of an infection may be a runny nose or eye, sometimes a high temperature, sometimes a rattling sound from the lungs or (rarely) a coughing sound. It is important to see your veterinarian as soon as the first symptoms of any infection appear, as they are more easily cured when caught in the early stages. The bacteria you may hear the most about is called Pasteurella. This used to be a major problem, but with the newer antibiotics, this bacteria can often be eliminated. And, if not totally eliminated, it can be controlled with the use of long term antibiotics. Most of the symptoms described are quite common for many types of bacteria, so it is important to have your veterinarian do a culture to determine exactly what is being treated. Find out more here.
Never let a veterinarian give your rabbit amoxicillin. It is a pink liquid antibiotic that smells like bubble gum. Amoxicillin is very dangerous for rabbits, and has killed many more than it has helped. Any penicillin-based drug can be dangerous for your rabbit, so try to find a veterinarian who is knowledgeable about rabbit-safe antibiotics, and who is familiar with the safer drugs such as enrofloxins such as Baytril or Cipro, Chloramphenicol, or sulfa-drugs based like Septra or TMS.
High or Low Temperature
A rabbit’s normal temperature ranges from 101.3-104F (38.3-39.4C). A temperature much below or above that means your rabbit is in danger. One of the first steps to take is to bring the temperature down if it’s too high, or up if it’s too low, regardless of the underlying symptoms, because the high or low temperature itself could seriously harm or kill your rabbit. Cooling your rabbit’s ears with ice cubes or cool water or warming your rabbit up with a heating pad is a good way to quickly equalize his or her temperature. If you do not know how to take your rabbit’s rectal temperature, it’s a good idea to have your veterinarian show you how to do so before you have an emergency. Always use a plastic thermometer, to eliminate the danger of the thermometer breaking off inside if the bunny gives a strong kick.
Rabbits’ urine varies in color from clear to yellow to brown to bright red. This is usually not a cause for alarm unless there are additional signs such as sitting and straining to urinate, loss of appetite or temperature. When you see red urine, don’t panic. Just keep your eyes open for other signs that might indicate a problem. If in doubt, you can have your veterinarian test to see whether there is blood in the urine.
House Rabbit Society has had many thousands of rabbits spayed or neutered with approximately .1% mortality due to anesthesia. On the other hand, the risk of reproductive cancer (which is fatal) for an unspayed female rabbit stands at approximately 85%, which makes spaying a necessity. For male rabbits, the benefits are primarily behavioral (eliminating spraying and hormone-related aggression), but are just as important. A knowledgeable rabbit veterinarian can spay or neuter your rabbit with very little risk to a healthy rabbit. Find out more here.
Cedar and Pine Shavings
Any litter made of softwood like cedar or pine is very bad for your rabbit and other pets. The aromatic hydrocarbons produced from softwood beddings can cause both respiratory and liver damage in rabbits and other small animals. Use organic litter in the litter box and put newspaper in the cage tray. Find out more here.
Rabbits’ teeth can be misaligned. This condition is known as malocclusion, which means that a rabbit’s constantly-growing teeth are not wearing down properly. If the misalignment is bad, the teeth will need to be clipped, dremeled or removed so that the rabbit can eat. Usually malocclusion just strikes the front teeth, but occasionally, the back teeth can also be misaligned. One indication of this is a wet chin that is caused by drooling. If this is the case, your rabbit will need his molars trimmed by a veterinarian on a regular basis. Find out more here.
Make sure your rabbit is in good health prior to elective surgeries. Food and water should not be removed from a rabbit the evening before surgery! Any change in diet can upset a rabbit’s sensitive digestive tract and cause problems in post- operative recovery. One of the reasons some veterinarians recommend removing animals’ food before surgery is the possibility that they may vomit. Rabbits cannot throw up, thus this is not a concern. Additionally, some veterinarians are concerned about spaying rabbits with a full cecum. Unfortunately, the cecum would take 3-4 days of fasting to empty out, and by that time, the rabbit would be dead. So please, do not fast your rabbit before surgery!
After surgery, make sure the rabbit’s environment is clean, and check her incision site daily for swelling or discharge. Do everything you can to get your rabbit to eat again as soon as possible after returning home. To coax him to eat again, you may have to offer a variety of treats, including his regular pellets and hay. If your rabbit has not eaten for 48 hours after surgery, consult your veterinarian.
Head Tilt is most often caused by an infection of the inner ear. Often within 3 to 12 hours from the first symptom, the rabbit will be tumbling uncontrollably. Do not try to protect the rabbit with towels. She will tangle in them and break her legs. Once this tumbling begins, it continues for as much as 12 weeks or even more. During this time the rabbit cannot eat, drink, or sleep on her own. You must do it all for her. When the rabbit finally recovers, a permanent head-tilt of as much as 90° may remain. However these head-tilt bunnies are quite capable of enjoying a quality life despite their unusual posture. Find out more here.
Diarrhea is not common in house rabbits, but it can occur. Diarrhea means liquid. It does not mean soft pills or cecal droppings. Rabbits with diarrhea dehydrate rapidly. Dehydration is a threat to a rabbit’s survival; you must get the rabbit to a veterinarian quickly. Find out more about the causes and treatments here.
If you find a lump under your rabbit’s skin, or under her jaw, or even scarier, making his eye protrude, you may have an abscess, which is caused by a bacterial infection. This is a treatable, but serious condition that warrants a trip to the veterinarian. To find out more about abscesses, visit here.