Cheerful, Tearful (Eye Problems)

Your bun seems generally okay, but today she appears to have been crying. There may be thin white strings of mucus coming out of her eyes, and one or both of her cheeks are wet. Runny eyes are a signal that bunny needs to visit the vet. Even though they eat lots of carrots, eye problems in rabbits are common. A variety of conditions can produce epiphora, or watery eyes, and in the last two years, my six-year-old lop, Holly, has experienced most of them. Since we’ve moved four times in those two years, we’ve seen quite a few veterinarians and collected a lot of information.


Bunny’s runny eyes need to be diagnosed by a veterinarian because bacterial infection is one of the most potentially dangerous causes. For rabbits with eye discharge, Dr. David W. Penney, at Irving Street Veterinary Hospital in San Francisco, usually “assumes the worst” and treats for infection by prescribing the antibiotic Baytril for 7-10 days to start. “If it is infection [such bacteria as Pasteurella, Bordetella, or Staphylococcus] (2,3) you don’t want to take any chances because it can quickly spread to the jaw or the respiratory tract.” To be most effective, treatment needs to begin immediately.

Recently, Holly’s left eye began tearing more than usual, and at the same time, I found a lump on her left jaw. The lump was an abscess, which, although originally thought to be Pasteurella, cultured as Staphylococcus. After a month’s treatment with Baytril and Gentocin drops and manual expression of the abscess, the infection seems to be gone and her eyes are less tearful.


The eyes may water due to an obstruction, such as inflammatory debris, in the nasolacrimal, or tear, duct (4). This duct is a passage for tears between the eye and the nose. If blocked, the drainage of tears is reduced so that they overflow onto the cheek. The veterinarian may flush the duct to remove the debris.

A bony obstruction or misshapen eyelid can also effect where the tears go. Both Holly and her father, Patrick, had a congenital condition called entropion, where the eyelid folds under and can rub the eye, causing painful corneal ulcerations. Patrick had surgery to correct this problem when he was two. Holly has slight folds on both eyelids, and her chronically watery eyes are due, in part, to the lids’ irregular shapes.


Without enough tears staying on the eye’s surface to keep it moist, the cornea is subject to scratches and erosions. Symptoms of corneal ulcerations, which also occur from external trauma in normal eyes, include eye discharge, redness, and inflammation. Bunny may squint and be head shy. (Holly would attack if I tried to pet her nose.) Treatment is usually antibiotic drops.

When a set of Holly’s eye lesions were slow to heal, Dr. Penney recommended she see a veterinary ophthamologist. Dr. David E. Lipton, Holly’s eye doctor from Richmond, explained that rabbits are unusual in that they only blink once or twice a minute. He suspected that Holly’s eyes were drying out from lack of moisture and that the corneal abrasions were self-induced, probably from Holly washing her face. We’d used eye ointment between episodes of corneal scratches but usually stopped when her eyes seemed to be doing well. He said to keep the surface “greased” with the ointment and to come back if there were problems.

Then we moved to Texas. The ointment seemed to hurt her eyes, so we consulted Dr. M.J. Shifrin, of the Austin Animal Eye Clinic. He advised switching to an over-the-counter eye lubricant, such as Celluvisc or Lacrilube. Regular use of this people product seems effective as Holly has gone nine months without a scratch. He also said to try to keep this fastidious animal from washing her face. She didn’t understand that order at all.


Rabbits can get watery eyes from being allergic to the dust on hay and dry food. Wood shaving should not be used for litter because they put off volatile odors and bits of wood can get into bunny’s eyes; shredded paper or dust-free cat litter are better. I also learned in Texas that a litterbox under a shelf in a tiny closet doesn’t have ventilation for the fumes that accumulate if the box isn’t cleaned often. The lubricant protected Holly’s eyes, but they still weeped. When I moved her box and switched litters, her tear-laden cheeks finally began to dry.


When Dr. Marliss Geissler told me Holly’s runny eyes would be chronic, she explained that a constantly wet cheek can become chafed or inflamed. Our fosterers confirm that the easiest way to remove the excess moisture-and the most pleasurable way for bunny-is to let another rabbit do it. I’d noticed how much time Patrick had spent licking Holly’s face but didn’t realize how watery her eyes were until he was no longer there to groom her.

If bunny’s face is sore, she may not let you dry her tears. Use a clean tissue to absorb the wetness. Warm wet compresses will help with swelling and crustiness. Ophthalmic saline solution carefully poured on the cheek will loosen mucus and, as it dries, crystallize the tears so the dried material can be combed out with a clean flea comb.

Sometimes the fur under the cheek may even peel off from constant tearing. Dr. Penney had such a case where an infection had moved to the sinuses and could not be easily reached by oral antibiotics. Spraying Gentocin through a nebulizer worked, and when the infection cleared up, the fur on the cheeks grew back. For lesions on the cheek, a touch of perscription topical anesthetic powder can be applied to absorb moisture, keeping the powder away from the eye.


Although Holly’s tearful troubles may sound like a hardship, aside from the eye problems, she is healthy and active. Runny eyes can make a bunny look sickly or unhappy, but with daily care, she’ll look good and feel just fine.

Beth Woolbright