When trying to figure out if your rabbit is sick, always remember rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain and in the wild the weakest are targets for predators. This means that rabbits hide their illnesses and injuries. This may be a good survival tactic in the wild, but for domestic rabbits, hiding their symptoms can prevents prompt medical attention.
People who live with rabbits need to be particularly attentive to subtle changes in the rabbit’s behavior. If your rabbit usually greets you with leaps and bounds and he is now lying in the back of the cage when you approach, perhaps hunched over, this could be a cause for concern. Couple this with no droppings in his litter box and loads of hay or vegetables still present from the previous day, and you could have a very sick rabbit.
What is “normal” behavior? Some rabbits jump up to greet you; some don’t. Some rabbits are very active, running all over the house; some aren’t. In general, rabbits mellow a bit as they age. A three-month-old bunny might seem hyperactive compared to a more sedate five-year-old rabbit. Both activity levels are normal even thought they are quite different.
Be sure to find a good veterinarian before your rabbit gets sick. When your bunny is ill, you need help quickly and you won’t have time to “shop” for a vet and you risk not finding a vet who understands a rabbit’s unique biology. If you are ever in question about your rabbit’s health, call your vet. You may also want to check out our FAQ on medical concerns for companion rabbits.
Lack of appetite: leftover pellets or salad are usually the first thing a caregiver will notice. Rabbits are grazing animals who eat almost constantly. They are also ‘concentrate feeders’ meaning that they are drawn to foods that are nutrient and calorie dense like fruit, root vegetables, pellets and wet greens. If your rabbit hasn’t finished a meal in the usual time, offer them their favorite treat. If they refuse the treat, it’s definitely time to call the veterinarian!
Tooth grinding: Loud tooth grinding is a sign of pain. Note: This tooth grinding is different from the less-loud “tooth purring” you may hear when your bunny is enjoying gentle affection!
Gut sounds: your bunny’s tummy should normally produce soft bubbling noises. Listening to your bunny’s tummy when they’re feeling relaxed will help you set a baseline. Excess gas and other unusual gut activities can result in loud gurgling and popping noises. If you can’t hear these noises on your own, a stethoscope can help you establish what’s normal and more easily detect sounds that are not.
Body heat: Rabbits regulate body temperature in part by the blood vessels in their ears. Very cold or hot ears could indicate a fever or a drop in body temperature resulting from shock, but keep in mind that a rabbit’s normal body temperature is naturally warmer at 102-104F than yours at 98.6F. This means that you should ask your veterinarian to teach you how to take your bunny’s temperature rectally. When done safely and with veterinary supervision, this is a powerful tool to gage your bunny’s health. High (fever) or low (shock) body temperature, warrants a trip to the vet. Note: your rabbit’s body temperature can rise due to the stress of a trip to your veterinarian, so taking your bunny’s temperature before a routine trip to the veterinarian’s office might prevent unnecessary medical treatment.
Runny eyes or nose, labored breathing or chronic sneezing: These could indicate allergies, upper respiratory infection, a blocked tear duct, dental abscess or other problems. See your vet.
Wet chin or drooling: Drool or excess moisture around the mouth can result from dental problems and other illnesses. You may also notice a decrease in appetite and ability to eat hard foods such as whole carrot or pellets. See your vet. Left untreated, tooth problems can lead to infection of the jaw bone, which is very difficult to treat. Depending on the severity of the misalignment, your rabbit’s teeth may need to be trimmed regularly. In severe cases, teeth can be pulled, but this is traumatic and disrupts your rabbit’s natural chewing behaviors. Chewing promotes “peristalsis” or the normal rhythmic contractions along a bunny’s digestive tract.
Loss of balance or a head tilt: This is often called wry neck (or wry-neck), typically an inner ear infection. This can come on suddenly. Although treatment can be lengthy, a head tilt can usually be cured if treatment is begun quickly.
In one end, out the other: Your rabbit’s litter box contains a wealth of information. A healthy digestive tract will produce large, round fecal pellets. Increasingly smaller, irregularly shaped droppings or droppings strung together with fur (or carpet) may indicate a problem. Proper grooming by you, especially during a molt, and plenty of fresh hay and wet greens will help produce optimum digestive tract health, along with appealing to the rabbit’s urge to chew. As noted previously, chewing promotes “peristalsis” or the normal rhythmic contractions along a bunny’s digestive tract.
Decreased activity or lethargy: Even a rabbit can have a “bad hare day.” But if your rabbit refuses his usual fresh food or any of his special treats and seems particularly lethargic, you should call the vet.
We encourage you to observe your rabbit’s behavior, appetite, activity level and droppings daily. Each rabbit is different and knowing what is normal behavior for your rabbit could save his life.
Updated by Christie Taylor, PhD on 2021/12/18.