On Watch: The importance of being vigilant

Even healthy bunnies need to be monitored, though not as rigidly as those in delicate health. While it’s impossible to have a remedy for every problem that could arise, appropriate treatment is available much sooner if you recognize when a problem does exist. Start with knowing your rabbit’s normal behavior. Do a lot of watching and heed the clues.

Clue 1: Appetite. When we come around with the veggie basket in our house, we expect to see our bunnies standing up and begging for a treat. When one doesn’t, we are alerted to a possible health problem. It doesn’t always mean that we rush off to the vet, but it does mean that we place the bunny on watch until we investigate further. Is it just a fluke? Has he been eating a lot of hay and is just not hungry right now?

Clue 2: Accompanying behavior. In addition to not eating, what is the bunny’s attitude? Does she seem listless? Where is she choosing to sit? What is her posture? Is she in a scrunched position, with ears pulled tightly together, or her eyes bulging? Is she crunching her teeth, squealing or whimpering?

None of this behavior was present when I found Dickens and Jasmine’s pellet bowl nearly full. They normally leave it empty. I assumed Jasmine wasn’t eating due to her history of jaw abscess. I felt her jaw (no swelling), and then her belly. It seemed full but soft and not bloated. I took her temperature. It was normal. She was stretched out in a comfortable position, not hunched up in misery. She looked bright and perky. It didn’t make sense—until I later discovered that I had switched pellet bowls. Jasmine and Dickens had eaten their normal ration from a bowl that was intended for a group of four. The lesson here is to include behavior when gathering your facts.

Evaluating Urgency

When bunny’s appetite and behavior are off, the first thing to do is take her temperature. Is it below -.. or above -./? If it’s low, take immediate warming action, e.g. heating pad, disc warmer, or a towel-wrapped hot water bottle (monitor for overheating). Start massaging the ears to warm them. “Medications and other treatment will not work properly if body temperature is too low. The first critical step is to get temperature up to normal.”1

If the temperature is high, start cooling by dampening her ears with alcohol or cold water. You can also place ice packs on her abdomen. These are stopgap measures until you can get instructions from your veterinarian.

If your regular vet is unavailable, go to an emergency clinic for any of the following urgent conditions: painful, tight abdomen; watery diarrhea; respiratory distress (labored or open-mouth breathing); deep wounds, trauma, or broken bones (limb sticking out to the side or being dragged); or fly strike over a large area.

If your bunny has a sudden head tilt or is rolling, keep her in a padded environment until she can be seen at your daytime veterinary clinic. Though not usually a life-threatening emergency, a veterinary exam is needed to diagnose the cause and prescribe treatment.

Taking temperature is one of the first things you should learn to do. If you are nervous, have your vet show you before you have an emergency. Unlike a cat or dog, a bunny is easier to check on her back. Use vaseline or other lubricant to coat the thermometer and slide it into the orifice that winks at you. Slide first over the pelvic bone, and then downward.


  1. Dana Krempels, “Emergency! What to do until you can get your bunny to the vet.” Master Seminar 1 (2010). DVD. ↩︎

©Copyright Marinell Harriman. All Rights Reserved. Republished with the permission of the author.

On Watch: The importance of being vigilant was originally published in House Rabbit Handbook (5th ed.).

  • Marinell Harriman

    Marinell Harriman is the author of The House Rabbit Handbook. Over the past 35 years she has fostered and rescued hundreds of rabbits. She has published numerous articles on house rabbit philosophy, care, and behavior. She has a special place in her heart for disabled and special needs rabbits.

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