Many rabbits participate in a variety of sports, such as hurdles, kickboxing, floor gymnastics, the balance beam and others. Some rabbits are couch potatoes, interested only in the occasional 5-room dash which may leave them winded.
Physical exercise is of paramount importance in contributing to the overall health of your rabbit. As in any species, exercise helps build muscles and increases bone density. Wild rabbits who cover a large area while foraging for food every day have strong healthy bones, and it’s unlikely that they would injure themselves in the normal course of their day. Our domestic rabbits, in comparison, get very little daily exercise and are unfortunately treated frequently by veterinarians for bone and muscle injuries.
In 2006, now that our companions are living longer, veterinarians are also finding many diseases that in the past often went undiagnosed in rabbits. Osteoporosis is a skeletal disorder characterized by compromised bone strength predisposing [the rabbit] to an increased risk of fracture (4). Arthritis, a disease of the joints, can be caused or worsened by obesity. By encouraging daily exercise, we decrease the risk of these diseases in our rabbits. And daily exercise helps your rabbit to protect himself against sports injuries.
Just because your rabbit may injure himself, do we want to stop him from his daily sports activities? Certainly not! Don’t let the small odds of an injury dissuade you from allowing him to participate in his favorite sports. He’s going to be much healthier in the long run. Also keep in mind that you can participate in his exercises, or you can set up situations which encourage him to exercise on his own.
Once you’ve brought your rabbit home, and especially if his background is unknown, let him exercise in small areas for a time, before allowing him use of the full gym. If you have slick hardwood floors, you should consider putting down temporary “gym mats” such as indoor/outdoor carpeting that can be rolled up and put away when not in use.
Probably the most common sports injury you may notice is limping. This could be caused by a muscle bruise, tear or cramp, a bone fracture, or perhaps a torn nail. Limping is likely not a life-threatening injury and you have time to perform a physical exam yourself before taking him to your veterinarian. Start with your rabbit on the ground rather than in your arms, because if you touch a painful spot, he could struggle and fall, possibly making the injury worse. Look at all 18 of his toes, checking for a torn nail or broken/dislocated toe. Look at the bottom, sides and top of his feet and between his toes. checking for a cut, foreign body, swelling or any abnormality. This exam can help you to decide if this is an emergency (broken bones) or if you can take care of the injury temporarily until you can make a regular veterinary appointment.
If the leg is dragging or if there is significant swelling anywhere, you’ll want to make an appointment within 24 hours in order to have the best chance for your veterinarian to be able to diagnose and treat the problem. If the bone is exposed or if there is loss of feeling in the leg, this is an emergency. If you suspect a break or are unsure of the problem, make an appointment with your veterinarian as soon as you can, because some injuries are best treated immediately. Confine your rabbit to a small space to discourage him from moving around until he receives medical care.
Limping, or more correctly, weakness in one or more extremity may be unrelated to an injury and could be caused by a variety of conditions such as, but not limited to; arthritis, an abscess, a central nervous system or spinal disorder, or even a failing heart.
A rabbit who holds his leg up and does not want to put weight on it could be suffering from a broken bone or a dislocation. “Because of the thin cortex (thickness of the bone) and the location and type of many of the fractures, (bones may break through the skin, be in multiple pieces or be very close to a joint) a traditional intramedullary (5) bone pin might not work.”(6) Other surgical methods of repairing bones are available and can be considered in a discussion with your veterinarian. However, for many fractures an appropriate external splint may be applied with good results. Rabbits with splints should have their home environment altered to provide more confinement and carefully supervised exercise. Splints often need to be in place for 4 to 6 weeks at a minimum. Follow-up x-rays will show whether or not the bone has mended and the splint can be removed. Dislocations can be trickier to treat. Knees and hips can often be put back into the joint but may not stay in place. Hip joints are held in place by strong ligaments and muscles. But, if the joint does not stay in place, the rabbit will usually form a “false joint” in the adjoining muscle, which will eventually allow him to use the leg nearly normally over time.
Anti-inflammatory medications are often used immediately following an injury to keep the swelling at a minimum and to manage pain. Pain medications can help a bunny recover more quickly, get him back to eating normally and overall can make the healing process more comfortable. Depending on the extent of the injury, pain medications may be used for just a couple of days to a week or more.
After confining feral rabbits for a three-month period (while they were waiting to be spayed/neutered) and then releasing them at Rabbit Meadows Sanctuary, we learned the hard way, that when a rabbit’s muscles atrophy from lack of exercise, that their bones no longer have the protection of their muscles. The same day they were relocated to the sanctuary, two of the 400 plus rabbits doing spinning leaps of joy at being free again, fell back to earth as the vertebrae in their backs fractured. After this sad experience, we released the feral rabbits into small spaces, where they were able to regain their muscle strength before being released into the larger sanctuary space.
Rabbits with disabilities can still exercise. There are wheel chairs made for rabbits or, you can loop a soft towel or scarf around the middle of a disabled rabbit and help him “walk” by lifting his body a bit off of the ground and allowing him to use his non-injured legs. Be creative; your rabbit will appreciate it.
Exercise is one of the things that help our rabbits to live to their full life expectancy. The odds are against an injury. Just take the time to check the “gym,” and try to eliminate possible hazards, such as chairs leading to higher places, where he could be injured if he fell. If you’ve been working on the floor, make sure that any pins, needles, etc. are all accounted for when you clean up. Then you can participate in exercising with him or sit back and enjoy the grace and beauty of bunny aerobics.
By Sandi Ackerman
House Rabbit Journal Summer/Fall 2006: Volume V, Number 1
1) Exercise leads to increased lumbar muscle mass and increased bone density providing a stronger skeleton.
2) Rabbits’ who don’t exercise, don’t move much, don’t drink as much and don’t urinate as often causes the normal calcium precipitate to concentrate and sit for extended periods of time in the bladder. Exercise increases metabolic activity creating a need to drink more fluid, urinate more frequently and thus continually dilute, mix and flush out the calcium precipitate and prevent the accumulation of bladder sludge in some rabbits.
3) Exercise can be mentally stimulating and is vital to help prevent behavioral problems caused by boredom.
4) Merck Medicus, Medical Internet definitions. Merck & Co.
5) Intramedullary bone pin is placed inside the bone
6) Quote by Susan A. Brown, DVM