rabbit on table with hands using stethoscope to listen to abcomen
Taking your rabbit to the veterinarian for an annual checkup is one way to help your friend maintain the best health possible. iStock.com/IvonneW

When your rabbit doesn’t feel well, you want a cure — fast. The tricky thing with rabbits is that sometimes you might not know your pal is sick. Rabbits are prey animals, so they instinctively hide signs of illness. This makes getting quick treatment that much more important when you notice signs of illness.

Take Steps To Prevent Rabbit Ailments

If you keep your rabbit’s home clean, feed a proper diet and rabbit-proof any areas your rabbit can reach, you go a long way to keeping your furry companion healthy. Of course, plenty of interaction with you and tender loving care add to your rabbit’s well-being.

Another key to maintaining the health of your furry family member is planned veterinary visits. We’re talking annual checkups and a spay/neuter surgery. Annual checkups let your rabbit-savvy veterinarian follow your pet’s health so he or she knows what’s normal for your bunny. Checkups might also detect a problem in the early stage, which might make treatment easier. Spay/neuter surgery not only eliminates some behavior problems, it also protects your rabbit against future ailments involving the reproductive system. These can be significant. The Merck Veterinary Manual states that uterine adenocarcinoma is the most common tumor in female rabbits, affecting as much as 60 percent more than 3 years old.

How To Recognize Your Rabbit Is Sick

You do what you can to prevent illness, but the world offers no guarantees of health. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — accidents happen, contagions spread, parasites sneak in, genetics catch up. Your rabbit faces as many health threats as you do. But your rabbit can’t go to a doctor or tell anyone about feeling ill. So what are the signs of sickness in rabbits? Quite a few exist, but the below list generalizes some of the more common ones.
• Change in the amount of food eaten or water drunk.
• Abnormal wetness or discharge from any part of the body (this includes bleeding)
• Sneezing or a change in breathing
• Change in movement (moving less, favoring a limb, etc.)

Most rabbits try to hide the fact that they’re not feeling well. Observing your rabbit and noticing when something changes is vital to determining whether something might be wrong.

Rabbit Health Around The Globe

Reasons for taking a rabbit to the veterinarian can vary by location. Perhaps an infectious agent is more common in some areas than others. Calicivirus or RHD (rabbit hemorrhagic disease) is not considered endemic to the United States, but it is a real problem in some other countries. The House Rabbit Society posted an article devoted to it. Similarly, myxomatosis is a widespread problem in some other countries but mainly affects rabbits only in coastal areas of Oregon and California. Outside of infections, maybe the gene pool of rabbits in an area makes them more prone to certain ailments.

Although reasons vary for rabbits heading to the veterinarian, some are common in various countries. VCA Animal Hospitals are located across the United States and Canada. Its website lists snuffles, parasites, overgrown incisors, uterine problems, and sore hocks as common rabbit ailments.

The website for Darwin Veterinary Centre, a veterinary hospital in Kent, England, lists 14 common causes of rabbit health problems: dental issues, uterine carcinoma, fly strike, ear mites, E. cuniculi, fur mites, diet, runny eyes, obesity, snuffles, VHD, and myxomatosis, cystitis and bladder stones, overgrown nails, pododermatitis, heatstroke.

VetWest Animal Hospitals, a chain a veterinary hospitals in Perth, Australia, lists overgrown teeth, snuffles, hairballs, uterine tumors, myxomatosis, and calicivirus as the problems commonly treated.

The American Rabbit Breeders Association thinks enough about three contagious rabbit diseases to include articles about them on its website. Those diseases are myxomatosis, E. cuniculi and epizootic rabbit enteropathy.

10 Rabbit Health Problems In Brief

The following list, in no particular order, is a guideline for what you might expect to face with your rabbit family member. But this list is not exhaustive and each rabbit is an individual. Only the basics of each health issue are covered. Talk to your rabbit-knowledgeable veterinarian to discuss the possible common ailments to which your rabbit is susceptible.

1. Snuffles (pasteurellosis): Did you notice that snuffles appeared in all of the above veterinary hospital lists? This is a common respiratory disease caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida. It’s spread by contact or inhalation, and it’s generally considered that all rabbits are exposed to it in their lifetime. Rabbits may or may not develop illness from snuffles. Stress can cause it to trigger illness.

Signs of snuffles include sneezing, congestion, pinkeye, tearing of the eye, and discharge from the nose that the rabbit might wipe on his paws, causing matted fur on the legs. Snuffles can also cause problems in other areas of the body, including the formation of abscesses. Antibiotics and other medications might help defeat the infection, although the condition can become chronic. Abscesses usually require surgical removal.

2. Dental Problems: You know how important it is to take care of your teeth, and the same holds true for your rabbit. Poor tooth condition easily leads to poor health in the mouth and throughout the body. Tooth problems are common in rabbits. Taking care of your bun’s teeth can prevent numerous ailments. Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously, so overgrowth can quickly become a serious problem that interferes with eating. Misalignment of the teeth can make chewing painful and also prevent eating. Abscesses and infections can arise from poor tooth health. Drooling and matted fur on the legs can also signal dental trouble. With so many ailments possible, signs of dental problems vary. Be aware of any changes to your rabbit’s behavior or appearance that could signal a problem. Sometimes rabbits are born with tooth troubles, but that doesn’t mean these souls can’t lead a relatively normal life. Talk to your veterinarian about giving your rabbit the best tooth care possible. A proper diet of high fiber and low calcium is an important part of this.

3. Parasites: Ick. Who wants creepy crawlies either inside or out? Just like dogs and cats, rabbits can suffer from fleas, mites, ticks, worms, protozoa, and other parasites. Dogs, cats, and rabbits can accidentally infest each other with some of these. Be alert for any parasites, but a few common to rabbits are ear mites, fur mites, E. cuniculi and fly strike.

Rabbit ear mites (Psoroptes cuniculi) can cause itching, head shaking, droopy ears, and a crusty type of discharge from the ears, along with other signs of distress. If left untreated, they might even cause damage to the ear drum or neurological problems. A rabbit that seems to have dandruff and itchy skin or even patchy fur loss is likely suffering from fur mites (Cheyletiella parasitovorax). These mites can also spread to people and cause an itchy rash. E. cuniculi is a protozoa that is contracted when a rabbit eats or breathes in an infected spore. E. cuniculi can cause head tilt, changes in behavior, seizures, and other signs of illness. Fly strike is a nasty infection caused by flies laying eggs on moist skin areas of a rabbit. The eggs hatch and injure the rabbit, possibly fatally. A rabbit with a skin wound or an area of frequently damp fur is most susceptible. Severe itching and/or lethargy are some signs of this. An infestation can quickly overwhelm a rabbit, so be alert and take your rabbit to the veterinarian immediately if you suspect fly strike.

Treatment for any parasites should always be done after discussion with your rabbit-savvy veterinarian. Some of the parasite remedies that are safe for dogs and cats can cause illness or death in rabbits. For example, fipronil is a pesticide that can be used on dogs and cats, but it must be avoided for rabbits.

4. Heatstroke: This is exactly what you think, and it could be fatal — fast. Heatstroke happens when a rabbit’s environment is hot and a rabbit can’t cool down quickly enough. Signs of this, if any are shown, include panting, collapse, or a very warm head. Rabbits only have sweat glands on their lips, so they can’t cool themselves by sweating. They can dissipate some heat through their ears, but this is limited. Panting doesn’t work very well to cool them either. All of this means that rabbits are susceptible to heat exhaustion and heatstroke. The Merck Veterinary Manual recommends an ambient temperature of 61 to 72 degrees Fahrenheit for rabbits. And the book “Ferrets, Rabbits And Rodents Clinical Medicine And Surgery” states that rabbits are unusually sensitive to temperatures exceeding 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Be aware that higher humidity can make temperatures seem higher. Also, if you suspect your rabbit is suffering heatstroke, move your buddy to a cool spot and call your veterinarian immediately. Never put your rabbit in cold water, as the sudden shock could be too much.

This is one rabbit health problem that is usually completely under your control. Ensure that your rabbit’s environment stays cool and that any enclosure you place your pet inside doesn’t sit entirely in direct sunlight. During warm weather, have a plan for a power failure so that you have a way to keep your rabbit cool.

5. Pododermatisis: Rabbits with inflamed feet or open sores on the feet suffer from pododermatitis. Rabbits don’t have pads on their feet like dogs and cats. Their fur is their only buffer against the surfaces they hop and sit on. Surfaces that stress the feet, such as cages, hard floors, or rough surfaces, can cause pododermatitis. This usually occurs on the rear feet. Rabbits with less fur on the bottom of the foot or those that weigh more, whether from obesity or just being a large breed, and those that don’t move around much might be more prone to this. Beyond the change in gait or decreased movement, other early signs of this include hair loss, thickened skin, or bleeding on the sole. Pododermatitis is painful, which might make a rabbit unwilling to move much, and it can advance to infection and other health issues. If left untreated, a rabbit’s health deteriorates.

Luckily, this is another rabbit health problem that you can do a lot to prevent. Keep your furry friend in a habitat with a clean, dry, soft surface that allows plenty of movement. And inspect your rabbit’s feet regularly for signs of trouble.

6. Gut Stasis: This term might sound strange, but basically it means that the digestive tract has stopped moving things along. This is serious. Fiber usually drives movement along for rabbit digestion, which is why they need a high-fiber diet. Anything that might slow down the digestive process can back things up in various places along the tract, making things worse and further slowing down digestion. A rabbit that stops eating, drinks less, moves less, sits hunched over, or makes fewer or changed feces might be experiencing gut stasis. Hairballs can form and cause a blockage when gut stasis occurs.

A bunny suffering gut stasis needs veterinary help soon, as this can quickly become a medical emergency.

7. Trauma or poisoning: Life can be hazardous, which is one reason that accidents happen. Rabbit traumas include being stepped on, getting caught in a closing door, falling from a height, suffering a burn or electrocution, bumping an eye against something sharp, and many more. Poisoning occurs from obvious things like cleaning products and pesticides to not-so-obvious things like dropped medications and toxic houseplants. See the ASPCA website for a list of toxic plants.

The numerous possible injuries or poisoning possibilities mean signs of trouble vary. Watch your rabbit for anything abnormal, whether it be odd behavior, a change in appearance, or change of habits. Immediate veterinary care is usually required for trauma or poisoning. Keep the phone number of an animal poison hotline handy, such as from the ASPCA or Pet Poison Helpline.

8. Wry Neck: This condition is also known as head tilt, torticollis, and vestibular disease. A rabbit suffering from it tilts the head to one side. The degree of rotation can be minor or severe. Causes of wry neck vary, including E. cuniculi infestation, lead poisoning, ear infection, and cancer, so you need to consult your veterinarian for a diagnosis. Depending on the cause, some rabbits return to normal if they receive treatment quickly from a rabbit-savvy veterinarian.

9. Abscesses: An abscess is a solid lump of pus often caused by a bacterial infection. In rabbits, the bacteria are usually a species of Pasteurella or Staphylococcus. It can occur anywhere in a rabbit’s body, although dental abscesses are common, affecting the mouth and eyes. Some abscesses are easy to see, as they form a lump, but abscesses that form internally might go hidden for days, months or possibly years until they cause a problem. How quickly a rabbit needs treatment can depend on the cause of the abscess, its location and how fast it grows. It’s always best to consult a veterinarian as soon as possible.

You might think, “Bacteria? Great! Wipe that infection out with antibiotics.” But antibiotics might only control the problem instead of curing it. This is because rabbits make a more solid pus than cats, dogs, or even humans do. It doesn’t drain and can’t get reabsorbed by the body. When possible, surgery to cut out the abscess is often recommended.

To minimize the chance of your companion rabbit suffering an abscess, do all you can to boost your buddy’s immune system. Keep his or her habitat clean, offer a healthy diet and have any open wounds immediately treated by a veterinarian to ensure eradication of any bacteria that entered when the wound occurred. The stronger your rabbit’s immune system is, the better the chances your bun has of fighting off any infection that might lead to abscesses.

10. Urolithiasis: This means a rabbit has urinary stones. The cause of stones in rabbits is still under discussion. Genetics, diet, and conditions that affect health of the urinary tract could all trigger stone formation. Because diet can be a cause of this, with an excess of calcium to blame, it can help to avoid high-calcium foods. This includes alfalfa hay. Ask your veterinarian about your rabbits potential risks for urinary stones.

Note: Always contact your veterinarian right away if you suspect your rabbit is ill. This article is for informational purposes only and not intended to diagnose or give advice about rabbit health.

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