Updated: 17 April 2005
Even the most experienced rabbit owners dread their rabbit becoming ill. And whereas it's bad enough arriving home to find your pet is ill during office hours, it's even worse if you make this discovery on returning home from a night out at three o'clock in the morning. Should you call the vet now, even though it's the middle of the night? Or can it wait till morning? We hope this article will help you should you should find yourself in this situation.
Obviously, we can't cover every eventuality. And, if your rabbit looks off-colour when you head for bed, you should get up to check him/her every few hours, and call the vet if the situation has deteriorated. If your rabbit is doing something that isn't listed here but you are still worried, follow your instincts – it's safer to over-react than under-react. The worst that can happen is that you make an un-necessary trip to the vet, which may hurt your wallet, but is a lot better than gambling with your rabbit's life.
What's different about rabbits?
Rabbits are programmed to conceal their illnesses. This is a behavioural adaptation of a creature at the bottom of the food chain: a wild bunny showing obvious signs of illness becomes an easy target for a predator.
Unfortunately, for pet rabbits, this tendency to conceal signs of illness can lead to catastrophe. Whereas dogs that have tummy ache usually look pathetic straight away, rabbits don't shout from the rooftops when they feel unwell. In fact, they can look remarkably normal (“just a bit quiet”) even when at death's door. To make matters even worse, rabbits are small animals. This means that if they do become unwell, they can become dehydrated (and hypothermic) very rapidly.
Prompt veterinary advice is vital if your rabbit is to have fighting chance of surviving a serious illness. Delaying 24 hours to see what happens can prove fatal. These are examples of danger signs that indicate you need to contact a vet immediately:
Rabbit has difficulty breathing +/- lips and tongue blueish in colour
Call the vet immediately if......
Rabbit has difficulty breathing +/- lips and tongue are blueish coloured
The normal respiration rate in an adult rabbit is 30 - 60/minute, but some breathe faster than this if they are hot or stressed. Get to know what is normal for your rabbit. The time to get worried is if breathing is laboured (long hard breaths rather than rapid panting in rabbits) or grunting. If the lips and tongue are blue tinted, your bunny is not getting enough oxygen. Call the vet immediately.
Rabbit has severe diarrhoea
Bunnies who are sitting hunched in a pool of diarrhoea (either liquid/watery faeces or jelly-like material) need veterinary help fast . Baby rabbits are especially vulnerable to developing acute diarrhoea (the weeks after weaning, just as young rabbits arrive in their new home, are especially high risk) and because they are so small, can become fatally dehydrated very quickly.
A rabbit that has had an episode of runny or soft stools but is otherwise alert, lively, eating and generally his/her usual self should be safe overnight, and you can call the vet for advice in the morning if the problem persists.
Don't forget that excess caecotrophs (smelly, shiny, dark coloured droppings like miniature bunches of grapes) do not count as diarrhoea and do not need an emergency trip to the vet. However, if your rabbit's backside is caked with caecotrophs they are at risk of flystrike, and will need to see the vet within a day or so for full evaluation.
Rabbit is bleeding uncontrollably from wound; or has been attacked
As with all animals, bleeding that isn't controlled by firm, direct pressure needs prompt veterinary attention. Also, if the rabbit has been attacked by a dog (or cat, fox, ferret) telephone the vet for advice even if there are no apparent injuries or those you can see seem minor. There may be internal damage and/or a risk of shock developing.
Rabbit may have a broken back or limb(s)
Skeletal injuries usually occur when rabbits are dropped or fall from a height – which is one of the reasons why allowing young children to pick up rabbits is a bad idea. Spinal injuries causing partial or total hind limb paralysis are very serious, but not necessarily hopeless. Aggressive treatment with steroids as soon as possible after the injury helps some bunnies by limiting swelling in the spinal cord, and some lucky rabbits recover sufficiently to lead a pretty normal houserabbit life. Broken legs can sometimes be fixed by lightweight casts, or pins and plates. A rabbit that has fallen from a height may also have internal injuries.
Rabbit is limp, floppy or cold
These rabbits are very, very sick and may be close to death. The common end point of dehydration, shock or sepsis is a weak floppy rabbit, often with cold ears. They tend to sit hunched in a corner and 'feel funny' when you pick them up. Wrap them up warmly and get to the vet ASAP.
Rabbit is in pain
Rabbits who are in pain sit hunched up with their eyes half closed, reluctant to move, grinding their teeth firmly. As well as being a welfare issue for the poor bunny suffering it, pain is very dangerous to rabbits. As well as putting strain on their kidneys, pain is a very common trigger for the development of gastrointestinal stasis (ileus), a potentially lethal condition when the gut stops moving normally.
Hence, if you think your rabbit is in pain, it is imperative that you seek veterinary treatment immediately. A few years ago, vets were sometimes reluctant to prescribe pain relief for rabbits, but thankfully things are much better these days. Even so, you might need to remind your vet to make sure your rabbit has adequate pain relief prescribed for any condition that has the potential to cause pain – including dental problems, abscesses and after neutering.
Rabbit isn't eating
Missing an odd meal is no big deal for dogs or cats, but often indicates serious trouble in bunnies. Rabbits who have stop eating are often suffering from GI stasis. Or, if they have stopped eating for another reason (e.g. pain due to dental problems) then it probably won't belong before they do go on to develop GI stasis.
Hence, if your rabbit has stopped eating entirely, ring the vet for advice, day or night. Before picking up the phone, check the litter tray, and specifically look for small droppings, pools of diarrhoea, or droppings strung together by strands of hair. The vet will need to know if the rabbit has been eating, drinking, peeing and pooping normally!
If your rabbit is still eating but with reduced enthusiasm, or if s/he is eating some foods but not others, you should be OK to wait until next morning then book an urgent appointment.
Rabbit has Flystrike
“Flystrike” is the common name for a condition called myiasis, which occurs when blow-flies lay eggs on rabbits (usually on soiled/moist fur) that hatch into maggots within hours. The maggots can literally eat the rabbit alive, and trigger severe shock and infection.
If you do find maggots on your rabbit, get your rabbit to the vet fast. You can pick off visible maggots with a pair of tweezers, but don't think that pulling off all visible maggots will solve the problem - some may have already got under the skin. We used to suggest dunking the rabbit's bottom in water to remove maggots, but several veterinary practices contacted us to point out that wet or damp fur is impossible to clip, so we now suggest that bathing is best avoided.
The main priority is getting the rabbit to the vet fast. Even with antibiotics and fluid therapy, the prognosis is fairly grim. The outlook is especially poor in cases where the maggots have eaten away a lot of tissue and the rabbit would need extensive surgery to remove maggots and diseased tissue.
Prevention is much better than cure. Any rabbit can suffer from flystrike (we have heard of a case in a bunny who had a wet patch on her side from lying against her water bottle, and the flies lay eggs there), but some rabbits are at particularly high risk.
If your rabbit is elderly; overweight; struggles to groom him/herself; has “sticky bottom” problems; urine scald; or any wounds or discharges (e.g. chronic runny eyes) you need to be especially careful. Rabbits must have their bottoms checked daily in warm weather; and if your bunny falls into a high-risk category talk to your vet about using “Rearguard” to protect him/her. Please check out our comprehensive article on flystrike here on the RWF website.
More information on Flystrike
Contact the vet immediately if your rabbit is obviously unwell. If you're not sure, telephone for advice sooner rather than later.
Always call ahead before rushing to the veterinary surgery with a sick rabbit, especially at weekends or out of hours…. staff may need to come in from home, and you may be directed to a different branch; a neighbouring practice, or a dedicated emergency clinic
Try to find a good vet near your home. If you're not lucky enough to have an expert rabbit vet on tap, find a local practice that you trust to act as your rabbit's ”GP” – you can always be referred to another practice with more rabbit expertise if required. Most urban practices these days have someone with an interest in rabbits, although out of hours you may not see a vet you are familiar with.
Do take the rabbit to the surgery (by taxi if necessary) rather than requesting a housecall. The sicker the rabbit, the more the vet is likely to need equipment and drugs that can only be provided at the surgery.
Do insure your rabbit for vets bills - it is bad enough being worried sick about your pet without having to worry about how you are going to pay a large veterinary bill for life saving treatment. Pre-existing conditions aren't covered, so make sure you insure your bunny before he or she develops any health problems!
Do keep vaccinations up to date. Boosters against VHD are needed every year; myxomatosis boosters are recommended at 6-12 month intervals depending on whether you live in a higher or lower-risk area.
Do be prepared to stress to the vet or vet nurse who answers the emergency phone that you are talking about a rabbit, not a dog or cat. Just occasionally (and it doesn't happen very much these days) you might need to insist your rabbit needs to be seen urgently…. particularly if you think your rabbit is in pain or has stopped eating (most of the other problems we have listed would be an obvious emergency in any species). To be fair, it is easy to forget about the peculiarities of GI stasis in rabbits, especially if the person answering the emergency calls is on-call from home and you have just woken them up!
This article was first written as a BHRA information sheet in 1998, with the assistance of Owen Davies BVSc MRCVS. It was completely re-written and expanded in April 2005.
This information is brought to you by the Rabbit Welfare Fund - the charitable wing of the Rabbit Welfare Association. If you love rabbits, please consider supporting the Rabbit Welfare Fund. You can make a donation, or you may like to join the RWA. The £17.50 adult subscription includes a subscription to "Rabbiting On", a fabulous quarterly magazine packed with health, behaviour and care advice to help you build a wonderful relationship with your bunny - whether s/he lives indoors or out.
Copyright © Dr Linda Dykes 2004