Rabbit Health

Important note

This is a basic overview. Always consult a qualified veterinarian.


Rabbits are prey animals, and are genetically programmed to hide signs of illness as a protective measure. By the time you see symptoms, the problem is in an advanced stage. An immediate trip to a qualified (exotic) vet at the first signs of illness or injury is strongly advised. Refusing to do so can result in death.

The best way to keep track of your rabbit's health is to know your rabbit. Know her habits, her normal behaviors and responses, the normal expressions on her face. Yes, I know that last one sounds silly if you've never had a bun before, but they can be very expressive....just subtly so. I've caught some serious conditions in their early stages by taking my bun to the vet and saying "she just doesn't look right".

Another great method is to monitor what goes in your bun and what comes out - and when. A feeding schedule with regulated amounts of food will tell you if your bun isn't eating. Knowing your bun's usual "output" is a reliable guage of her functions. You can catch a hairball in it's early stages by simply noticing the poops getting smaller and your bun eating less. A quick look every time you clean the litterbox will tell you what you need to know.

Besides yearly check-ups at the vet, I do a twice monthly health check at home. I listen to their heart, lungs, and stomach sounds with a stethoscope. Your vet can show you what to listen for. I check their ears, eyes, teeth, and genital area. If the glands on either side of the genital mound need cleaning I do so with warm water and a soft cloth. During weekly groomings I do an all over body rub - from the nose to the toes - checking for any injuries or lumps. It's a great way to catch some problems early and they think they're getting a spa massage.

Other tips:

Common health problems in rabbits

I'll go over some basic health issues here but you should always keep current on rabbit health research on your own. If you don't have a computer you can use one at any public library. I also strongly advise picking up a copy of Rabbit Health In The 21st Century by Kathy Smith. It's impressively comprehensive but easy to understand.

  1. The first health issue you should face is spay/neuter. Boys should be neutered as soon as the testes are fully descended, usually between 3 to 6 months of age. Girls should be spayed at 6 months of age. Behaviors such as spraying, humping, aggressiveness, destructiveness, poor potty habits, and biting are hormone related and can usually be stopped by spay/neuter. The cancer rate in unaltered rabbits is very high. Spay/neuter is essential to ensure your bun a long healthy life. Low cost cost spay/neuter clinics are available in most cities.
  2. Fur mites: Symptoms include scratching, shaking of the head and/or ears, fur loss, scabbing in the ears or on the body, an unpleasant odor. Non-transmissable to humans. Bun needs a trip to the vet, usually for a shot of Ivermectin followed by one or two more every 7-10 days. Lack of treatment will result in deafness/infections.
  3. Fleas: Symptoms include scratching, occasional hair loss, and fleas! Ask your vet about Advantage for kittens. This should be prescribed by weight. Never use Sentinal, Frontline, or flea powders/sprays unless directed by vet.. Don't let other buns lick the treated area for 24 hours if possible. Some rabbits are reactive to flea meds and there's no way to predict this.
  4. Hairballs: Symptoms include lack of appetite, lethargy, audible stomach sounds, poops that are increasingly tiny, strung together by hair, or no poops at all. Rabbits lack the ability to vomit, leaving them unable to cough up their hairballs like cats do. Different vets use different methods of breaking up the hairball. Mild cases can sometimes be resolved with Laxatone and the temporary removal of pellets from the diet. (The bits of grains are thought to collect more hairs in the stomach.) Ask your vet about using enzymes to help break down the hairball. Papain and bromelain are natural enzymes found in fresh papaya and pineapple. Prozyme is an enzymatic supplement marketed specifically for animals. More severe cases may need sub-cutaneous fluid therapy and drugs like Reglan or Propulsid to get the gut moving again.Your bun will starve to death without care.
  5. I should mention pasteurella (Pasteurella multocida), an organism carried by all domestic rabbits. It's non-transmissable to humans.There's no vaccine against it. It can lay dormant for your rabbit's lifetime, or pop up anywhere in your rabbit's system at any time. Pasteurella is thought to be responsible for most rabbit infections. Antibiotics can cure specific infections but cannot eradicate the pasteurella itself.
  6. Respiratory infection: Symptoms include any of the following...sneezing/coughing, difficulty breathing, runny nose, runny eyes. If caught in the early stages, bun needs a trip to the vet for some oral antibiotics. Wait too long and it turns to pneumonia which needs injectable and sometimes oral antibiotics too. No care results in death.
  7. Snuffles: Symptoms include sneezing, thin discharge from the nose. Crusty, yellowed paws from pawing at the nose. May involve the eyes, which is Conjunctivitis. Both need a trip to the vet for proper diagnosis and the approproiate medications. Untreated snuffles leads to pneumonia. Untreated conjunctivitis can result in blindness and spreading of the infection throughout the facial/head area.
  8. Urinary tract infection: Symptoms include urinating in inappropriate places, straining to urinate for long periods of time, leaving dribbles of urine here and there. Your vet will do the appropriate tests and prescribe the right antibiotic.
  9. Ear infection: Symptoms similar to ear mites - scratching, shaking of head/ears, bad smell in ears, loss of balance if it travels to the inner ear. Get her to the vet fast, any maladies in the face area easily spread to surrounding areas because everything is so close together. Facial infections left untreated can travel to the brain, causing permanent damage such as head tilt.
  10. Head tilt: Symptoms are loss of balance and the rabbit's head angled at a sideways tilt. (One eye facing the ground.) Sometimes the eyes will move back and forth in a "scanning" motion.The inner ear controls balance, so head tilt buns sometimes roll uncontrollably when they try to walk. My head tilt bun was stricken suddenly with no warning signs. The vet suspected pasteurella but aggressive antibiotic therapy didn't get rid of the tilt. We treated for E. cuniculi as well. They worked. Anti-imflammatory drugs can often be helpful in preventing permanent damage if given at the onset of the disease. Symptoms usually worsen before bun starts to get better, so don't give up - they can and DO recover from even the worst cases. Remove anything bun can hurt himself on, provide support "bumpers" wherever possible, and be patient and supportive. You may have to hand feed and give fluids at first. Most buns recover completely without any remaining signs they were ever sick. Although we beat the original infection/disease with aggressive treatment, Valentino was left with a permanent head tilt. He had a rough but thankfully short transition period as he adjusted to his new limitations. We eradicated his rolling by putting him on one Antivert pill a day to combat his vertigo. We got him a puppy litterbox (it has a lowered front lip) for easy access. We keep him on soft towels and blankets to protect the eye that often rests on the floor. He has toys that sit or hang vertically, making them easy to pick up and toss around. Valentino now lives contentedly with his wife Linnea, a joyful soul who has no idea she's blind.
  11. G.I. Stasis: Symptoms include loss of appetite, small or no poops, loose or watery stools, sitting in a hunched "pain position". This is a complete shutdown of your rabbit's digestive system. Some causes are lack of food (or not eating) for 12 hours or more, stress, lack of exercise, injury, dehydration, poor fiber content in the diet, or an underlying medical problem.This is a life-threatening condition and needs immediate and aggressive medical treatment. Just a few hours of delay can result in death. Your vet should monitor bun's temperature which can drop dangerously low during stasis. Normal temp. for rabbits is 101 to 103 degrees Celcius. If it's below 100 degrees bun may need warm sub-cu fluid therapy. To raise bun's temp on the way to the vet, a towel-wrapped hot water bottle placed against bun should do the trick. Pain meds can save your rabbit's life. A bun in pain won't eat, and keeping bunny eating is critical to her recovery. Ask your vet about Torbutol ,Banamine, or Metacam to ease your rabbit's discomfort. Simethicone to break up painful gas bubbles can be hugely beneficial as well. Severe cases may benefit from a combined usage of Reglan to encourage motility in the upper intestinal tract and Propulsid to encourage motility in the lower regions. You might have to hand feed bun her greens and hay during recovery. If she won't eat willingly, you might have to syringe feed her a slurry of powdered pellets mixed with warm water or fruit baby food. (I use a small coffee bean grinder for this. Don't use one you've ground anything else in.) Oxbow makes a specialty food for sick rabbits called Critical Care, available from vets.
  12. Stomach obstructions: Symptoms are similar to G.I stasis or hairball, and x-rays may be needed to properly diagnose. Blockages can be caused by stasis, food that has clumped due to lack of hydration or the ingestion of any non-natural materials. Treatment will depend on the location and size of the obstruction. Hydration is key in breaking up and passing the offending mass. Motility drugs will be a judgement call for you and your vet, as they can sometimes cause the obstruction to move to a more dangerous spot in the intestinal tract. Your vet may opt for an enema. Never attempt to administer an enema yourself, you can puncture your bun's colon very easily. Ask your vet about enzyme therapy as a possible option. Surgery should be performed as a last resort only. Although rabbits CAN survive stomach surgery, survival rates are low. If bunny's chances without it are slim to none, it's worth a try.
  13. Malocclusion: In simpler terms, crooked teeth. Symptoms are drooling and inability to eat. The front teeth can grow in different directions, sometimes looking like walrus tusks. This can also cause the molars to grow unevenly due to bun's inability to grind food properly. If left unchecked the bottom teeth can even grow through the roof of the mouth.Your vet can surgically remove bun's front teeth. This can initially be expensive, but add up how much it would cost you and your bun in stress and vet bills to have them trimmed once a month for 10 to 13 years. There is a slight chance the teeth can re-grow, but I haven't heard of any doing so. You'll have to chop or grate anything hard like carrots or apples, but bun will eat hay, pellets, and greens just fine on her own. Overgrown molars can easily be drilled down to proper shape by your vet.
  14. Abcesses: Symptoms depend on whether they're internal or external. Internal abcesses can sometimes be detected by gentle palpation of the body, which is part of my bi-monthly home health check. That's how I found a huge abcess in Milo's tummy area in time to have it removed before it spread. External symptoms are lumps anywhere on the body. Non-visible abcesses can be detected by bloodwork. They can get them anywhere and can sometimes be caused by pasteurella. They can grow fast so get to the vet quick. Surgery is usually necessary, although aggressive multi-antibiotic therapy has been sucessful in some cases. The difficulty in beating abcesses lies in three factors: One, the pus is so thick in consistency it makes it hard to fully drain the abcess.Two, they can spread like tentacles, making it hard to remove the whole thing. Three, abcesses are often "walled off", making it hard for the antibiotics to reach them. Methods of therapy vary by vet. If the surgical site is left open you may have to flush it out with a betadine solution a few times a day.Your vet may or may not have you fill the site with an antibiotic gel. Some pack the site and change it frequently. Others fill the site with antibiotic beads that dissolve in a time-released process. Some stitch a drain into the site. No matter what course of action is taken, antibiotic therapy should always be included. If your vet can get a sample of the abcess wall, it can be tested to pinpoint the exact meds needed to fight the infection. These tests aren't always conclusive, but if you get lucky it greatly improves your bun's chances of beating the infection. As with any surgery, diligent aftercare is essential for recovery.
  15. Cancer: Symptoms vary depending on the location of the cancer. There are now more options open as to treatment...you can use holistic or traditional protocols - or a combo of both. Finding a good vet with cancer experience is key. So is emotional support for bunny, lots of extra spoiling! Spay and neuter can at least eliminate the high risk of cancer in the reproductive organs of both males and females and we cannot reccommend it strongly enough..
  16. Encephalitozoon cuniculi (E. cuniculi), a protozoan parasite: Like pasteurella, your bun can host this and never become symptomatic. Symptoms include the loss of use of the front or back legs (or both), head tilt, eyes "scanning" back and forth, blindness/cataracts, lack of coordination, and major organ failure. Testing is tricky and complicated and is not done by every vet. The drugs currently being used against E. cunniculi are Panacur (fenbendazole), a drug usually used to treat internal parasites, Albendazole, a human drug for tapeworms, and Oxibendazole, a drug for internal parasites. These are relatively inexpensive and usually require long-term treatment. Make sure your bun gets bloodwork done to monitor liver function while undergoing treatment.
  17. Fly strike: Symptoms include lethargy, seizures and shock from maggot infestation. Any bun can get fly strike, but outdoor buns are at greater risk. Buns with dirty bottoms from loose stools attract flies, the flies lay their eggs on the rabbit, the maggots feed on your rabbit's flesh. If not eradicated quickly your rabbit will die. One method is submerging the bun's bottom in water and rinsing the maggots off. Moisture attracts more flies so be sure to dry your bun well. Some vets will give an injection of Ivermectin in case some remain inside. Some vets prefer to pick them off by hand. Keeping your rabbit indoors and his living area clean is the best prevention.
  18. "Handicaps": I have shared my home with several "disabled" animals over the past 12 years. They never cease to amaze me with their resilience, adaptability, and acceptance. My animals have been blind, arthritic, deaf, paraplegic, chronically ill, deformed, amputees, you name it....and with some minor adjustments to their living spaces for comfort and safety they just go about the business of living. And with great joy! Rabbits are no exception. Infirmities don't have to be a death sentence. If your bun isn't in chronic pain there's no reason she can't still live a long happy life. Conditions like arthritis that involve some pain may respond to holistic or conventional treatments and meds. There are even "wheelchairs" for rabbits!

There is so much more to rabbit health - too much to cover here. Be proactive with your rabbit's welfare and educate yourself further.

Online info:


Rabbit Health in the 21st Century, 2nd Edition by Kathy Smith
The House Rabbit Handbook, 3rd Edition by Marinell Harriman
Why Does My Rabbit? by Anne McBride
The Essential Rabbit by Sikora Siino.


copyright c. mc intire 2006. not to be used or posted on alternate sites without auther permission.