Updated November 28, 2020
Losing the use of the back legs is one of the most common and serious problems of rabbits. It can happen either suddenly or gradually.
It’s critical that your vet considers all the common causes. It’s not a long list, and can quickly be narrowed down as you’ll see.
Causes Of Hind Leg Paralysis In Rabbits
Reasons for paralysis (no movement) or paresis (weakness) include:
- Spinal Trauma
- Encephalitozoon infection
- Disc protrusion
- Unusual causes
Many of these are treatable by any good rabbit vet, so it’s important to get a correct diagnosis early. Delayed treatment can lead to permanent disability as well as secondary problems from urine and faeces in the fur,
Back injuries are the number one cause of a rabbit suddenly being unable to use their back legs. The ways we see this happening are:
- Jumping out of people’s arms while being carried
- Struggling and kicking while being held
- Panicking in an outside hutch when a fox is about
If you think foxes aren’t common, please read this story of a rabbit and a fox in Adelaide.
When a rabbit suddenly starts dragging the back legs, they need to see a vet ASAP. Most spinal injuries can be easily seen on standard X-rays. Please keep them calm and as still as possible in the meantime.
E. cuniculi is the most common cause of gradual loss of hind leg function in young rabbits. It is a single-celled parasite that is carried by many rabbits without causing problems. However, for reasons we don’t understand, in some rabbits it causes:
- Head tilt progressing to rolling the whole body
- Falling on the side or inability to stand
- Urinary infections
- Hind leg weakness progressing to paralysis
E cuniculi is usually easily treated if recognised in time but can relapse.
Arthritis is the most common cause of gradual loss of hind leg use in old rabbits, usually over 9 years of age. It can occur in the joints of the legs, or the spine where we call it spondylosis.
Old rabbits with arthritis will gradually lose the ability to climb stairs and furniture or hop on slippery floors. With time they may just sit with a hunched posture due to pain.
Arthritis in rabbits is treatable. Visit our page on rabbit arthritis for more information.
Prolapse of a spinal disc is the most common cause of back legs suddenly not working in an old rabbit. Just like for acute trauma, it’s very important to keep your rabbit quiet and see a vet as soon as you can.
Many rabbits with ruptured vertebral discs can recover enough function to survive. However, like in all cases of hind leg paralysis it’s important to be realistic. If the chances of recovery are slim, we have to consider their quality of life.
Soiling of the bottom with urine or faeces creates a high risk of skin infections and fly strike. Additionally, any rabbit who can only drag him or herself about is likely to be suffering. Your vet will be able to help you decide if treatment is a good idea.
Lastly, there are less common ways rabbits can lose balance or function in their hind legs. These include:
- Bacterial infections of the central nervous system or inner ear, especially Pasteurella multocida
- Infection with Baylisascaris procyoni in areas with raccoons
- Tumours of the spine, especially lymphoma
- Herpes simplex
- Poisons, especially heavy metals
None of this list should be considered first, but your vet should be able to tell when these are possible causes.
So good luck. As you can see, most problems can be treated if you get to them in time.
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.