Help! My Rabbit’s Back Legs Aren’t Working

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
  • Arthritis
  • 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,

Spinal Trauma

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.

Encephalitozoon Infection

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

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.

Disc Protrusion

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. 

Unusual Causes

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
  • Toxoplasma
  • Herpes simplex
  • Strokes
  • 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.

Have something to add? Comments are welcome below and will appear within 24 hours of lodging.
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.

Andrew

14 Replies to “Help! My Rabbit’s Back Legs Aren’t Working”

  1. My rabbits back legs have also been dragging, few trips to vets and they’ve suggested we keep her as comfortable as possible until it’s time to let go, it’s at a point where she can’t clean her underneath back area or back legs properly, we’re daily cleaning her to get urine off her fur around that area, we’ve been advised it’s time to have her put down, I feel this is probably the correct thing to do but I’m wondering if you think there is more that could be done to help her?

    1. Hi Leonard. If you’ve exhausted all the mentioned options and she’s soiling herself, then it’s quite hazardous for her to try to keep going.

  2. My rabbit is 5 years old and he suddenly developed difficulty using his hind legs. He can only walk short distances before sitting down like he’s tired and can’t use hind legs to scratch himself because he loses balance. He can’t stand on his hind legs either, but is perfectly balanced while sitting on his butt.
    I’ve taken him to 2 local vets: one suggested it’s a dental problem and referred me to a vet that treats dental issues in rabbits; the other one said it’s because of old age and gave him a B vitamins and anti-inflamatory shot. I’m not a doctor but as the rabbit is eating almost as usual I don’t agree on a tooth infection, and much less on “old age”.
    Could you please advise on what I can do to save my rabbit?

    1. Hi Adrian. I agree with you that neither explanation is a very good fit for your rabbit’s situation. Because there is no clear reason, further investigation is warranted. I would take x-rays if this were my patient before proceeding. Otherwise, all you might do is a longer treatment trial with anti-inflammatories. The solution may not be easy to find regardless.

  3. Hi my bunny’s back legs have just collapsed and has been to vets but they don’t know what is wrong. She is on anti inflammatory and worm and antibiotics. Initially (a week ago) her breathing was very loud and exhaustive so I took to vets where they put her on oxygen and antibiotics for upper respiratory infection. She came home and 3 days later had the collapsed legs. She is still eating and on her meds. What do you suggest please?

    1. Hi Kerri. I can understand your concern and it sounds like your vets are doing a great job. I’m sorry I can’t add any extra information. Good luck.

  4. My rabbit has had a long life – he’ll be 14 if he makes it to July 11! I realize this is quite old for a rabbit. When he was 11, he was still capable of very high jumps . After he turned 12, he found it impossible to walk on hardwood floors and had a leg issue that caused him to slowly spin in place (!). Now at 13 he has gone from having difficulty standing up to not being able to walk or stand. I can get him sitting comfortably if I help him out a bit. He’s still an engaged and stimulated rabbit and loves to eat and lie out on the grass. He had a great vet when I lived in another city but his vet in this city handles him with kid gloves because he is nervous about stressing out the oldest rabbit he’s ever seen. And now with COVID, I can’t get in there to be with the rabbit and handle and calm him while the vet checks him out. His first vet said it was probably arthritis before I moved. I assume she is right and therefore not curable, just treatable. I give him Metacam. I keep a close eye on him to keep him happy, fed and clean. Just telling my story, I guess. Kinney has had a good and long life.

    1. Hi Mark. Thanks for your story – you’ve done a great job getting that far and my only thought is if it’s worth asking your vet about the dose rate of meloxicam (Metacam). There’s been a lot of debate about the correct dose so it’s quite possible that you could try a higher one.

  5. Hi
    My 4 month old rabit has hindering back leg but onlu the right leg. the left leg has no problem at all. what would be the cause? An x ray shows a bit curved leg bone. Is it the cause or the symptom?

    1. Hi Hedieh. That’s unusual and you did the right thing getting an x-ray. It’s possibly a congenital or developmental problem, rather than an injury. Follow your vet’s advice, but it might be something that isn’t easy to fix.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *