Updated November 29, 2020
‘At A Glance (Details Below)’ Rapid Care
What To Do When A Rabbit Is Sick
- When rabbits get sick they tend to hide serious illnesses until very late so if something is suspected to be wrong it’s best to get it checked by a vet
- Common causes of illness in rabbits are gastrointestinal stasis, kidney stones and traumatic injuries
Now dive deeper.
Caring for rabbits is an increasingly large part of our daily workload. Here are three of our recent cases which show the complexity and variety of rabbit diseases, and the need to treat them with special care. One story does not end well; the owner has requested we included this as a warning to other rabbit owners.
Mr Poppy is over ten years old, and still healthy and happy even if he sleeps a lot these days. Like most rabbits of his age, he needs daily treatment for arthritis, but he’s still an active bunny. As you can tell by what happened.
He came in from playing outside with his mate holding up a hind leg. When he came to us, it was clear he had multiple fractures of his metatarsal bones. Without surgery, he would be in serious trouble as a rabbit’s hind leg must be fully functional, and it wouldn’t ever heal by itself.
We scheduled surgery for the next day. Rabbits can’t and don’t vomit, so we don’t starve them before surgery. This is also to help prevent gastrointestinal stasis (see Hunny Bunny later).
We placed a drip for intravenous fluids in a marginal ear vein, and gave him a normal gas anaesthetic via endotracheal intubation, just like dogs or cats (or people!). His X-rays showed three fractures; the two central bones needed pins but the third (arrow) would heal once we aligned the other two. It may look logical from the xray but trust me: there is nothing more fiddly and needing more patience than pinning such tiny bones.
His whole anaesthetic took two hours but we are very happy with the result. At suture removal yesterday he’s looking great, moving well and even starting to ‘thump’ again. In the meantime his owners found the cause of the injury; his mate had knocked a loose brick off a pile and he was probably in the wrong place.
Hip Hop was a well-loved bunny who we not only saw for regular check ups, but would even go to board with Rachael’s bunny at times. All seemed well until Hip Hop started losing weight and going off her food.
Just like in any species, we took blood which showed tragically advanced kidney failure. Hip Hop’s x-rays showed large nephroliths (kidney stones) which were considered to be the cause of the problem. Our opinion was that he was unlikely to survive the disease, very likely to get worse, and so we recommended euthanasia to prevent suffering. Her owner was devastated.
On investigation, it was discovered that her diet contained a high percentage of lucerne hay. Her owner knew the importance of hay in a rabbit’s diet (see Feeding Rabbits). However, when selecting hay, it is a common and easy trap to select lucerne hay; it’s nicer looking, as you can imagine from the second picture, and rabbits prefer it.
The most important message here is that lucerne hay (identified by its oval leaves; it’s not a grass) contains an excessive amount of calcium. Kidney and bladder stones are a great risk, though until I saw HipHop’s problem I didn’t know just how high that risk was. When selecting hay for your rabbit, make sure to only feed grass hay or meadow hay.
Hunny Bunny came to me one recent Saturday lethargic, not eating and limping on a hind leg. He was clearly in pain. It was also clear that the pain had caused a secondary ‘gastrointestinal stasis’ where his gut had stopped moving. Crucially, he was no longer producing the steady supply of droppings that indicate a healthy rabbit.
To give an idea of how we think, our concern was mainly the fact that his gut had stopped. This is often fatal to rabbits even more than colic can be to horses. Rabbits are herbivores with a complex fermentation process easily disturbed by outside forces. Read more about GI stasis and rabbit digestion here.
Seeing he was not too bad, and hoping it would be a short-lived problem, I prescribed pain relief. He did improve over the weekend but deteriorated again so that several days later it was clear he needed to be hospitalised. We placed a drip and started medications to control pain and stimulate his gut, combined with syringe feeding a critical care mix. It was touch and go for several days and his full recovery was only possible when we could send him home to the continued care of his owners.
He’s back to normal now, and his owners have since found what is likely to have been the cause. A goshawk is hanging around their yard, and although they do not usually attack such large prey it does seem to have attempted to take him and caused the injuries in the process. Goshawks are one one of the rarer native species in Adelaide. I always get a thrill when I see one so I hope the two can live in peace and harmony.
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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.