Rabbits do not show signs of illness easily. In the wild, a rabbit showing signs of weakness, injury or illness would be an easy target for predators so it's important to ensure that you pay close daily attention to your rabbit's behaviour.
Marie Channer, head of small animal welfare at Wood Green, suggests: “Rabbits should be visually health-checked every day and thoroughly health-checked every week. Rabbits are a prey species so will not let you know that they are poorly until the last minute, it's important that you pick up even the smallest change in behaviour.”
A healthy rabbit should:
- Move freely and comfortably without any signs of discomfort or lameness.
- Be able to hop up and down small steps, and exploring his environment.
- Unless he is moulting, your rabbit's coat should be sleek and shiny with no sign of parasites.
- His eyes should be bright and alert without any sign of soreness or injury.
- There should be no nasal discharge — this may indicate a respiration issue.
- The nose should twitch roughly in time with your rabbit's breathing; he should never breathe through his mouth.
- Check around the mouth for signs of drooling or saliva -—this may indicate a problem with chewing which could be associated with dental disease.
- Your rabbit should hold his ears correctly depending on which breed he is. Ears should be clear and clean.
- Your rabbit's rear end should be clear of any faeces, pay particular attention to this if your rabbit is longhaired or if he is elderly.
- Your rabbit should be eating a normal amount every day. Remember to take note of exactly how much your rabbit eats daily so you can ensure that he is eating the same amount each day.
- Check that your rabbit's faeces are of a normal size and consistency, look out for any signs diarrhoea or small, dry poos.
Once a week, place your rabbit on a towel on a flat surface so you can do a detailed nose to tail health check, paying close attention to the points mentioned above.
Some common illnesses in rabbits
From April to late summer you should check your rabbit daily for any signs of fly strike; especially if your rabbit has encountered these kind of problems before. A common cause of fly strike is obesity – it is recommended that you use litter trays so that faeces can be easily removed each day. Check his rear end for signs of faeces and urinary staining which will matt the coat, causing bacteria to grow and creating an ideal place for fly eggs to hatch. The rear area should be clean and dry at all times. Elderly rabbits, obese rabbits, hutch/indoor cage bound rabbits and long haired rabbits should be checked daily as it can affect them any time of the year – more so in hot weather.
Rabbits’ teeth grow constantly so they will need a diet that’s high in fibre in order to keep their teeth ground down. Dental disease is very difficult to spot in rabbits — their mouths are small, narrow and deep so problems are often not seen until it’s too late. In rabbits that are suffering from dental issues it’s often not until rabbits begin to stop eating from the pain that owners are aware that there are any issues. Regularly weigh your rabbits and check that the front teeth touch together.
It’s important to pay close attention to your rabbit's toileting routine as any changes in this could indicate a problem. Shock, stress and pain can all cause digestive disturbances in your rabbit. Occasionally a digestive blockage may occur — if you suspect that this is occurring with your rabbit seek veterinary advice immediately.
Caecotrophs are dark, smelly, shiny soft droppings that rabbits eat as they emerge from the bottom, they are only occasionally seen. If these soft stools are found often, this is a sign that something is wrong. It may be that your rabbit is unable to reach round to his bum due to his age or weight, or he may have painful teeth which means he will not want to eat. It could also indicate a worm infestation. The most common cause though is an incorrect diet. A badly balanced diet without enough fibre, with too many proteins or carbohydrates, or even being fed too much, may mean your rabbit doesn't want to re-digest the diet. If you spot this problem, take your rabbit to the vet for a full health check to ascertain the problem. A sticky bum can increase your rabbit's chance of fly strike, so it's important to treat this properly.
This is commonly seen in female rabbits that aren't spayed at the correct age. Neutering your rabbits can help prevent unwanted babies, uterine cancer and behaviour problems such as aggression. While spaying is an invasive form of surgery, the benefits outweigh the risks greatly – and they can also become easier to train.
This is a viral disease that killed thousands of wild rabbits in the 1950s. The virus is spread by biting insects or directly from rabbit-to-rabbit contact. Pet rabbits that live outside are at a greater risk as they are more likely to come into contact with wild rabbits, hares or rabbit fleas. Pet rabbits have no genetic immunity against myxomatosis, and vaccination with the recommended booster follow-up, is HIGHLY recommended. Vaccinated rabbits can still contract the disease, but the symptoms — which include runny eyes and conjunctivitis, swellings on the head and puss lumps that cover the body — are much less severe. Treatment of vaccinated rabbits is much more successful, and with proper veterinary care, survival is common.
There are two forms of myxomatosis: one causes pneumonia and a snuffle-like illness; the other (Nodular myxomatosis) mainly affects skin and carries a better prognosis. Treatment for unvaccinated rabbits is generally futile, and euthanasia is generally recommended.
To avoid contraction of myxomatosis:
- Buy hay from farms free from myxomatosis
- Fit insect screens to outdoor hutches and runs
- Eliminate standing water from your garden (and preferably from any neighbouring gardens as well!) where mosquitoes could breed
- Avoid any contact with cats or dogs who may have been hunting infected wild rabbits
- Ensure that outdoor rabbits cannot make contact with wild rabbits
- If your rabbit has any signs of fur mites (eg dandruff on the back of the neck) take him to the vet for prompt treatment.
Common skin complaints in rabbits
A fungal infection that causes itchy sores, usually on the head. The infection is easily treatable with anti-fungal medication. Ringworm can be passed from rabbits to humans so it is important to handle infected animals carefully, using gloves and limiting contact with your rabbit during treatment.
Fleas and mites
Mite infestations generally look like dandruff patches on the coat. They are often seen in hard-to-groom places at the base of the tail or the nape of the neck and can be more common in older or longhaired rabbits who will find grooming more difficult. Anti-flea treatments for both your rabbit and for his living environment are available from your vet. Flea infestations are not common in rabbits but can occur in multi-pet households, particularly if you own cats or dogs. Fleas can carry the myxomatosis virus so a good flea control programme, which treats all the animals in your household, is important.
These invade the ear canal, causing irritation and creating a crusty discharge from the ear. Signs include increased ear scratching, soreness in the ear and eventually a brown scaly crust within the ear. They should be treated by your vet.
Sore hocks (pododermatitis)
This can be caused by various things including poor hygiene in the environment, long nails causing too much weight on the heel, obesity, immobility and unsuitable flooring. Adult rabbits should have a small bare pink callused area at the tip of the heel, covered by a fold of fur. If this area is red, inflamed and weeping then your rabbit has 'sore hocks'. The underlying cause should be identified and rectified while the sores can be treated with anti-inflammatories and painkillers.
Wounds, lumps and bumps
These have various causes and will need to be carefully cleaned and, depending on the severity, seen by your vet.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease
A deadly disease that both pet and wild rabbits can catch. A vaccination is available to protect your rabbit from this disease, which is increasing in the wild rabbit population, particularly in certain areas. The disease can be caught from food contaminated by infected rabbits, birds or insects that transfer the disease in their droppings. It may have been blown in the wind, or you may even bring the virus home on your feet via infected droppings.
VHD can cause sudden death in older rabbits or they may just get mildly ill and then recover. It does not affect rabbits under the age of eight weeks. It is entirely preventable, firstly by ensuring your rabbit is vaccinated and that you keep up-to-date with the necessary boosters. Good hutch hygiene and ensuring that wild animals, vermin and birds cannot get into your rabbit's hutch can also help. Don't pick grass from areas where wild rabbits might live and try to prevent wild rabbits having nose-to-nose contact with your rabbit.
Obesity is a major health concern in the pet population and issues in rabbits are no exception. You can help to keep your rabbit in shape by ensuring that:
- He has plenty of space to run around and exercise
- He is fed on a balanced diet.
- He is not over-fed – a small handful of pellet feed a day to compliment adlib hay. Fruit and carrots are also very fattening.
- He is not fed too many treats.