Is your bunny healthy?
This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.
The Basic Physical Exam
Start without touching your bunny. Watch your bunny’s activity level, attitude and breathing. A normal bunny is aware of what is going on around him or her. In upright-eared bunnies, the ears are perked up and the bunny is paying attention to what is going on around him. He should be able to walk around on the floor without dragging any legs or feet and be curious about what he finds there. The bunny’s breathing should be even and regular. A nervous bunny will often sniff the air quickly, but it should never seem to be fighting to take a breath.
To do an exam, start at the front of the bunny and work toward the rear. Look at your bunny’s eyes, nose and ears. All should be clean; there should not be any matted fur, which can indicate a discharge. There should also not be any abnormal smells coming from any of these places on your bunny. The eyes should not be cloudy and the rabbit should be able to see well. You can evaluate vision by watching your bunny move around the floor, possibly putting obstacles in his way. The nose should be clean with no matted hair or crusting below his nostrils. The bunny should also not be sneezing more than once or twice in a row. The bunny should hold his ears evenly and should not be sensitive about having his ears touched. Never try to clean your bunny’s ears with q-tips. If the bunny jumps, you can puncture an eardrum and possibly cause your bunny to become deaf.
Next look at your bunny’s teeth. You will only be able to see the front teeth, called incisors. These teeth should be even (both top teeth the same length and both bottom teeth the same length). There should not be much food stuck between the teeth. There should also not be any cracks in the teeth and the teeth should not be able to be moved. Back teeth usually require a trip to a veterinarian or a very experienced bunny person to examine them and some special equipment.
Now you can move on to the rest of the bunny. Check the chin and insides of the front legs for matted fur, which can indicate drooling and teeth problems. Also, check the bottoms of the front feet for redness, stuff coming from them or pain when the feet are pushed on. These can be signs of pododermatitis. Also look at the bottoms of the back feet for the same signs. Usually, bunnies will develop pododermatitis on the back feet, not the front. Next, look at your bunnies’ stomach (underside) and behind. Again, there should not be any matted hair or material (usually feces) stuck to the hair around this area. This can be a sign of obesity or a sign of diarrhea.
Finally, look at the bunny from the top. The bunny should usually be slightly pear shaped. If your bunny looks more like an apple with a head, it is probably too fat and needs to go on a diet.
Now that you know what you are looking for when doing a physical exam, lets talk about some of the diseases that your bunny may get, what causes them, and what you can do to prevent your bunny from getting them.
There are many factors that contribute to tooth problems in bunnies. Most bunnies are fed diets that are high in pellets, but lacking in fiber. Remember, wild bunnies don’t have someone feeding them pellets. Bunny teeth grow during their entire life, so they won’t wear out their teeth during their life of eating tough grasses. The lack of tough stuff to help wear the rabbit’s teeth down is a major cause of overlong teeth.
Some rabbits are genetically predisposed to develop teeth problems. Lop eared rabbits especially, have lower jaws that are shortened compared to other bunnies. Though this might not be enough to see, it is enough to affect the way the teeth wear on each other and abnormal teeth can develop.
Systemic diseases may result in teeth problems if the animal is not feeling well enough to eat a normal amount of fiber. Conditions which may cause this include any stressful event or any disease that decreases the animal’s appetite.
Finally, trauma can result in teeth that do not grow normally or do not grow at all. Trauma can result from anything from someone trying to use the wrong tools to trim a rabbit’s teeth to suffering a fall from a few feet up where the bunny can damage the roots from where the tooth grows.
If your rabbit has tooth problems, the bunny will generally not eat as well as he did or may only eat the softer foods that you offer. It may also show signs of drooling where the hair on it’s chin becomes matted and you may notice the rabbit grinding its teeth or a bad smell coming from the rabbit’s mouth.
Teeth in this condition, generally require work by a veterinarian to attempt to even out the tooth length, but may result in severe lesions or abscesses in the mouth that the veterinarian may not be able to help with. You may also find that these severe problems require trimming the teeth often, a procedure that requires a vet visit, anesthesia, and trimming every month or so.
To prevent tooth problems, make sure that your rabbits have access to lots of good quality grass hay, not too many pellets and that you check the rabbit often. The sooner you notice tooth problems, the less likely that they will be severe enough to require years worth of work. Unfortunately, we cannot put braces on bunnies.
Obesity is the second most common problem seen in pet bunnies. This condition again usually results when an animal is being fed too many pellets. Rabbit pellets are high in calories and low in fiber. Obesity can also result when a rabbit is kept in a cage for most of it’s life and is not allowed much time outside of its cage to exercise.
Obesity can contribute to many other health problems. It can contribute to stomach and urinary tract problems because the animal doesn’t get a chance to move around, which helps keep his intestines and urinary tract moving at a normal rate. It also can contribute to pododermatitis (foot problems) because there is more weight resting on the feet than there should be. Aside from making your animal unhealthy in these ways, it can also make it so your animal is less able to survive a trip to the vet when it becomes necessary. A rabbit that has had no exercise has a weak heart and is prone to heart attack at the time of a trip to the vet and is more likely to die under anesthesia if this becomes necessary. A rabbit that is too fat also has difficulty grooming itself and you may have the joy of cleaning your rabbit’s rear end frequently to prevent conditions called urine scald (where the urine that the animal can not clean off his fur, burns the skin underneath) and fly strike (where the feces that can become matted in the fur attracts flies which lay their eggs). You then get maggots eating the unhealthy flesh of your rabbit’s behind.
To prevent your animal from becoming obese, it needs time out of the cage to exercise. Wild rabbits have a home range of about 2 acres and would cover this range at least once every day foraging for food. A big difference when compared to our rabbits where the average rabbit cage size is about 2ft by 2ft. We also need to control our animals’ diets very closely. Unless you are breeding your rabbits, normal rabbits do NOT need to eat rabbit pellets. These are very high in calories and our usual rabbits don’t get the opportunity to use all the calories that they consume. You can feed some pellets to rabbits that are housed outdoors during the winter, but you have to watch their weight closely.
To tell if your rabbit is obese is sometimes not easy. Look at the rabbit from the top. It should be pear shaped, not shaped like an apple with a head. If the dewlap is large enough that it touches the rabbit’s elbows when it is sitting up, it is obese. If you see extra skin that touches the ground around the back end of the rabbit, it is obese. You should be able to feel the rabbit’s ribs without seeing them. Rex rabbits are particularly prone to becoming fat.
Pododermatitis is unfortunately a very common problem. This is an infection of the feet sometimes known as sore hocks. This is very commonly seen in overweight rabbits, but can also be seen in rabbits that are on all wire bottom cages with nothing to sit on to get off the wire, or in rabbits in a cage with a completely solid bottom that is not cleaned often enough. Urine is very irritating to tissue and will burn, so if the animal can’t or won’t get out of the urine (if the most comfortable place to sit in the cage is the litter box) the urine can burn the bottom of the feet.
This condition can range from very mild where changing the caging situation may be enough to let the animal heal to extremely severe where the bones in the feet have been affected and may require amputation of toes, the foot or the entire leg. I have seen an animal with disease so bad that it would have required amputation of three of it’s legs. We had to put that animal to sleep.
Prevent pododermatitis by making sure that your animal doesn’t get overweight, that its cage is cleaned often and that it has something besides wire to sit on that can be cleaned or changed regularly. Remember, wood absorbs urine and doesn’t dry quickly, so it isn’t a good thing for the animal to sit on. Cardboard is easily changed daily when it becomes soiled. A mat made of t-shirt material or a pillowcase over a few layers of terrycloth works well too, and you can change it every day and clean it in the washing machine.
If you’ve been doing bunnies very long, you’ve heard of Pasteurella, also called "Snuffles". This is a bacterium that can cause many problems in bunnies. Unfortunately, most bunnies are exposed to Pasteurella when they are babies, so there is no way to keep your bunny from being exposed. The trick is to keep your animals from coming down with clinical Pasteurella where you see signs of the disease. Pasteurella usually rears it’s head in two ways. One, it will be seen as respiratory disease which may range from so mild that there is a little discharge from the nose and eyes and the bunny sneezes occasionally, to so severe that the rabbit develops severe pneumonia which may result in the death of the animal. The second most common way that we will see Pasteurella is in the formation of abscesses (a collection of diseased and dead infected material (pus)). These often form in the jaw and neck area, but can develop anywhere. They can be very difficult to get rid of and many rabbits with jaw abscesses have had part or all of their lower jaw surgically removed to try and keep the abscess from getting worse.
To try and keep your bunny from developing a clinical Pasteurella infection, keep him as healthy in all other ways as possible. Often the animal develops signs of disease at times of stress, meaning times when he is too hot or too cold, times when he is transported, times when he doesn’t feel well for other reasons, or when his body has to work too hard to survive because he is overweight. If your animal is actively showing signs of disease, please DO NOT take him to any shows. If you do, you may expose other rabbits to the disease, these rabbits may or may not have already been infected, but exposing them to it again at a time when they are stressed (a show) may result in your friend’s rabbit getting sick. You wouldn’t like it if someone else did it, so don’t do it…
If you notice a runny nose or a lump anywhere on your rabbit, it is best to take him to a veterinarian. Sometimes the small lump that you can see is really huge under the skin, but the best chance your bunny has is to have all the abscess material removed and be put on antibiotics to try and keep it from getting worse.
Gastrointestinal disease (GI disease) is a general term that includes any problems with the stomach, intestines, colon, or cecum. This can include anything from intermittent soft stools to diarrhea. Believe it or not, most GI disease is again the result of obesity, lack of exercise and high pellet diets. The rabbit is designed, from its teeth clear through the GI tract to eat a large amount of high fiber, low calorie food every day. The GI tract needs the fiber of grasses to push the food through at a normal rate. Pellets are too "easy" to digest, they don’t have to chew them much, they don’t have the fiber to keep the track running normally, and they don’t contain the water that a normal diet would.
An obese animal’s GI tract doesn’t function normally. It’s squished in too much fat, and the animal can’t move as well as it should which slows down further the actions of the GI tract, so everything begins to come to a stand still. The animal may feel bloated, have a tummy ache and without things moving through at the right rate, there will be growth of bad bacteria. All animal’s, including us, have bacteria in their GI tracts; it’s normal. But with bunnies, when their GI tract isn’t moving things through fast enough, bacteria that can very quickly (in less than 1 day) kill your rabbit get to take over the other, good bacteria. This happens too, if you have a bunny that can’t come out to exercise. Lack of exercise makes a bunny’s GI tract slow and lazy, so we get the same problems.
One of the easiest ways to prevent this is to feed your rabbit lots of high quality grass hay, very few, if any pellets, and make sure it doesn’t get fat and has time and room to exercise.
Urinary tract disease is linked to a diet high in pellets, obesity and lack of exercise. The urinary tract includes everything from the kidneys to the urine that you see on the cage floor. A common problem that I see is excessive calcium in the urine. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, but if there is too much calcium in the urine that you are seeing, there is also too much calcium in the urine that is in the animal’s bladder. Pellets, since most of the ones we can get are alfalfa based, are very high in calcium. In most animals, the extra calcium that the body doesn’t need would never be absorbed from the food, but in rabbits and guinea pigs, the extra calcium is absorbed. The body still doesn’t need it though, so it gets rid of all that extra in the urine. This is what causes your bunny’s urine to look cloudy, it’s all calcium. When your bunny goes to the bathroom a lot of that calcium comes out, but a lot of it stays in the bladder. When it does it can become hard and cause a bladder stone. I’ve seen bladder stones as big as my fist in bunnies and the only way to get them out is surgery.
Just like with the GI tract, obesity and lack of exercise can cause the urinary system to slow down and become lazy too. The bladder won’t contract as hard when the animal urinates so it is going to force less of that calcium sand out of the bladder and make it more likely that you will get a bladder stone (the sand can be a problem too). In female bunnies the sand can come out pretty easy if the bladder is contracting well. In male bunnies however, since their opening is smaller, the sand can actually get stuck on the way out. This blocks the bunny’s ability to urinate and is an extreme emergency. An animal can die in about 3 hours if it can’t urinate.
There are lots of other condition’s that can affect your rabbit, but you can limit some of the worst by following the practices presented above.
- Feed diets that are as close as possible to what a wild bunny would eat. Lots of high fiber hay, about 1 cup of mixed greens (green grass, dandelion greens (non-treated), exotic lettuces) for each two pounds of bunny daily
- access to fresh water all the time
- room and time to run around and get some exercise and
- appropriate caging situations ...
... all will help keep your bunny as healthy as possible.
There are always things, that regardless of how well you take care of your rabbit, may show up at some time. So far, we haven’t found anything that can be done to keep cancer from showing up, but these steps will help increase the chances that your bunny will grow to be the healthiest that it can.
This Pet Health Topic was written by Dr. Nickol Finch, Washington State University.
Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.
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