In general, rabbits are actually very healthy animals. Most of the time, you will only have to bring your rabbit to the vet for their annual check-up. However there are still a number of illnesses and injuries a rabbit can contract that that can be potentially life-threatening for our cute fuzzy friends.
Rabbits are prey animals. In order to survive, they had to learn how to hide all of their weaknesses from predators. Unfortunately this means it can be difficult to detect when a rabbit isn’t feeling well.
It’s important to learn the signs of common rabbit illnesses so that we can get our rabbits the emergency care that they need. While you’re at it, it’s important to find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian near you. The House Rabbit Society has this handy list to help you find a vet that’s knowledgeable about rabbits. It’s always a good idea to observe your rabbit when they are healthy. That way you can easily recognize when they are not acting normally and watch for the signs of any of the following conditions.
1. GI stasis
GI stasis (gastrointestinal stasis) is the condition that occurs when a rabbits gut slows down or comes to a complete halt. As the intestinal tract slows down, hair and food start to get stuck along the gastrointestinal passage, creating bigger blockages. And the gut bacteria will start to increase to dangerous numbers, creating painful gas in the rabbit’s gut.
Basically this means that the rabbit’s digestion isn’t working. The whole system has stopped. If the symptoms are caught early enough, it is very possible that your rabbit will recover. But if the rabbit does not receive help on time, this condition can be deadly.
This is probably the most important condition to be aware of, since it is often a symptom of many other illnesses in rabbits.
GI stasis is pretty common, so it’s important to learn the symptoms:
- Not eating. If the rabbit hasn’t eaten in over 10 hours or refuses their favorite treat, this is cause for concern.
- No poops or small malformed poops. In early stages of stasis, the rabbit’s poops will usually be small and malformed until eventually they are not pooping at all.
- Diarrhea or mushy poops. Diarrhea in rabbits is never normal. If you ever notice this, that is a sign that something is wrong with their digestion.
- Loud stomach gurgles, or no sound coming from the stomach at all. If you ever put your ear near your rabbit’s stomach, you’ll notice that there is almost always a quiet gurgling going on. If this gets really loud or disappears completely, it’s a sign of GI stasis.
- Hunched posture. This is often the position that rabbits take when they are in pain, especially if that pain is coming from their gut. The position looks almost like a rabbit loaf. But instead the rabbit will be slightly up on their front paws, keeping their belly from pressing against the ground.
- Lack of energy. If your rabbit is normally full of energy, but now they are just sitting and hesitant to move, this could mean your rabbit is experiencing stasis.
GI stasis is often a symptom of some other underlying health problem. So after your rabbit recovers from their GI stasis episode, it’s important to check and see if there are any other issues that caused the gut problems.
Causes of GI stasis include:
- A high sugar diet. If a rabbit has too many treats, or even too many pellets it can cause an imbalance in the gut bacteria.
- Lack of exercise. Exercise helps to keep a rabbit’s digestion moving. So if your rabbit just sits in their enclosure all day, their gut can slow down.
- Pain from other injuries or illnesses. GI stasis is often a symptom of more serious conditions. If your rabbit is in pain, their gut will likely slow down.
- Stress or fear. An anxious rabbit is also at risk of GI stasis.
- Dehydration. If your rabbit doesn’t get enough fluids, the stomach will have trouble pushing food through the digestive tract.
- Intestinal blockage. Sometimes food or another object that a rabbit ate can create a blockage in the digestive system.
GI stasis is a really scary condition to deal with and it can sneak up very quickly. So we want to do what we can to prevent this condition:
- Feed your rabbit lots of hay. Hay is high in fiber and is essential to a rabbit’s healthy digestive system. Read more about a healthy diet for a rabbit.
- Encourage your rabbit to stay hydrated. A water bowl is often easier for a rabbit to drink from than a bottle. You could also give leafy greens to your rabbit that still have the water from being rinsed.
- Allow your rabbit to have lots of exercise. Make sure their enclosure is large enough and give your rabbit at least 2 hours a day of exercise in a larger space.
- Regular vet visits. Schedule annual vet check-ups to make sure your rabbit is healthy.
- Reduce stress. Making sure your rabbit is not living in a noisy, scary environment can do a lot to prevent GI stasis. Indoor housing is generally much safer and less stressful for rabbits.
Rabbits are meticulous self-groomers. This, of course, means they end up ingesting a lot of their own fur. Usually the fur will travel through their digestion just fine, but sometimes the hair can clump up in a rabbits stomach.
Unlike cats, who can hack up their furballs, rabbits cannot vomit. A large enough hairball can completely block the digestive tract, leading to GI stasis.
Most of the symptoms for hairballs are the same as the symptoms for GI stasis. In addition, you might notice a lot of your rabbit’s poops seem to be strung together with fur in-between them. If you see this occasionally, that’s perfectly normal, especially during shedding seasons. But if you find most of your rabbit’s poops are like this, it could be a sign of trouble brewing.
Hairballs are usually caused by a combination of GI stasis and ingesting too much fur. They usually only occur as a result of the digestive tract already slowing down. But it’s also possible your rabbit will get a hairball if they eat a large piece of matted fur when they are grooming themselves.
The best prevention is to make sure your rabbit has a healthy diet and drinks plenty of water. These help the rabbits digestive system move normally, so the hair will go through the system without any problems.
It’s also helpful for you to groom your rabbit, especially if they are long haired or in the middle of their shedding season. This will keep them from ingesting too much of their fur at once.
3. Ear mites
Ear mites are a parasite that climbs into a rabbit’s ears causing them to become crusty and inflamed. They can be easily treated, but if they’re not caught early enough they can cause a bacterial infection in your rabbit’s ear.
The very early stages of an ear mite infection are difficult to detect. The ear mites will climb down deep into the rabbits ear canal, so the crusting won’t be noticed unless you’re looking into your rabbits ears.
As the infection progresses, you may notice these signs in your rabbit:
- Scratching or chewing on at their ears.
- Shaking their head.
- Thick brown Crusting on their ears, especially in the ear canals.
- Scratch marks or thinning fur on their ears and on the areas near the base of the ear.
- Drooping ears, or holding their ears against their back.
- Inflamation on the ears.
Do NOT attempt to peel of the crusting from your rabbits ears. This can be incredibly painful for rabbits. Instead, follow your vet’s instructions. As your rabbit heals the crusts will begin to fall off on their own.
Ear mites are very contagious and can easily be spread from one rabbit to another. They can pass directly from rabbit to rabbit, or from the environment that the infected rabbit was in to the healthy rabbit. They can also pass from rabbit to rabbit on a caretakers hands or clothing.
The best way to prevent ear mites is to make sure you wash your hands and change your clothes after interacting with another rabbit. Since early signs of ear mites are difficult to detect, it’s better to be cautious to make sure you’re not inadvertently spreading something.
It’s also a good idea to have regular annual check-ups with your rabbit veterinarian. They’ll be able to take a look into your rabbit’s ears and detect any early signs of ear mites.
Heatstroke is a serious danger to rabbits in the summertime, especially if they are kept outside. Rabbits have thick fur coats and that makes it a struggle to keep their body temperatures down when the weather gets warm. Temperatures above 80°F are the danger zone for rabbits, but in particularly humid areas, it would be best to keep the thermostat even lower.
When it’s hot out, you want to look out for these signs:
- Red ears
- Slow/confused movement
- Trembling or shaking
- Lifting their head up while trying to breath
If you notice these symptoms, your rabbit is already in a very serious situation. You want to get your rabbit to the vet, but you will also need to take some immediate steps to help your rabbit cool down in the meantime:
- Mist the rabbits ears with some cool water. Rabbits regulate their body temperature most effectively with their ears, so it can help them to cool down if you mist their ears with cool water. But do not completely soak the ears.
- Wrap your rabbit in a damp towel (NOT wet). A cool, damp towel can help to cool down your rabbits body temperature and help them recover from heatstroke. Make sure the towel is not soaking wet though. You want it to be cool against your rabbits skin, but you don’t want to shock them or soak their fur.
- Give your rabbit access to fresh cold water. You could even put some ice cubes in the bowl to make it colder.
- Move your rabbit to a cooler area. Either turn the thermostat temperature down or bring them to a cooler place in the house.
Heatstroke is caused when a rabbit is exposed to excessive heat.
- Sometimes it’s because the rabbit was a little too active in the heat, but sometimes even less active rabbits can suffer from heatstroke.
- Dehydration in summer months can also very easily lead to heatstroke in rabbits.
- Being kept out in the sun without any shady places to hide is another big problem.
- Rabbits kept inside without any air circulation or ventilation can overheat.
A rabbit’s body has a limited capacity for cooling down. Their long fur coat means that their ears are given the main job of cooling the body down. And sometimes they just can’t keep up. The rabbit’s body temperature will start to rise and their body will start to show signs of excessive stress.
The best way to prevent heatstroke in the summer is to take steps to keep your rabbit cool and comfortable:
- Bring your rabbit inside, especially if you live in a very hot and humid area.
- Keep the thermostat below 80°F, even if you are not home during the day.
- Keep your rabbit in the basement. Heat rises, so it is always cooler on lower floors in the house.
- Give your rabbit a frozen water bottle to lean against. Freeze a water bottle and wrap it in a towel to place in your rabbit’s enclosure
- Give your rabbit fresh, cool water. The hotter it is, the more times a day you should refill their water.
- Use fans to help circulate the air. Keeping a ceiling fan going can do wonders for making a room feel nice and cool.
- Keep your rabbits out of direct sunlight. Whether they are kept inside or not, make sure your rabbit has the option to get away from the sun.
- Groom your rabbit. Brush your rabbit, especially if they have long hair. This will help thin their coat out a little bit.
- Give your rabbit some ceramic or marble tiles to lay against. These stay cool longer than wood or carpet, so they give your rabbit a cool surface to lay against.
- Mist your rabbits ears with cool water. You can give your rabbit’s ears a little misting to keep them cool. Be careful not to get any water into the ears though, that has the potential to cause an infection.
Snuffles is the rabbit cold. The symptoms are very similar to a human cold, but it is actually a very dangerous disease for a rabbit. Snuffles is an upper respiratory bacterial infection that affects the rabbit’s nose, and sometimes eyes and ears also.
If the symptoms are caught early, and the rabbit is brought to a vet for treatment, there is a good chance they will recover just fine. But if not, snuffles can be a deadly condition for rabbits.
You want to look out for any sign your rabbit might be catching a cold. Some of the symptoms may be relatively obvious, but there are some more subtle signs to look out for that can help you catch the infection early:
- Watery eyes
- Runny nose
- Matted fur on their front paws (This is an early sign and it happens when a rabbits cleans their face with their paws. It removes the evidence from their face and transfers it to their paws)
- Wet nose
- Difficulty breathing
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of energy
- Head tilt
- Skin sores around the eyes and nose
Most of the time, snuffles is caused when a rabbit comes into contact with the bacteria, Pasteurella multocids. But it can also be caused from a number of other bacteria that make their way into the rabbit’s upper respiratory system.
Interestingly, many rabbits can carry these bacteria for years without showing symptoms. The bacteria will remain dormant until the rabbit gets stressed out about something. Then it will flare up and cause snuffle in your rabbit.
This is also a highly contagious infection. It can easily spread from rabbit to rabbit. Or an handler can inadvertently spread it from their hands or clothes after touching an infected rabbit.
The best way to prevent your rabbit from getting snuffles is to make sure you wash your hands and clothes after interacting with other rabbits. But since many rabbits already have the bacteria dormant inside of them, the second best way is to keep your rabbit’s environment as stress free as possible.
This means keeping their environment at a nice temperature that’s not too hot, and making sure their enclosure is big enough to allow freedom and exercise. You also want to spend time with your rabbit, especially if they don’t have a companion bunny. Rabbit’s can get lonely and depressed, which makes them much more likely to become sick.
6. Bladder Sludge
Bladder sludge is when excess calcium forms into crystals in the rabbit’s kidney and urinary tract. They can sometimes form into masses and cause bladder stones, but often the rabbit will end up urinating a thick sand-like substance called bladder sludge. Your vet will have to do some tests to find the root of the problem and help your rabbit recover.
If a rabbit has bladder sludge. If the rabbit pees onto a newspaper, you’ll see the thick sand-like substance settled into the middle of the pee streak. But since most of us use litter instead of flat newspaper in our rabbits litter boxes, this is not a reliable indicator. Instead we need to pay attention to other symptoms:
- Peeing more frequently than usual.
- Urinating outside the litter box.
- Dribbling pee.
- Having difficulty peeing or not peeing at all.
- Sludge in urine. Sludge will make the urine look cloudy and murky. When dried, it will have a rough, grey, chalky residue.
- Urine scald. A skin rash on the rabbit’s butt and feet that occurs when comes into contact with urine for an extended period of time.
The exact causes of urine sludge are still unknown, but there are a number of factors that have an effect on your rabbits chances of developing bladder sludge:
- Not drinking enough water
- Lack of exercise
- Inappropriate habitat
- Kidney disease
- Bladder disease
Some rabbits will develop bladder stones no matter what we do to try to prevent it. But there are still steps we can take to make this condition less likely for our rabbits at home:
- Encourage your rabbit to drink more water.
- Removing alfalfa based food from the diet. Alfalfa based food are high in calcium and generally not recommended for a healthy adult rabbit (it’s okay for young rabbits though).
- Feed lots of fresh leafy greens.
- Encourage exercise.
- Clean your rabbit’s litter box daily.
- Annual vet check-ups.
7. Overgrown teeth
Overgrown teeth, also called malocclusions, are surprisingly common in rabbits. Rabbit teeth are constantly growing and they need to grind their teeth down with the food that they eat and the other objects that they chew on. When a rabbit’s teeth are overgrown it can cause infections in the rabbit’s mouth or skull, and it will make eating very difficult for the rabbit. Your vet will have to shave the rabbit’s teeth down, or in some cases completely remove the front incisors.
The signs of overgrown teeth can be difficult to detect without looking into your rabbits mouth. But there are some signs we can look out for:
- Weight loss from a decreased appetite
- A build up of saliva on the chin (rabbits don’t normally drool)
- Not eating any hay
- Lumps by the eyes or under the chin from cheek teeth that are being pushed deeper into the jaw bones
- Discharge from the eye as the teeth are pushed up toward the tear ducts.
- Uneven front teeth
There are three main causes of overgrown teeth in rabbits. Two of which we don’t have any control over, they just come down to luck.
- Genetics: This is more common in mixed breed rabbits since sometimes their mixed genes cause their jaws to not line up quite right.
- Misaligned from Injury: Sometimes a rabbit will get their tooth caught in something, pulling it out of alignment. Once the teeth are out of alignment, it’s not likely that they will be corrected.
- Not enough to chew on: If the rabbit does not get enough to chew on, whether from an unhealthy diet or not enough chew toys, they could end up with overgrown teeth. This is the only cause the we have control over. Once the rabbit’s teeth are trimmed back down to normal size, we can prevent it from happening again by giving the rabbit a healthy diet and plenty to chew on.
While there is little we can do to prevent malocclusions if they occur due to genetics or injury, there is a lot we can do to make sure our rabbits have enough to chew on.
- Give your rabbit a healthy diet of mainly grass-based hay (such as timothy hay)
- Give your rabbits a variety of chew toys. Check out my list of recommended toys.
- Give your rabbit regular dental checks.
Myxomatosis is a terrible virus that is spread between rabbits and causes swelling around the rabbit’s eye and nose. The mortality rate is incredibly high if a rabbit contracts this disease, at around 96%, and there is no known treatment. This virus was purposefully introduced in Australia and areas of Europe in the 1950’s to reduce the wild rabbit population, and it has since become a bane for our pet rabbits.
There is a vaccine available for rabbits in Europe, but no vaccine has been approved in the US. Luckily, myxomatosis is not very common in the United States, but there have been cases of the disease reported along the pacific coast.
Myxomatosis is characterized by red swelling on the rabbit’s eyelids and lips. They are also likely to develop a fever. As it progresses the eyelids of the rabbit may be swollen shut and the rabbit will have difficulty breathing. No treatment is known to be effective and the symptoms are very likely to eventually result in death.
The myxoma virus is spread is spread through blood-sucking insects. Mosquitos, fleas, flies or mites may carry the disease and spread it between rabbits. It is also contagious and can be spread through contact. This is either a rabbit coming into contact with another rabbit, or a handler spreading the disease after coming into contact with the infected rabbit.
If you live in one of those countries where it is available, I highly recommend you get your rabbit vaccinated. That is the most effective way to prevent the spread of myxomatosis. Other preventative measures include:
- Putting up mosquito netting around the rabbit’s enclosure.
- Keeping your rabbit inside where there are less insects to spread the disease.
- Consult a veterinarian about flea prevention in rabbits.
- Clean the rabbit’s cage and litter box often.
9. Uterine tumors
Female rabbits that have not been spayed have a very high chance of developing reproductive cancer. Although it can differ by breed, the chances of a female rabbit getting uterine cancer after they are three years old are 60%, and this number increased to 80% for rabbits older than 6 years. It’s one of the most common forms of cancer in rabbits. Sadly, these are typically aggressive, malignant tumors and have a high mortality rate.
There are very few symptoms of uterine cancer in rabbits until they reach they reach the later stages of the disease. Once the disease has progressed, you may notice:
- Weight loss, even if the rabbit is eating
- Blood in urine
- Coughing or wheezing
- Infertility or smaller litter sizes
- Swollen or lumpy abdomen
Most of the time, once these symptoms appear, there is little that can be done to help the rabbit recover. If the tumor hasn’t spread, it might be able to be removed with surgery. But in most cases, the tumor has progressed beyond this point, and at best, the rabbit will only have a few months left to live.
Rabbits are made to have lots and lots of babies. This means that their reproductive organs are working very hard all the time whether or not the rabbit is actually having any babies. Their hormone levels are constantly changing, causing serious wear and tear on the uterine wall. It’s almost inevitable that this will cause cancer in the rabbit eventually.
The only way to prevent uterine cancer in your rabbit is to get her spayed. And the earlier the better, since some rabbits will start to develop the cancer by around 2 years old. The good news is, once the surgery has been performed, the chances of your rabbit developing cancer fall to virtually 0% and her life expectancy will shoot up another 2 years.
10. Fly strike
Fly strike is a horrible and disgusting condition that comes on quickly and is very dangerous for rabbits. It happens when a fly lays eggs on the rabbit (usually around their butt). Then when the eggs hatch, the maggots start to eat the flesh of the rabbit. This is a serious emergency situation, since the maggots can kill your rabbit within a 24-48 hour time period after hatching. Rabbits can recover from flystrike if you can quickly get them to the vet to get the maggots removed.
This is especially a problem with rabbits who are kept outside. There is a greater chance that flies will find them and lay eggs, and it is more difficult to keep outdoor enclosures clean.
Since this is an illness that comes on quickly, there are no early signs to look out for. The most prominent sign will be visible maggots. If you see them that means they are also burrowing into the rabbits skin. The best thing you can do in this situation is get your rabbit to the vet as soon as possible:
- Lack of energy or nonresponsive
- Visible maggots
Flies are more likely to lay eggs in a wet or dirty place, and it is more likely to occur during the summer months. Some conditions that make your rabbit more susceptible to fly strike include:
- A dirty bottom. If the rabbits are unable to clean themselves properly, they have a higher risk of fly strike. Also being kept in an unsanitary environment can significantly increase the likelihood.
- Wet fur. Sometimes this is from dew on the ground, or maybe someone tried to give their rabbit a bath and didn’t dry them properly (don’t bathe your rabbit).
- Open wounds. Flies can be attracted to the smell of blood, so be sure to take your rabbit to the vet to treat any wounds.
- Hot, humid weather. Flies are abundant in hot, humid weather, making the chances higher that they’ll target a rabbit.
Since this condition can come on quickly and kill a rabbit, the best thing we can do is take measures to prevent fly strike:
- Keep your rabbit indoors
- Check your rabbit’s bottom every day and keep it clean
- Keep the rabbit’s enclosure clean
- Clean out the litter box daily
- Put up fly screens
- Keep your rabbit dry
Bloat is caused when gas accumulated in the rabbit’s stomach and is unable to escape. It causes the stomach to become distended and enlarge like a balloon. This is very painful and uncomfortable for the rabbit since their stomach is not nearly as elastic as many common pets.
If the symptoms are caught early, there is a chance the condition can be reversed as the gas is allowed to pass through the digestive tract. But if the symptoms progress without treatment, the rabbit will enter a stage that is called True Bloat. At this stage, the bloat is no longer reversible and the only possible course of action is surgery.
The symptoms of bloat are very similar to the symptoms of GI stasis, since the two conditions have a lot in common. The differentiation of the two conditions is typically the look and feel of the stomach or abdomen area in the rabbits. For a rabbit with bloat, the abdomen will look rounded on the sides, and it will feel hard to the touch.
Other symptoms include:
- Breathing rapidly
- Not being able to find a comfortable position to rest in
- Not eating
- Not pooping
- Lack of energy
- Sitting in a hunched position
The specific causes of bloat are still mostly unknown, but there are some conditions that appear to make a rabbit more likely to develop bloat:
- Excessive exercise immediately after eating
- Sudden change in their diet
- Stomach ulcers
- Digestive problems
Like other gastrointestinal conditions, the best way to avoid bloat is to make sure your rabbit has a healthy diet:
- Provide your rabbit with a healthy diet consisting of mostly timothy hay.
- Avoid quick dietary changes, instead introduce new foods slowly over the course of 1-2 weeks
- Stick to a regular feeding schedule
- Reduce stress for your rabbit
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- “Rabbits For All Seasons: Summer.” Long Island Rabbit Rescue Group, www.longislandrabbitrescue.org/summer.
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- Somjen, Kim, DVM. “Rabbit teeth malocclusion – detection and treatment.” Bell Mead Animal Hospital, Feb. 3, 2016, www.bellemeadanimalhospital.com/blog/rabbit-teeth-malocclusion-detection-and-treatment
- “What is myxomatosis and how do I protect my rabbit from it?” RSPCA, May 1, 2019, kb.rspca.org.au/knowledge-base/what-is-myxomatosis-and-how-do-i-protect-my-rabbit-from-it.