Caring for elderly rabbits is a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. My own sweet bun, Tenshi, lived to be 13 years old before she passed away. She taught me so much as I learned how to keep her comfortable and happy while she aged.
Senior rabbits require some extra care and loving. As you might expect, rabbits start to slow down as age gets to them, and it is common for rabbits to develop health problems as they get older, such as arthritis and cataracts.
Many rabbits can stay very healthy until they are quite old though, so keep an eye on your rabbit to make sure you’re looking out for their specific needs. If they are well cared for, elderbuns can be a great source of peace and love in our lives. They are calmer (and usually less destructive) than their younger counterparts, and just want a little love from us.
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At what age are rabbits considered elderly?
With an average life expectancy of around 10-12 years, rabbits are generally considered elderly when they reach 6-8 years old. Larger rabbits that have a shorter lifespan may even start to show signs of a senior rabbit as early as 4 years old.
However, it is important to keep in mind that even though a rabbit’s age technically puts them in the elderbun category, they might not show signs of slowing down until a little later in life. For example, my Tenshi stayed active for a long time and didn’t start to show signs of age until around 9-10 years old. Every rabbit is an individual and you’ll need to pay attention to their own specific needs.
Physical signs of old age
As rabbits enter into old age there will start to be some physical differences. Just like with humans, don’t be surprised if your rabbit’s physique and energy level change slowly over time. If there are any sudden changes, however, this could be a sign of illness and you should consult a rabbit-savvy vet.
Some of the changes you’ll see as your rabbit ages include:
- Thinning fur. Your rabbits fur will begin to get thinner. It will be especially apparent in areas with less fur to start with, such as on the ears and eyes. Your rabbit might also start to develop a salt and pepper coat with some white hairs popping up here and there.
- Decreased muscle mass. As a rabbit ages they will naturally start to lose their youthful muscles, and they will become overall weaker.
- Weight loss. As they lose muscle mass, the rabbit will also start to lose weight over time. This will be especially apparent in summer months when they have a thinner coat.
- Less active. Senior rabbits will, understandably, be less active. They will sleep more and won’t zoom around all that often. You’re also less likely to see them climbing around on all the furniture.
- Scaling on ears. This might look like the rabbit has a little bit of dandruff on their ears, and it might be a little itchy for the rabbit. My vet recommended giving my rabbit a pinch of flaxseed daily to help the skin quality and soothe the itching.
Health concerns for senior rabbits
As rabbits age, they also have an increased chance of developing some rabbit illnesses. Most of these are not life threatening, but they can be painful and limit the mobility of the rabbit, so they will require a little extra care from you.
Any disease or infection will be more dangerous and life threatening to an older rabbit as well. So you’ll want to keep a close eye on their behavior and health so you can catch any sign of disease early.
Cataracts occur when a white cloudy substance forms on the rabbit’s eye, blocking the light and eventually causing blindness. Sometimes cataracts will form because of an eye infection, but sometimes there isn’t any apparent cause and it’s just part of aging.
The buildup of the cloudy white surface on the rabbits eye can take anywhere from a week to a couple years before it completely blinds the rabbit, and it can occur in one or both eyes. There are surgeries that can be performed to correct the vision of a rabbit with cataracts, but not many doctors are willing to perform this surgery. It can be both dangerous and expensive.
The good news is, even if your rabbit goes completely blind, they can still live a happy life. Growing up, my family had one rabbit, Lulu, who developed cataracts in both eyes over the course of a couple months. She was an elderly rabbit, and surgery was not an option for her. But as long as we kept the furniture in place and didn’t keep any stray objects around the room, she was able to get around just fine. She was a little slower and more careful than before, but she quickly learned to use her other senses to make up for her lack of eyesight.
This is a big one. Many, many rabbits suffer from arthritis as they get older. The rabbit might stop jumping up onto places, or move around slower than they used to. Sometimes this is just a symptom of muscle mass weakening. But sometimes it’s because the rabbit has arthritis and moving around too much is painful.
There is no way to reverse the effects of arthritis, but there are ways to make sure the rabbit is not in pain all the time. If you believe your rabbit has arthritis, it’s a good idea to consult your vet. For my rabbit, the vet prescribed a painkiller to give daily, so that she would be more comfortable.
It was a struggle to learn how to administer the medication, my bun was not happy about having to take medicine every day. But after a couple weeks she got used to it, and it did seem to help her feel more content.
Rear limb paralysis is much less common, but it’s a possibility as your rabbit ages. This is when just the hind legs become paralized and unable to support the rabbit.
Limb paralysis is sometimes caused by painful joint inflammation, and your rabbit can get relief from taking pain medication. But sometimes the cause is more serious and permanent. You may need to make some lifestyle changes for your rabbit to live with less mobility. You may be able to get a wheelchair for your rabbit if they want to be more mobile, but they might also be happy if their home is flat and easy to navigate.
Rabbits can get sores on their hocks at any point in their life, but they become more common during old age. The hocks are the heels of rabbit feet. The skin on this area is thin and sits up against the bone, kind of like the skin on human elbows. As the rabbit gets older, the skin becomes a little more brittle and it’s easy for them to get sores on their feet.
If you notice your rabbit has developed sore hocks, you might want to bring to the attention of your veterinarian, just in case. The advice my vet gave was to rub vaseline on the hocks every few days to keep the skin soft and less likely to crack. This seemed to do the trick just fine.
Some other simple changes to prevent sore hocks include:
- Give your rabbit a soft floor, such as a soft bath mat, to sit on.
- Keeping the enclosure and litter box clean.
- Making sure all surfaces that they sit or stand on are dry.
Environmental changes for your senior rabbit
As your rabbit slows down or develops one of the common medical problems, you will probably need to make some changes to their environment. You want to help keep them happy and comfortable, even as they start to lose mobility. Here are some ideas to help you out, but feel free to get creative and find ways to give your rabbit the support they need:
- Soft mats or area rugs. Rabbit feet never have good footing on slick surfaces, such as hardwood or linoleum flooring. These floors get even more difficult as the rabbit’s muscles weaken. So it’s best to provide them with soft flooring that will give them traction to move around.
- Use a litter box with a low entry. As rabbits get older, they might have difficulty jumping over the high sides of a litter box. So you should use a litter box that has a low entryway cut out of it.
- Use more hay in the litter box or as bedding. Hay can provide a soft flooring that also gives the rabbit a little extra traction. In the litter box, it also keeps their feet off the litter that might be holding the moisture from their urine.
- Encourage exercise. Don’t expect your rabbit to be super active, but give them a reason to move around a little to keep their bodies healthy. Try giving your rabbit some puzzle toys or hiding some treats in a cardboard toilet paper roll.
- Decrease stress. Make sure the rabbit’s environment isn’t too noisy or scary. They can also get stressed out when their environment changes too quickly. So give your rabbit some time to adjust to anything new that comes their way.
- Lots of petting and massages. Rabbits are very social and still want to interact with you. Elderly rabbits are often content to sit next to you for hours while you pet them and give them a back massage.
Grooming your elderly bunny
When your rabbit gets older, you may have to put some extra care into their grooming routine. While many rabbits prefer to clean themselves, senior rabbits will sometimes lose the mobility to do so.
When my Tenshi got very old, she had a lot of difficult balancing on her back legs while performing her grooming routine, but she was still determined to do everything she could herself. For her, it helped for me to allow her to gently lean against my hands, so she wouldn’t lose balance, while she continued to clean herself. But other rabbits may require more, or less work on your part.
As you go through your grooming routine, you also want to keep a sharp eye out for any potential health problems. Health issues that a young rabbit is able to deal with, can be more deadly to our elderly rabbits. We want to try to catch any symptoms as early as possible.
- Brushing: Elderly rabbits are less able to groom themselves, so you will need to brush them more often than you would otherwise.
- Dry baths: If your rabbit is having trouble keeping clean, you may need to help them out by giving them a bath. You should not give your rabbit a wet bath. Instead use cornstarch and massage it through your rabbit’s fur with your fingers and a fine-toothed comb. It will help keep your rabbit clean without the danger of getting your rabbit wet.
- Nail clipping: Senior rabbits won’t be running around and digging as much as their younger counterparts, so they will need their nails clipped more often.
- Teeth checks: At least once a month (more often is even better) you should check your rabbits teeth to make sure they are healthy and not overgrown. Older rabbits have an increased chance of developing dental disease, especially if they aren’t as interested in hay or chew toys.
- Eyes: Help keep your rabbit’s eyes clean by wiping away any eye gunk that builds up. Sometimes this happens because of the limited ability of the rabbits to clean themselves. If it’s a frequent occurrence, you should consult your vet to make sure there is no underlying condition.
As your rabbit gets older, you will probably need to change their diet to meet the needs of your bun. It’s best to consult your vet before making specific changes, but these are some adjustments you can expect to make to your rabbit’s diet:
- Pellets: many elderly rabbits will lose weight and, therefore, need a little more pellets to help keep their weight up. Of course, some rabbits don’t end up losing weight because they are less active now. So be sure to pay attention to your rabbit’s specific needs.
- Hay: you still want the main part of your rabbit’s diet to be grass-based hay, such as timothy hay. It’s also a good idea to include other types of hay (such as oat hay or orchard hay) to encourage your rabbit to eat more, especially if they are losing weight.
- Veggies: If your rabbit is not eating as much hay as they used to, you may need to adjust the balance of hay and fresh leafy greens. The water content of the veggies may be a little excessive and cause the rabbit to have slightly runny cecotropes.
- Water: Add a choice of water bottle or water bowl for the rabbit. Your rabbit might have a clear preference, but sometimes one will be more comfortable than the other. It’s best to give your rabbit the choice.
What to do with overweight senior rabbits
While many rabbits lose weight as they enter into old age, others gain weight or have trouble with obesity. The rabbit might start to sit around all day and not get any exercise, or they may have entered their senior years already on the heavier side. Obesity can be very dangerous to any rabbit, but it poses some particular challenges to our senior buns:
- Excess weight is more painful for arthritic buns.
- It’s more difficult for rabbits to move the excess weight as they lose muscle mass.
- Digestive issues become more of a problem.
- It is more difficult for rabbits to reach areas to clean themselves, and they are likely to develop poopy butt.
- There is a high risk of heart disease.
- Obese rabbits are more likely to get sore hocks from the amount of weight on their feet.
If this is the case, you will need to adjust your rabbit’s diet in a way that will help them lose weight and encourage them to move around. You will most likely need to decrease the amount of pellets you give your rabbit. You could use a puzzle toy to encourage your rabbit to move around more. But remember, Every rabbit’s specific situation will be different. So it’s best to consult your veterinarian before making changes to your rabbit’s diet.
Keep a close eye on potty habits
Bladder and digestive problems become more common as rabbits age. A change in potty habits can be a sign of larger problems that need to be addressed, such as a kidney or bladder infection. As gross as it sounds, this means you need to keep a close eye on your rabbits urine and feces.
- First you want to take note if your rabbit’s litter box habits have changed at all. Are they peeing outside the box when they never did before? Are you seeing more of the mushy cecotropes around then ever before? Anything unusual is a sign that something could be wrong and you should consult your veterinarian.
- For rabbit urine the main thing you want to look out for is bladder sludge. If they are excreting a thick, sand-like substance in their pee, this is a sign that something could be wrong with their urinary tract or kidneys.
- For rabbit poop, you want to pay attention to the size and shape. Is their poop smaller than usual? Or deformed so they are not little balls anymore? If your rabbit isn’t pooping at all, or only producing very tiny poops, this is an emergency situation. You should get to your veterinarian right away.
- Poopy butt. This is an actual condition in rabbits that causes a ball of poop to form on the rabbit’s butt. Usually this happens because the rabbits do not have the mobility to reach their butt to clean themselves. In these cases you may need to give your rabbit a butt bath to help them stay clean.
More frequent vet check ups
Once your rabbit is showing signs of age, it may be advantageous to bring them to the vet more frequently. I usually recommend bringing rabbits in for a once-a-year annual check up. For elderly rabbits, going every 6 months in ideal. This can help the vet catch any signs of illness early, and give you the best advice for your rabbit as they age. If you are looking for a rabbit-savvy vet in your area, the House Rabbit Society has a great resource of vet listings across the US, and in some places overseas.
- “Caring For Senior Rabbits.” Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund, rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-care-advice/caring-senior-rabbits.
- “Caring For Your Senior Rabbit.” Petcoach, www.petcoach.co/article/caring-for-your-senior-rabbit.
- Koi, Sandy. “Elderbuns.” House Rabbit Society, Jul. 10, 2012, rabbit.org/elderbuns
- Wilhelm, Michelle. “Living With An Elder Bun.” House Rabbit Society, rabbit.org/care/elderbun.html.