Rabbits are prey animals. Their wild ancestors survived by hiding their weaknesses so that their many predators would not be able to pick them off. That’s why it can be so difficult for us caretakers to know if our rabbits are sick. Sometimes what seems like a small change in behavior is actually a sign of a serious health problem.
As caretakers, it’s important for us to learn about all the symptoms of rabbit illnesses ahead of time. That way when you notice any signs of a sick rabbit, you’ll be able to respond quickly and get your rabbit the help they need. If you notice your rabbit is showing any of the symptoms on this list, make an appointment with your rabbit-savvy vet as soon as possible. It could be a false alarm with nothing to worry about, but you might just save your rabbit’s life.
1. A change in eating habits
Any change in your rabbit’s eating habits is one of the most important signs of sickness to look out for. This could be a symptom of overgrown teeth, GI stasis, or even just a side effect of pain. It’s one of the symptoms you will find for almost all rabbit illnesses, so you should definitely be on the lookout.
What this could look like:
- A drastic change in the amount of food your rabbit is eating in a day.
- Suddenly refusing to eat any hay and instead opting for only pellets or vice versa.
- Eating more than usual, especially if they are also losing weight.
- Picking up food in their mouth and dropping it, or otherwise struggling to eat.
- Refusing to eat anything at all, even when you offer your rabbit their favorites. This is an emergency situation. Bring your rabbit to the vet ASAP.
2. A change in their poop
It is incredibly important to monitor your rabbit’s poop on a daily basis. A change in the amount, size or shape of their poop can tell you a lot about a rabbit’s health. Their digestion is sensitive and a change in their health can often be found in their poop first. Every day when you clean out your rabbit’s litter box, you’ll want to keep an eye on their droppings to make sure it looks healthy and normal.
Rabbit poops should be small round balls, from about the size of a sweet pea to a chickpea. They should be a uniform and consistent size, shape, and color. You may also see the occasional cecotrope. These are softer protein-packed poops that rabbits are supposed to re-ingest. They often appear in a grapevine-looking cluster, but can also be seen in singles.
What to look out for:
- Poops that are too small.
- Deformed poops.
- Too many cecotropes.
- Mushy poops.
- Mucus in poops.
- No poops at all. This is an emergency situation. Bring your rabbit to the vet immediately.
3. The rabbit is sitting differently
When a rabbit is feeling sick they will often avoid pressing their stomach against the floor because it feels uncomfortable. They may appear as if they want to calm down and sit in a loaf position, but aren’t comfortable. The rabbit may even appear restless and constantly get up and change position.
When a rabbit is in pain they will usually sit in a hunched position. This can be difficult to distinguish from a loaf position at first glance, but they are slightly different. In a hunched position, the rabbit will usually keep weight on their front paws as they work to prevent their stomach from pressing into the ground. The rabbit may also have squinted eyes and will usually look uncomfortable.
4. Changes in their energy levels
Understandably, when a rabbit gets sick, they will usually have less energy than when they are feeling good. However, a normal amount of energy will differ drastically depending on the disposition of the rabbit. So it’s really important to spend time with your rabbit so that you can know when their energy levels change. Carefully monitor any drastic and sudden decrease in the energy of a rabbit and report it to your veterinarian for advice.
A small change in the amount of energy a rabbit has will differ from day to day. Just like with humans, some days are just sleepy days. In addition, rabbits will naturally become less active as they get older, but this should not be a sudden change. You should take the time of day and year into consideration also. Most rabbits will naturally be more active around dawn and dusk, so they may seem more sleepy during the day.
5. LOUD tooth grating
Loud, grating teeth is a sign of pain in a rabbit. This isn’t the soft tooth-purring sound that you’ll hear when a rabbit is calm and content. Instead, the sound is similar to a grating, nails-on-a-blackboard noise. If you’re worried you won’t be able to tell the difference, you can use the rabbit’s body language to tell you how your rabbit feels. If your rabbit looks calm and content where they are, loafing or laying down, then they are probably content and purring. However, if your rabbit is sitting in a hunched position or otherwise looks uncomfortable, they may be telling you that they are in pain.
While this may be a sign of a minor issue, such as a small buildup of gas that your rabbit needs to let out, it can also be a symptom of a more serious and chronic problem. This loud teeth grating (or chattering) is not a sound you should hear very often. It is a sign that something is wrong and you should consult your vet to see if there are any health issues that need to be addressed.
It is not normal for rabbits to drool. If you notice wetness under your rabbit’s chin, this can be an indication of tooth or respiratory problems. A rabbit with overgrown teeth may be drooling because they can’t keep their mouth closed all the way. If they are having respiratory problems or overheating, the rabbit may be panting and trying to breathe through their mouth, which is not a natural way for rabbits to breathe. Drooling is a pretty clear indicator that something is wrong with the rabbit’s health.
The only exception to this is if your rabbit is a sloppy drinker. Some rabbits will make a mess all along their chin and dewlap when they drink water from a bowl. If your rabbit looks and acts healthy, but constantly has a wet chin, then you should keep an eye on their drinking habits. You may want to consider getting them a water bottle instead of a bowl to drink from if this describes your rabbit. Rabbit skin and fur that is constantly wet causes skin rashes and matted fur, which can lead to infections.
7. Very hot or very cold ears
Rabbit ears have the very important job of regulating a rabbit’s internal body temperature. That means that they will naturally get warmer or cooler as the weather changes and affects a rabbits temperature.
If a rabbit gets too hot, the network of veins in their ears will expand to give off excess body heat and prevent the rabbit from experiencing heat stroke. However, if it’s too hot and the ears can’t keep up, their ears will become very hot and start to turn a bright red color. Similarly, if the rabbit is too cold and can no longer keep in enough heat, the ears will be freezing cold while they start to turn pale and colorless. If nothing is done to help the rabbit, their ears will get frostbite and start to turn black as the rabbit develops hypothermia.
8. Lack of balance
While rabbits can be clumsy at times and definitely don’t have the grace of a cat, they do usually have pretty good balance. If a rabbit starts going in circles, or frequently falling over when they try to clean themselves, this is a sign that they need a trip to the vet.
This lack of balance could show up as a head tilt. This is when a rabbit’s head is constantly tilted 90º to the side. The rabbit will also fall over easily, or get confused and run in circles. Sometimes this is a temporary condition caused by a simple ear infection, but sometimes it is more permanent. Either way, it’s important to get your rabbit diagnosed at the vet.
A lack of balance can also be caused by other conditions, such as arthritis. If you notice your rabbit falling over when they bend to try to clean themselves, it could be because their joints are in pain and they no longer have the necessary flexibility. Visit your vet to see about getting pain medication for your rabbit, and to see if there are any other serious underlying conditions.
9. Snotty nose
Healthy rabbits should not have any significant discharge coming from their nose. Snot or mucus coming from a rabbit’s nose is a classic symptom of Snuffles in rabbits. Known as the rabbit cold, Snuffles can actually be a very dangerous condition for rabbits. If you don’t seek veterinary health on time, this condition could be fatal for rabbits.
In rabbits, a runny nose that is the result of Snuffles will first appear as a thin watery liquid. However, as the illness progresses it will become thicker and more mucus-like, making it more and more difficult for a rabbit to breathe.
If you don’t see signs of liquid or mucus coming from your rabbit’s nose, but notice that the inside of their paw is dirty, the rabbit might be wiping away the snot before you see it. So it’s always a good idea to check their front paws occasionally to make sure there is no wet or matted fur.
10. Mouth breathing
Rabbits are obligate nose breathers, which means that naturally they will always breathe through their nose. If you see them panting, or otherwise straining to breathe through their mouth, that means the rabbit is in some sort of distress. Mouth breathing or panting can be a sign of some serious illness, such as snuffles or heat stroke. It can also be caused by respiratory distress, or some kind of blockage in the nasal passage.
Sometimes mouth breathing is very obvious. The rabbit will throw their head back and open their mouth wide as they struggle to get air. Other times it’s a lot more subtle, but if you look closely you will see their lips parting every time they breathe in.
11. Abscesses or bumps
Abscesses or bumps on rabbit skin can be a sign of infection. It’s one of the common symptoms to look out for, especially around surgical incisions as the rabbit is recovering. Rabbit skin is surprisingly susceptible to these little bumps, so it’s important to keep an eye on them and feel for anything unusual while you are petting your rabbit.
Abscesses and small bumps can also commonly occur around a rabbit’s jaws and eyes. Here, it is usually an infection that is occuring as a result of overgrown teeth. Rabbit teeth are open rooted, which means they continue to grow forever. When their teeth don’t have enough resistance to grind them down, the teeth will sometimes push each other back into the rabbit’s skull causing an infection. It can be very difficult to detect this kind of infection, so the little abscesses that result are a very important indicator.
12. Change in urinating habits
A change in urinating habits can be a sign of kidney or bladder problems. If a litter trained rabbit all of a sudden starts peeing outside of the litter box, you definitely want to pay attention. A young rabbit who has just reached maturity may start to spray around the house as a territorial behavior. In this case, you will want to schedule an appointment to get your rabbit spayed or neutered.
Sometimes rabbits will pee right next to the litter box to protest if it hasn’t been cleaned recently. But it could also be because they are developing arthritis or another mobility problem that makes it difficult for them to hop over the edge of the box. If they are dribbling urine little by little as they walk around, this is a sign of a urinary tract infection or bladder sludge. Both of which can become serious problems if left untreated.
13. Not interested in their favorite treats
When I am worried about my rabbit’s health, one of the first things I will test is whether or not she is still excited about her favorite treats. I will try shaking the bag and seeing if her ears perk up and she comes running. If that fails, I will already be concerned and ready to make a trip to the vet, but I will also go up to her and see if she will at least eat the treat when it’s directly in front of her nose.
I’ve found that it’s a good idea to have a daily treat routine because it can help you know right away if something is wrong. What I do is every night before bed, I stand in the same spot and give my rabbit a little treat. She always knows to expect it and will happily come running to get her treat. If she ever fails to come get it, I’ll know that there’s an emergency on hand.
14. Visibly enlarged stomach
If your rabbit’s stomach suddenly looks a lot rounder than normal, especially if it is also firm to the touch, this is a big red flag. It could mean that food is not passing on from the rabbit’s stomach through their digestion or it could mean that the rabbit is developing bloat, a condition where there is a gas build-up in the rabbit’s stomach. Either of these conditions is incredibly dangerous and should be treated as an emergency.
If your rabbit is just fat, then this is another issue altogether, but it’s also dangerous if left alone. Obesity causes many health problems in rabbits and often leads to a premature death. So it’s important to get your rabbit on a healthy diet and give them plenty of exercise to help them slowly lose their excess weight.
15. Excessive ear scratching
While typically not life threatening, excessive ear scratching can be an early sign of infection or infestation. If you notice your rabbit is constantly scratching and shaking their ears, they might have contracted ear mites. These are tiny bugs that nestle deep into a rabbit’s ears. The early signs are very difficult to detect, so your rabbit’s scratching might be all you see. If left to continue, ear mites can cause infections and painful crusting along the rabbits ears.
Rabbits can also suffer from other itchy parasites, such as fleas. If you believe your rabbit has fleas, you should contact your vet for advice. Many topical treatments that are available for cats and dogs are poisonous for rabbits, so you need to make sure you get an appropriate medicine.
16. Matted or balding fur
Rabbits are typically very clean and diligent self-groomers. If they have been neglecting care of their coat, especially if their living conditions are kept clean, then this is an indication that they might not be feeling well. If rabbits don’t clean themselves properly, their fur will become dull and develop knots and mats. This can also happen if rabbits are overweight and can’t reach behind them to clean the fur on their butt.
If a rabbit starts to develop a balding spot, especially if the skin underneath appears red or irritated, this is another cause for concern. Rabbit skin is very delicate and this is a sign that they are developing a rash or infection. It’s important to find the cause so you can keep your rabbit from being in pain and discomfort.
17. More aggressive than usual
Sometimes the only sign that you’ll get that a rabbit isn’t feeling well is that their personality changes. A normally affectionate rabbit will suddenly start lashing out and growling at you when you try to interact with them. This is the way that some rabbits react to pain (just like some people), and it’s definitely a change in behavior that you should look out for.
The one time that this shouldn’t be too concerning is when a young rabbit reaches maturity. Often times sweet little bunnies will become sulky and aggressive as they become teenagers. Luckily, most of this angry behavior is fixed by getting your rabbit spayed or neutered. This will solve many of the behavioral problems that young rabbits developed and it is much better for a rabbits health overall. There are many health issues associated with rabbits that are left in-tact, and getting your rabbit altered can increase their life expectancy.
What to do if your rabbit is ill
If you notice any of these signs in your rabbit it’s important to take action as soon as you can. What seems like a minor cold or an overly grumpy rabbit could actually mean that the rabbit is in need of emergency care. If you have any doubts, always play it safe and contact your veterinarian for advice and to make an appointment.
When finding a veterinarian, it’s important to look for one who has experience caring for rabbits. Rabbit anatomy is very different from cats and dogs. They need to be brought to a vet who specializes in small animals. Usually the vet will be called a small animal veterinarian or an exotic animal veterinarian. The House Rabbit Society has a list of many of these practices across the United States, and they even include a few international veterinarians.
I recommend finding a vet ahead of time and bringing your rabbit to a yearly check-up. This way you won’t frantically search for an appropriate veterinarian when you are worried that your rabbit is sick.
Have critical care on hand
It’s always a good idea to have a bag of critical care available for emergencies. This is a powdered rabbit food formula that you mix with water to feed them through a syringe. Critical care is used for emergencies, when a rabbit isn’t eating enough on their own. I have some more information on critical care and where you can purchase it here.
Best Practices to prevent rabbit illnesses
As with all health related issues, it’s always best to try to prevent illnesses before it has the chance to threaten your rabbit. While it’s not possible to completely prevent your rabbit from ever getting sick, there are still a number of actions you can take to make illness less likely and give your rabbit a better chance at a healthy life.
- Healthy diet. Rabbits have very sensitive digestive systems that play an enormous role in their overall health. Make sure your rabbit’s diet is mostly grass-based hay and plentiful water.
- Enough exercise. Rabbits should get a minimum of 2 hours of exercise a day, but more is definitely better. They should also have an enclosure that is large enough to accomodate 3-4 times the length of the rabbit.
- Clean habitat. It’s important to clean a rabbit’s litter box and enclosure regularly. This prevents smell from building up and keeps the enclosure from attracting flies or other insects. It will also prevent skin rashes and urine scalding from forming on the rabbit’s underside.
- Spending time with your rabbit. Rabbits get depressed if they are left alone all day. This loneliness can cause the rabbit to sit around more and eat less, causing any number of health problems in rabbits.
- Stress free environment. Stress in rabbits can cause their body to go into shock and their digestive system to slow down. It’s important to find a quiet and calm place to keep your rabbit so they can live a stress-free life.
- Wash your hands. If you ever interact with other rabbits, it’s important to practice basic hygiene to make sure you don’t inadvertently spread diseases. It’s also a good idea to change your clothes after interacting with other rabbits, in case any germs or parasites have made their way onto your clothing.
- Annual vet examinations. Always bring your rabbit in for a yearly exam so your vet can help you catch any signs of a developing illness early.
- Spay or neuter your rabbit. There are a number of health conditions associated with an unaltered rabbit. It really is urgent that you get your rabbit fixed as soon as they reach adulthood.
Common rabbit illnesses that you should be aware of
Rabbits can often be surprisingly hardy animals when they are well cared for, but there are a number of common illnesses that it’s good to be aware of, so you can know what signs to look out for. For more detailed information on all of these ailments, check out my article on the rabbit illnesses that are most common and their symptoms.
- Cook, Dianne LVT. “How To Tell If Your Rabbit Is Sick: Signs of Illness and Injury In Rabbits.” Oxbow Animal Health. September 25, 2019. https://www.oxbowanimalhealth.com/blog/how-to-tell-if-your-rabbit-is-sick.
- “How To Tell If Your Rabbit Is Sick.” House Rabbit Society. https://rabbit.org/care/sick.html.
- “Medical Concerns.” House Rabbit Society. July 10, 2011. https://rabbit.org/faq-medical-concerns.