Rabbits have a lifespan longer than most people expect. On average, they’ll live up to 8-12 years. That time can feel so short when it comes time to say goodbye to our beloved friends. But whether your rabbit reaches old age or contracts a serious illness early on, we will eventually have to let our rabbits go and hop over the rainbow bridge.
The most common symptoms of a dying rabbit include a lack of appetite, a loss of strength, and erratic movements. Other signs will vary depending on the cause of death, and sometimes you will not notice any symptoms before a rabbit passes on.
If you notice the symptoms on this list, that does not mean you should give up on your rabbit. If they receive emergency care, your rabbit may still be able to recover. However, you’ll also want to be prepared for the worst, especially if you notice multiple symptoms from this list.
If you have recently lost your rabbit or expect they will pass on soon, I have written an article detailing the options for handling a rabbit burial or memorial after their death. The death of a beloved pet is often a topic that’s avoided, so it can be stressful to figure out what to do with your sweet rabbit once the time comes.
1. Lack of appetite
A lack of appetite is something you will see almost any time a rabbit is sick, and it can be a very dangerous symptom. A rabbit’s health depends on the constant movement of their digestion, so their condition can quickly deteriorate if the rabbit isn’t eating. If they don’t eat for more than 10-12 hours, the rabbit is in a serious situation that can result in death.
If you notice that your rabbit isn’t eating and get them to the vet as soon as possible, they can still recover. Since this is a symptom of so many illnesses, the vet will be able to determine the cause of your rabbit’s lack of appetite and treat the underlying condition to bring your rabbit back to health.
Seizures are more common among rabbits who reach old age and die of natural means. Often, the cause of the seizures cannot be pinpointed. However, it is linked to abnormal brain activity caused by infections, blood clots, poisoning, head injuries, or genetic conditions (such as epilepsy).
Sometimes the cause is a common parasite known as E. cuniculi. This often lives within the rabbit for a long time but doesn’t become a problem until the immune system weakens in old age. The same can be true of the bacteria that causes snuffles in rabbits. It can live in the rabbit’s nasal passage for their whole life but cause an infection in the inner ear or skull after the rabbit has a more compromised immune system.
It’s important to note that many rabbits can live long lives even when they have conditions that cause seizures. You can manage the symptoms with a lot of care and supervision to avoid further injury. However, if this is a symptom with a sudden onset in old age, it’s often a sign of a serious disease.
3. Erratic movements
It’s also common to see erratic movement. This is when the rabbit seems to dash in a straight line for a few steps and then almost fall over. Then they’ll repeat this behavior again in another random direction. The rabbit might crash into furniture and objects in their vicinity because they are unable to control their movements. This is another sign of a neurological abnormality related to seizures, even though technically it’s not the same thing.
4. Loss of strength or balance
Similarly, you will notice your rabbit struggling to walk around or even remain in an upright seated position when they are beginning to pass on. This is when their muscles are no longer strong enough to hold them or keep them balanced.
When my old bunny Tenshi died, she kept falling over when she tried to sit in a loaf position. She had to lean against something to remain upright during this time. I knew the time was coming for her. She was 13 years old and had been suffering from arthritis and respiratory problems.
5. Trouble breathing
You’ll notice many rabbits struggle to breathe. In many cases, this is because the rabbit has contracted a respiratory infection. The infection is causing wheezing, shallow breathing, or abnormally deep breaths (you’ll see this in a more dramatic movement of your rabbit’s nose twitch).
You may also notice mouth breathing, which is a clear sign that your rabbit is in distress since they do not normally breathe through their mouth. You might notice your rabbit holding their mouth open, or you might see their lips spread apart for each breath. Mouth breathing also causes drooling, so you might also notice a wet chin.
Respiratory illnesses can be treated, so take your rabbit to the vet for emergency care if you notice they have trouble breathing. However, sometimes rabbits who are in pain will breathe abnormally as well. It’s not always an indicator of a respiratory infection and may be one of your rabbit’s coping mechanisms for dealing with the pain of a different serious illness.
6. Abnormal fecal pellets
Because a rabbit’s digestion is so important to their health, you will probably notice a change in their poop when they become seriously ill. The type that you want to look out for include:
- Small poop: fecal pellets that are a drastically smaller size can indicate pain or stress.
- Deformed poop: if the fecal pellets are small and deformed, it typically means your rabbit is eating enough.
- Double or triple merged poops: When two or three fecal pellets are merged into one, this is an indication that the rabbit’s digestive system is slowing down.
It’s normal to see a few of these abnormal types of poop in your rabbit’s litter box, even when they are healthy. However, if most of your rabbit’s fecal pellets look deformed or reduced in size, then there is likely something wrong, and you need to get your rabbit medical care. These signs can be an indicator of several different illnesses, so you’ll want to get a diagnosis from your veterinarian to know what the problem is.
7. A dramatic change in behavior
When a rabbit is seriously sick, you will notice a change in their behavior. Typically, they will suddenly be incredibly low energy. The rabbit won’t want to move around, and they may not even react to any affection you show them. You may also see the rabbit lose all interest in grooming themselves, making their coat look dull and raggedy.
In other cases, the rabbit may suddenly become aggressive. Even if they were previously very sweet, the rabbit would suddenly snap at you whenever you come near. This results from the frustration they feel when they are in a lot of pain, so don’t take it personally.
Rabbits do not normally make any loud vocalizations. However, they can scream a haunting, high-pitched sound. You will typically only hear a rabbit scream when they believe they are about to die or when they are seriously injured and in great pain. While there are some exceptions to this for rabbits who will scream more frequently out of fear, I have only heard a rabbit scream in the moments before death.
9. Blood in their urine
It is not common to find blood in a rabbit’s urine, but it’s never a good sign. Most often, when you see this, it is a symptom of uterine cancer in unspayed female rabbits. Once it gets to this point, it is rare for a rabbit to recover from the cancer. Less commonly, blood in the urine can signify a urinary tract infection or some kind of severe bladder sludge.
As a note, red urine does not mean it is blood. While golden yellow or orange urine is most common, red urine is also standard. It’s usually caused by foods that the rabbit eats, or sometimes a round of antibiotics can cause red urine. You are looking for red spatterings or drops of red in the otherwise normal urine.
10. A low body temperature
As rabbits get sick and begin to fade, their vital signs will also change. Typically, this will result in a low body temperature, a weak pulse, and rapid breathing. The average rabbit body temperature should range from 101ºF – 103ºF, while the pulse should be 150-300 beats per minute. The breathing rate should be one breath every 1-2 seconds when the rabbit is at rest.
A rabbit’s ears can give you an idea of their body temperature and pulse. To check their pulse, locate the long vein in your rabbit’s ear and pinch it between your fingers. You should start to feel a rapid rabbit pulse.
The temperature of the ears can tell you a little bit about their body temperature. Very cold ears indicate a drop in body temperature. If you want a specific number, you can use a rectal thermometer to measure your rabbit’s body temperature.
Diarrhea is a symptom that is actually more common in very young rabbits. This is especially common in rabbits who were not correctly weaned from their mothers. Baby rabbits should continue to drink their mother’s milk until they are about 8 weeks old. This helps them build up their immune system and digestive health.
Rabbits that were orphaned or weaned too early often don’t have very good digestive health and can suffer from severe and life-threatening diarrhea. This is why it is illegal in most places for breeders to separate baby rabbits from their mothers before they are 2 months old.
Adult rabbits can get diarrhea too. This is usually a result of eating some kind of poisonous food and is also a life-threatening condition.
12. A loss of litter box habits
As rabbits become severely ill, you might see their litter box habits start to fade. This may be partially due to incontinence when your rabbit is unable to hold their pee. It can also just be too painful for the rabbit to get up and go to the litter box when they have to go to the bathroom.
You may also see that your rabbit is not doing a good job eating their cecotropes. Cecotropes are a high-protein type of rabbit poop that rabbits will typically eat right out of their anus. It looks like a cluster of very small and squishy poops. Healthy rabbits will do a good job of eating these right away, and you shouldn’t see them very often. But if your rabbit isn’t feeling well or can’t bend over properly, you’ll start to see a lot of these cecotropes around.
13. Paralyzed limbs
Some rabbits will suddenly become paralyzed. It’s more common in elderly rabbits and their hind legs. However, a rabbit can also become suddenly paralyzed and unable to move at all. Some rabbits can recover from this, and others are able to live good lives while partially paralyzed. However, this can also be a symptom of a severe injury or neurological condition that will not heal so easily. In these cases, it is likely that the rabbit will not have much longer to live.
14. The rabbit will try to retreat
Sometimes rabbits will instinctively try to get away from others and be alone when they die. This is because, in the wild, a sick rabbit could attract predators and put the whole colony of rabbits in danger. So you may see your rabbit struggle to sneak away and hide.
Sometimes there are no apparent symptoms before a rabbit dies
Unfortunately, it’s also possible for a rabbit to die out of nowhere. There were no symptoms you noticed, and your rabbit was behaving normally not too long ago. While it’s impossible to know the exact reason the rabbit has died, these are some common causes that have subtle symptoms or no symptoms at all:
- Heart attacks: Heart attacks can be sudden in rabbits. They can die of fear, causing a sudden fatal heart attack. Larger breeds of rabbits and obese rabbits also have a greater chance of having a heart attack.
- RHDV: Rabbit viruses such as RHDV can kill a rabbit without causing any noticeable symptoms. Learn more about precautions to take against RHDV.
- Digestive issues: Conditions such as GI Stasis do have some common symptoms, but they are often difficult to detect unless you know what to look for. One of the most common causes of a sudden death in rabbits is undetected digestive problems.
- Ingesting poison: If your rabbit is a plant or food that is severely poisonous, they may suddenly die several minutes or even several hours later. If you know your rabbit ingested poison, contact your vet immediately.
How to comfort a dying rabbit
If your rabbit is dying, sometimes the only thing you can do is comfort them. Of course, it’s important to determine how serious the situation is first. An emergency vet visit and some medication can help in many cases that seem hopeless. Don’t give up too soon.
When it is time, there are some simple things you can do to help your rabbit pass on peacefully:
- Keep your rabbit comfortable. Ensure to keep the room’s temperature ideal for your rabbit (upper 60ºs is often good), give them a blanket to keep them warm, and make sure to help them stay clean.
- Make sure your rabbit has everything they need nearby. Give your rabbit a pile of hay, some leafy greens, their pellets, a water bowl, everything they need in easy reach so that they don’t have to move around too much.
- Stroke your rabbit and give them attention. If your rabbit wants it, pet them and give them a nice massage. If they don’t, you can still stay nearby and talk to your rabbit in a soft voice to keep them company.
- If you can, feed some pain medication. If your rabbit has had pain medication prescribed by a veterinarian, make sure they take it to help relieve them a little bit.
- Keep them in a calm environment. Make sure there are no loud and stressful distractions around.
How to know when it’s time to euthanize a rabbit
Sometimes the kindest action you can take when your rabbit is dying is to help them pass by euthanizing them. It’s one of the hardest decisions to ever have to make because it’s so hard to say goodbye to our loving companions.
Euthanasia is actually a very peaceful way to go. The rabbit is given a sedative to help them relax first, giving them a few moments of calm before they cross over. For a rabbit who is too ill and can no longer have a good quality of life, it’s much better to let them go.
A rabbit who is ill or disabled doesn’t necessarily need to be put to sleep. Their symptoms can be managed with medication and care as long as the rabbit still has the will to live.
To help you make this difficult decision, ask yourself these questions:
1. Does my rabbit show and accept affection?
Does your rabbit still appreciate when you pet them? Do they lick you to groom you back? Or maybe they have a partner, and the two rabbits are still grooming and cuddling next to each other. If your rabbit is still able to show and appreciate affection, it may not be time to euthanize them yet.
2. Is my rabbit enjoying life?
Even disabled rabbits who can’t easily get around can still enjoy life. They’ll have bright, aware eyes, and they’ll be able to show their excitement with a twitch of their head and the purr of their teeth. The rabbit will still enjoy chewing on their favorite toys and socializing with you and other rabbits.
3. Does my rabbit get excited about food?
Rabbits who continue to be excited about food and treats usually still have the will to live. As many rabbits become ill, it’s necessary to hand-feed them with a syringe because they will not eat by themselves anymore. You might need to consider euthanasia if they never recover from their illness and never regain their appetite.
4. Is my rabbit still curious and aware?
Rabbits are curious creatures. But when they get seriously ill, that natural curiosity can wane. They’ll stop interacting with their environment at all, becoming less aware of their surroundings. If all your rabbit can do is sit, breathing heavily against the pain, then it may be time to let them go gently.
- “Animal Ethics.” Australian Department of Education. http://det.wa.edu.au/curriculumsupport/animalethics/detcms/school-support-programs/animal-ethics/species-specific-information/rabbits.en?cat-id=4220801.
- Carpenter, James DVM. “Diagnosing and treating common neurologic diseases in rabbits.” DVM360. November 2006. https://www.dvm360.com/view/diagnosing-and-treating-common-neurologic-diseases-rabbits.
- “Seizures and their various causes.” MediRabbit.com. http://www.medirabbit.com/EN/Neurology/seizure.htm.
- “Seizures (Epilepsy) in Rabbits.” PetMD. March 2016. https://www.petmd.com/rabbit/conditions/neurological/c_rb_seizures.