How To Identify Shock in Rabbits and Help Them Recover


symptoms of shock in rabbits

Shock is a serious condition for rabbits. A sudden loud sound or scary situation could end up terrifying a rabbit so much that their body begins to shut down. While this is not a common occurrence for indoor rabbits, it still happens often enough that rabbit caretakers should be aware of the signs and symptoms. This way we can respond to the situation quickly, and help our rabbit’s recover.

When a rabbit goes into shock, their body will become still or limp. The heart rate will be slow and difficult to detect and the rabbit will have pale white gums as a result of circulatory problems. Rabbits in shock will also have very cold ears because their body temperature is plummeting.

While in most cases it’s important to immediately rush a rabbit to a veterinary clinic, if your rabbit goes into shock, you may need to take some steps to stabilize your rabbit’s condition at home before making the drive. A long car ride could cause the rabbits condition to deteriorate even further. 

The information in this article is meant to help you respond to a very dangerous situation you may find your rabbit in. However, I am not a veterinarian and I recommend having the contact information of your rabbit veterinarian in an easy to find place so that you can call them and get their advice if your rabbit goes into shock.

What is shock in rabbits

Shock is a physical condition that rabbits fall into when they become so scared in a situation that their body starts to shut down. Their body temperature will drop drastically, and the rabbit will become completely unresponsive to the world around them sometimes only for a few minutes, and sometimes for a number of hours. While many rabbits are able to recover from shock if they are given care and comfort, this condition can also be fatal for rabbits.

Shock is a serious condition that you want to be aware of, but it’s not as common as many make it out to be. Rabbits can go into shock from just about any sudden and scary occurrence (such as a nearby dog bark, or suddenly being plunged into cold water), but most of the time rabbits will run away and act afraid for a little while before returning to normal behavior.

Though very rare, it is also possible that a sudden frightening experience can cause an immediate heart attack in rabbits. This is most common among very young rabbits. While this is technically not shock, the cause is related. It would still be accurate in both these cases to say the rabbit died of fright.

What causes shock in rabbits

Shock can be caused by a number of circumstances in your rabbit’s life. Usually the source of shock is a sudden fear, but it can also be caused by pain or other external stressors (such as a sudden change in temperature). Shock can also be caused by infestations such as fly strike or even a large number of insect stings or bites.

check your rabbit's pulse
You can check your rabbit’s pulse by pinching the large vein in a rabbit’s ear between your fingers.

The symptoms of shock in rabbits

Medically, what is happening to a rabbit when they go into shock is that their body temperature falls to dangerous levels. This then causes the rabbit’s organs to slow down and eventually shut down completely if they aren’t able to recover. Their heart will struggle to keep pumping, which causes a number of symptoms that are a result of a weak cardiovascular system.

In practical terms, this means the rabbit will become weak, unresponsive, and very cold. The symptoms you want to look out for are:

  • Weak or limp rabbit. This is when your rabbit does not respond to your touch and feels limp in your arms.
  • Pale gums. If you pull back your rabbit’s lips, their gums will be pale instead of a healthy pink color.
  • Cold ears. When you touch your rabbit’s ears they will feel extremely cold. This will usually be the case for other extremities, such as the feet, as well.
  • Weak pulse. You can feel a rabbit’s pulse by pinching your fingers on the large vein running up their ears. If you can’t feel a pulse at all, or only just barely, that’s an indication of a weak pulse.
  • Rapid breathing. The rabbit will be breathing as if they are hyperventilating. Sometimes their mouth will be open and the rabbit will be attempting to breathe through it (this is unusual in rabbits).
  • Dull eyes. The rabbit’s eyes will have a glossed-over look. It will appear as if they aren’t focusing on anything around them.
  • Hypothermia. This is when a rabbit’s body temperature drops below 100ºF (38.1ºC). It’s dangerous for a rabbit’s body temperature to remain this low and is a clear sign that they are beginning to go into shock.

It’s also important to pay attention to the context around your rabbit’s condition, since that can tell you a lot about what caused your rabbit to go into shock. Was there an open window and a dog barking outside? If there is no apparent reason that your rabbit went into shock, it is more likely the result of an underlying illness that is causing pain. 

Whatever information you can gather to determine the cause can be useful information to give your vet and get advice. They’ll be able to treat your rabbit in the best way possible. If the cause is an illness or infestation, these are typically more urgent situations that require immediate attention, whereas rabbits are sometimes able to recover from fear-based shock on their own.

Rabbit in towel
When rabbits go into shock, they can’t keep their body temperature up. Wrap them in a towel and place them near a heating pad or hot water bottle to keep them warm.

What to do when your rabbit goes into shock

Normally, my response to any emergency rabbit situation is to immediately get in the car and go to your vet. However shock in rabbits can be amplified by new stressful experiences, such as car rides. For that reason, it’s important to take some basic steps at home before you bring your rabbit for an emergency veterinary appointment.

1. Warm your rabbit

If you notice symptoms of your rabbit going into shock, the first thing you want to do is warm up your rabbit. Wrap your rabbit in a towel and place them next to a heating pad or hot water bottle (but not directly on top of the hot items since that can burn a rabbit’s sensitive skin). 

If you can take your rabbit’s temperature, then it’s a good idea to do so. This will give you a baseline understanding of your rabbit’s condition that you can relay to your veterinarian. If you don’t know how to check a rabbit’s temperature, then check out this video:

2. Call your vet

The next thing you want to do is call your vet. If you do not have a regular rabbit vet, then you can still call a clinic nearby, explain the situation, and ask for advice.

If the veterinary office is only a short car ride away, then it’s usually safe to bring your rabbit straight in. You’ll want to make sure there is as little waiting time as possible because rabbits in shock can rapidly deteriorate as their body temperature continues to fall.

Since small animal veterinary clinics are not as common as those for cats and dogs, it’s possible that the closest clinic is a multiple hour drive away. Depending on the severity of your rabbit’s condition, your vet may give you advice to help them improve before making a long car ride. This way you can avoid causing the stress from the car ride overwhelm your rabbit and making their condition worse.

3. Go for an emergency appointment or follow your vet’s instructions

In most cases, the veterinarian will either instruct you to bring your rabbit to the clinic right away or they’ll instruct you on how to warm your rabbit and monitor their condition at home. Then after your rabbit begins to recover, you’ll want to bring them in for an appointment.

If the shock was caused by fear or intense stress, it will be treated by warming the rabbit to help raise their body temperature and by giving them fluids. A veterinary clinic will be able to administer these fluids via a rabbit IV to help them recover quickly. If you are at home, you may be instructed to feed your rabbit Critical Care to get them energy to start recovering. (Learn more about Critical Care for rabbits)

If your rabbit has gone into shock because of other underlying conditions, it’s likely you will be instructed to bring the rabbit into the clinic right away no matter the distance. In these cases, there is a limited amount you can do at home to help your rabbit recover until you know the reason they have gone into shock.

How to know your rabbit’s condition is improving

The clearest sign that your rabbit is beginning to feel better is when they start eating and drinking on their own. You can keep a bowl of water and some fresh greens near your rabbit to tempt them to start eating on their own.

Your rabbit will also start to gain strength again as they recover. If you’re holding your rabbit, they may try to struggle out of your grip, or if they’re on the floor, they may move to a more comfortable spot.

As they continue to recover, their eating habits and energy levels will return to normal. It’s likely that your rabbit will continue to be a little more skittish and quick to hide in the days following the incident. But over time even that behavior should settle down and return to normal.

You can also continue to check your rabbit’s temperature periodically and make sure it is making its way back to a normal temperature. For rabbits a normal body temperature is between 101-103ºF (38.3-39.4ºC).

How to prevent shock in rabbits

While it’s never possible to completely protect your rabbit and prevent the possibility of shock, there are still steps you can take to reduce the chances. The goal is to help your rabbit feel safe and confident in their daily life. These recommendations can also help prevent shock that would result from infestations and temperature changes.

  1. Keep your rabbit indoors. Rabbits that are kept indoors don’t come into contact with as many predators or scary situations that could cause shock. You are also much more likely to avoid any kind of infestation that would cause your rabbit to become ill and go into shock.
  2. Introduce your rabbit to other unfamiliar pets slowly. If you have other pets in the home, especially dogs, it’s important to take your time introducing the animals to each other. First let them just see each other from afar, then as they become more comfortable seeing each other, you can allow them to get closer and meet. Learn more about how to keep rabbits in a home with other pets.
  3. Avoid getting your rabbit wet. Baths are not necessary for rabbits and can potentially lead to shock from the sudden contact with water. In addition, rabbit fur does not dry off quickly, making it more likely they will develop hypothermia and shock when they are wet.
  4. Bring your rabbit for regular vet visits. Annual vet visits can help you catch signs of underlying health conditions before they become a serious problem. If your rabbit is elderly, it’s a good idea to make trips to the vet every 6 months instead of every year.
  5. Desensitize your rabbit to help them become more confident. Some rabbits are very anxious and need time to learn how to come out of their shell. You can train your rabbit to be more confident in their daily life, which will also help minimize fear-related shock. Learn more about techniques for helping an anxious rabbit gain confidence.

Sources

  1. Dawson, Bronwyn DVM. “Dealing with Medical Emergencies.” House Rabbit Society. https://rabbit.org/journal/2-4/emergency-preparedness.html.
  2. Krempels, Dana Ph.D. “Detecting Illness Before it’s an Emergency.” University of Miami. http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/sickbun.html.
  3. O’Malley, Bairbre MVB. “The Collapsed Rabbit.” World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress Proceedings, 2011. https://www.vin.com/apputil/content/defaultadv1.aspx?pId=11343&id=5124284.

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Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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