Checking your rabbit’s health

Rabbits are often thought of as low-maintenance pets, but in reality they require as much attention as a dog or cat, or any other household companion.

Rabbit illnesses often come on suddenly, or seemingly so, since they are so good at hiding their weaknesses. Rabbits are prey animals, which means that they do their best to hide any illness; in the wild, a sick rabbit is a dead rabbit. As a rabbit caregiver, your job is to be vigilant so you can catch diseases early enough to treat.

Supervising your rabbit and getting to know him and his habits is your first line of defense. So what are some of the things you can observe and watch?

Behavior Clues

Familiarize yourself with these behaviors. If you notice any changes in any behavior, be on the alert!

  • Eating style: Notice your rabbit’s eating style — does he eat slowly, nibbling his food over a period of time or does he devour his meals immediately with gusto?
  • Activity style: Is your bunny active and playful during the morning and evening hours?
  • Diet: Does he eat plenty of hay and veggies, and drink lots of water, or just a little?
  • Droppings: Check his droppings daily — are they round and plentiful?
    Changes in dropping size, color, texture, or amount can indicate a number of different problems. Changes in droppings are often accompanied by lethargy and a lack of interest in food. Prompt action is called for.

Ask yourself:

  • Is he shedding? Perhaps he’s ingested too much fur.
    Has he been nibbling at your carpet or upholstery? Perhaps he’s ingested some undesirable fibers.
  • Are his droppings connected, looking like a string of pearls? These are droppings literally strung together, usually with hair or carpet fibers.
    For either situation, give a daily dose of Laxatone or Petromalt (cat laxatives for furballs, available at any vet’s office) until his droppings return to normal. Just a squeeze on your finger will do. Some buns will lick it right off your finger, others not. If yours isn’t a laxative licker, just apply it to the top of his hand. He’ll lick it to clean up.
    You can give papaya tablets and pineapple juice also, both of which may help break up the mucous that binds the hair to the droppings.
    Be sure to talk to a qualified rabbit veterinarian if this problem shows up. He/she should be able to palpate your rabbit to feel for impaction. Your vet may suggest some more potent enzymes such as Pancrazyme, which can help clear up the problem. If a hairball problem persists, surgery may be necessary to remove the impaction.
  • Other digestive problems: Enteritis (inflammation of the intestinal tract) is caused by an imbalance of intestinal flora. Treatment usually includes antibiotics and fluids. See your vet immediately if your rabbit’s droppings have a slimy mucous coating around them. This can be a sign of enteritis.

Don’t confuse this slimy coating with cecal clusters. These are small and shiny, resembling a cluster of tiny grapes. These are normal and usually your bun will eat them directly from his anus. Occasionally, they leave a little extra bunch around. If he doesn’t eat them, just pick them up with a tissue and toss.

General Health Clues

Watch out for these signs of changing health status.

  • Sneezes and discharges: Does your rabbit sneeze and/or have discharge from his eyes or nose?
    These can indicate a variety of illnesses, but Pasteurella Multocida, a common bacterial infection is one likely suspect. See your veterinarian immediately to get a culture and sensitivity test to determine the cause of bunny’s distress.
    No respiratory infection can be absolutely identified without a culture, and the antibiotic that will clear up the infection cannot be positively determined without the sensitivity test.
    Pasteurella, while often present in rabbits, is not always active, causing symptoms. When it flares up (often as a result of stress — positive or negative) it is treated with an antibiotic. Remember, not all antibiotics cure all strains of Pasteurella. A culture and sensitivity are paramount to determine that the infection really is Pasteurella, and which antibiotic will be effective against it.
  • Breathing difficulties: Is your rabbit showing signs of difficult breathing? Labored or raspy breathing can have a variety of causes.
    Labored breathing in a rabbit is not short, quick breathing, but rather long, deep breathing.
    If there is no reason to suspect heat stress, an upper respiratory problem may be the cause. These are not uncommon in rabbits. Pasteurella, pseudomonas, and other bugs can infect the lungs and/or sinuses causing breathing problems. And rabbits can have allergies, just like anyone else! Once again, a culture will help determine what the problem is and appropriate treatment.

The general rule in rabbit care is VIGILANCE! Know your rabbit and his habits and you will be more likely to catch a disease in its early stages. This is one reason why it is vital that an adult have primary responsibility for the care of the family rabbit. A child cannot be held responsible for checking droppings, eating habits, or monitoring bunny’s activities.

Medical Care

Be sure to find a qualified rabbit vet BEFORE you need one. An emergency is not the right time to hunt for a vet.

  • Annual check ups: Go for annual well rabbit check ups. Just as with any companion animal (or human for that matter), the more familiar your vet is with your rabbit while healthy, the better able he/she is to resolve problems when the arise.
    If your rabbit is five years old or older, go twice per year. Older rabbits have diminished abilities to ward off illnesses once they hit.
  • When in doubt: Remember, when in doubt, see your vet. Your rabbit’s life may depend on it!
  • Take a deep breath: Remember too, don’t panic or stress out when you discover that your rabbit is having problems. Rabbits pick up on the emotional state of humans very easily. If you are tense or stressed out, bun will act similarly, so stay calm. Rabbit illnesses and conditions are not all life threatening, so act as soon as you notice something is different, or wrong. If you do not see a vet when you suspect a problem, you may not know its severity until it’s too late.
    There is a wealth of additional health related information located on the national HRS web site. Take a hop over and use the search engine to find out more about what interests you most.
    With a little effort and careful attention, your rabbit will lead a long, healthy, and happy life. Enjoy!

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