Okay, based on the above information you may have gotten the idea that GI health is a big issue in rabbits and your correct. I often think of rabbits as little horses that can colic and have GI problems at the drop of a hat. The best way to treat GI problems is to avoid them by feeding the correct diet. Some of the more common problems include diarrhea, anorexia and gut stasis/lack of fecal production. If any of these problems are noted, your bunny must be examined by a veterinarian who will direct the treatment based on your specific pet’s disease problems.
An issue that I’ve seen occasionally occurs when an owner is concerned about potential diarrhea, but upon examination of the rabbit it is producing normal feces. With a through history we find that these rabbits are only producing a soft fecal pellet once daily and all else is normal. This is the best GI problem to have because it is normal. Rabbits produce a special type of feces that is only partially digested and stored in their cecum. About once daily they will pass this large soft pellet and eat it. The ingestion of this cecaltroph is a natural way of recycling B Vitamins and nutrients and is normal for bunnies. Some pet rabbits fed a rich diet will fail to consume their cecaltroph and owners often are concerned that this is diarrhea. It is not. True diarrhea is the abnormal consistency of all feces produced and will often cause fecal staining around the rectum and on the tail. This is a medical problem that should be addressed, cecaltrophy is not. Also, if your rabbit fails to eat the cecaltroph it will not cause any harm.
The failure to eat (anorexia) and/or the failure to produce feces is a serious and potentially life threatening problem and all rabbits showing these signs should be examined by a veterinarian. Generally speaking the rabbits are treated with fluids, high fiber diet, medications to increase GI movement and pain medications. However, treatment will vary depending upon the primary cause of the illness. Home care often involves making a pellet slurry and syringe feeding several times daily until the rabbit eats voluntarily.
- Summary:- GI disease is a serious problem in rabbits- Signs of GI disease are decreased appetite and fecal production (small
feces or no feces)– GI disease is often due to a poor diet
– Cecaltrophy is normal in rabbits
– The best rabbit diets are high in grass hay and leafy greens
– All rabbits with GI signs should be examined by a veterinarian
– Home care often involves syringe feeding until eating on their own
Rabbits have teeth that continue to grow throughout their life and this will occasionally result in problems. The upper (maxillary) teeth are thought to grow slightly slower then the lower (mandibular) teeth but the estimated rate of growth is about 2-3mm a month. Rabbits with malocclusion (the teeth surfaces are not aligned properly) will quickly develop spikes on the part of the tooth that doesn’t have the normal wear and the spikes can actually grow large enough to cause the rabbit pain from tongue trauma and may even entrap the tongue preventing normal eating. Often with malocclusion the owners will notice that the incisors (front teeth) have an irregular or angled end which reflects the abnormal occlusion of the molars. Rabbits that have this condition must be seen by a veterinarian on a regular basis (often monthly) to have their molars examined and reshaped. Because rabbits teeth grown continuously it is necessary for them to have continuous wear as well. Good ways to provide this are by feeding hay and providing toys that allow them to chew as well as play. All rabbits should be examined yearly and the exam should include an oral exam. The molars can be viewed quickly and easily in the exam room by using an otoscope (ear cone) inserted into the mouth and rotated around to view all the occlusional surfaces. Another thing to remember is that dental disease in rabbits doesn’t only affect the teeth. Many rabbits with tooth abscess will have tearing of the eye, jaw swelling and/or swollen (pushed out) eye. These are all signs of severe dental disease and will require a more extensive work-up which will often include general anesthesia and x-rays (radiographs). Note the image above – a skull x-ray of a rabbit with dental disease.
- Summary: Rabbit teeth grow throughout lifeMalocclusion results in painful spikes and difficulty eatingAll rabbits need a dental exam at least yearlyAll rabbits need regular tooth wear with hay and toysTearing eyes and swelling is often a clue to severe dental disease
Female rabbits that are never spayed often develop uterus cancer later in life. This can be entirely prevented by spaying your rabbit early in life. Rabbits can also develop other types of cancers internally and externally. Suspicious lumps on the skin are often abscesses but should always be checked for potential neoplasia (cancer).
Obesity is a disease we regularly cause in rabbits. Usually it is not a disease of over eating, but rather improper eating. Feeding foods rich in grains (sweet feed, pellets with corn) and high sugar treats will often cause obesity in bunnies. Obesity results in many problems for the rabbits. In females we often see urine scalding because the fatty folds have enclosed the genital area and it is not possible for the rabbit to urinate without marking this tissue. The result is significant skin irritation and infection. Another problem that occurs in both rabbits and cats is fatty liver disease which can result in liver failure. A simple check for obesity in your rabbit involves comparing their shape to a bread loaf. If the rabbit is more square then rectangular – we have a problem. The best way to avoid a heavy bunny is to feed high fiber foods and limit grains to treats only. Hay should be available to the rabbit at all times.
- Summary: Obesity is a disease that we causeCause is not always overfeeding but improper feedingObesity will result in diseaseAvoid foods rich in grains and sugarsFeed free choice grass hay, leafy greens and measured pellets.
Upper Respiratory Infections (URI):
URIs can be caused by a multitude of infectious agents but one of the most notorious is Pasteurella, often called bunny snuffles due to the frequent sneezing and nasal discharge. Pasteurella is a bacterium thought to be an infectious disease of rabbits and is all too common in “mass production” rabbits. Signs of disease are ear infections, head tilt or rolling, tearing eyes, nasal discharge, skin abscesses and sneezing. Infected rabbits may show one or several of these clinical signs. The infection can be difficult to diagnose and even more difficult to eliminate. Culturing (swabbing and growing the bacteria) are important to help determine the actual culprit and this will allow us to test the effectiveness of various antibiotics on the bacteria culture prior to treating your rabbit. Rabbits can be very sensitive to certain antibiotics, typically the penicillin type antibiotics, and therefore it is important to do diagnostic test to determine the best antibiotic for your bunny. The important thing to remember is that there are many disease causing organisms that can cause similar signs and the best person to determine the most likely cause and best treatment for your pet is your veterinarian. I encourage you not to wait before seeking help because the more established infections are usually very difficult to treat. The best thing you can do is to have your bunny examined at the first sign of illness.
Several types of bacteria can cause respiratory and ear infectionsSigns vary from ocular tearing to head tilt or rolling
Early examination and diagnostic testing is needed
Rabbits are able to tolerate the cold much better then heat. In areas such as Arizona where we expect extreme heat in the summer months I don’t recommend keeping rabbits outdoors. If they must be outdoors for short periods of time on warm day, I suggest freezing plastic containers filled with water and placing in the hutch to allow them to self cool.
Rabbits with wet fur from problems such as urine staining or diarrhea that are allowed outdoors will be subject to fly strike. Flies will actually lay egg on your rabbit and maggots will develop. The best way to avoid this is to keep your rabbit clean and dry at all times especially on warm summer day. Treatment of the primary problem will be needed.
- Rabbits can develop the same types of organ disease as our dogs and cats. We’ll see bladder stones in rabbits on poor diets, kidney insufficency and liver disease.
- Urinary bladder problems can result from feeding foods such as alfalfa hay which is rich in calcium.
- Kidney disease can occur in both young and old rabbits. It can be caused by a parasite infection, bacterial infections and many other causes.
- Liver disease is all too common in rabbits and can also occur from a variety of reasons such as bacterial infections, parasite infections and malnutrition. Hepatic lipidosis is a disease we see in rabbits and other pets such as cats and birds. The disease is thought to be associated with obesity and incorrect feeding of high grain and high sugar foods. The best way to assess your rabbits organ function is with regular blood screening. Treatment will vary depending upon the initial cause of the disease.
Any type of skin trauma can result in infection and abscess in a rabbit. Cat bites and scratches are often the culprit, but other types of superficial wounds can also introduce bacteria into the skin. The trauma introduces bacteria into the skin and allow development of infection. Unlike dogs, rabbits don’t make liquid pus. They fight infection by forming a thick (caseous) yellow pus that surrounds the infection isolating it. Unfortunately, this pus is difficult to eliminate because the abscess cannot just be lanced and flushed – it will not drain. Therefore, rabbit abscesses often require surgery and debridement with rigorous antibiotic therapy to results in a cure. These infections are notorious for recurring and may actually need to be surgically removed. Any lump or bump on your rabbits skin should be examined by a veterinarian.
Rabbits have extremely strong back muscles for hopping and a light weight frame or skeleton. This anatomy can result in problems for our pet rabbits who often like to kick and jump in joy or play. A rabbit can potentially fracture the spine/back with a very sudden or vigorous kick and twisting motion. To avoid this potential problem I recommend turning rabbits around (to face you) placing them into their play area or enclosure backwards. This slows them somewhat, helping to prevent that sudden kick/jump/run when suddenly released. It is also important to always support your rabbit’s hind legs when holding him and of course a good diet with balanced calcium levels is also helpful. The image above shows a Jack rabbit with a fractured back – he was actually hit by a