Common Signs of a Sick Rabbit

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headshot of a brown bunny with lop ears

If you have a pet rabbit, it's important to give your bunny regular wellness checks to ensure good health. If you spot something that doesn't seem normal, consult a veterinarian who's experienced in rabbits as soon as possible. The following are common rabbit health issues that might indicate your bunny is sick and could need treatment.

Rabbit hairballs and intestinal blockage

Rabbits shed their hair every few months, alternating between heavy and light periods. Because rabbits are very clean and are constantly grooming themselves and/or their companions, they ingest a great deal of hair. Over time, this hair can build up and block the stomach exit, causing the rabbit to starve to death while the stomach appears fat. Unlike cats, rabbits cannot throw up a hairball when it threatens their health. Needless to say, hairballs are a major cause of problems, and even death, in rabbits.

The first sign of a hairball or intestinal blockage in rabbits is loss of appetite. The rabbit’s droppings will get smaller and will often be strung together like a string of pearls or will contain hairs or pieces of whatever the bunny has ingested. The rabbit's stomach will then become bloated, and the bunny will lose weight. The bunny also might appear to be in pain. Seek immediate medical attention if you suspect a hairball problem.

To prevent blockages, regular brushing and combing of your rabbit is vital. Also, feed your bunny unlimited timothy hay every day. Don’t use the small compressed hay blocks because the fiber is too small and is therefore ineffective. Make sure your bunny gets plenty of exercise, so any ingested hair can more readily move through the rabbit's system. And occasionally offer fresh or frozen (not canned) pineapple, which contains bromelain, an enzyme that helps break down the hair. Laxatives are usually not a good idea because they tend to dehydrate rabbits; consult your veterinarian if you are considering use of laxatives.

Teeth malocclusion in rabbits

Rabbit teeth are constantly growing, which is why they are always chewing — to help keep their teeth the proper size. Some rabbits, however, have misaligned (maloccluded) teeth, which do not wear down properly and continue to grow. A rabbit with this condition needs to have the teeth clipped periodically to be able to eat. Your vet can do this for you or can show you how to do it yourself.

Very rarely, when there’s extreme malocclusion, a bunny will need to have the front teeth removed. These rabbits do just fine as long as you cut their food into small pieces. You can easily see misalignment of the front teeth, but your bunny’s back teeth might need to be checked by your vet. One indication that the back teeth might be a problem is wetness on your bunny’s chin, caused by drooling. Check your rabbit’s teeth during each grooming session.

Sneezing, runny nose, and runny eyes

Sneezing might be a sign of trouble — though not always. If sneezing is accompanied by a runny nose and/or runny eyes, you should take your rabbit to the veterinarian immediately, especially if there is also a loss of appetite. If the rabbit is sneezing but has no other symptoms and is eating well, the cause might be allergies or even nothing at all. But keep a close eye out for the development of any other symptoms, and keep in touch with your rabbit vet.

Bunny parasites: Fleas, mites, and internal parasites

Like other pets, rabbits can get fleas. But because rabbits are very sensitive to chemicals, be careful about the products you use on your rabbit, as well as the products you use to treat your home and yard. Always consult with your vet. If the use of chemicals is absolutely necessary, look for products that are safe for kittens. If you treat your yard, do not allow your rabbit in it for at least a week — and only after you’ve watered the yard thoroughly to wash off any residual chemicals.

Here are other common parasites that your rabbit might get:

  • Skin mites live on the skin dander of rabbits and will cause your rabbit to scratch. If left untreated, they will eventually cause thick crusts to develop on the rabbit's body. Your vet can administer a drug called ivermectin to treat this problem.
  • Ear mites cause rabbits to shake their heads frequently and scratch their ears. If left untreated, a middle-ear infection could develop, which might cause a problem with the bunny’s balance. Ivermectin is also recommended for ear mites.
  • Internal parasites called coccidia can infect the small intestine. Symptoms can range from a loss of appetite to chronic diarrhea and occasionally death. Testing for coccidia is as easy as taking a fecal sample to your vet.
  • Some people incorrectly believe that rabbit feces carry disease that can result in toxoplasmosis from cleaning a rabbit’s litter box. Rabbits cannot carry or reproduce the spores that are harmful. Unfortunately, many rabbits are abandoned because of an unfounded fear of toxoplasmosis.

If pet rabbits you bring home are free parasites, it is unlikely that they will get them as long as they are kept inside, their home is kept clean, and they are not exposed to other animals who might carry parasites.

Red urine in rabbits

A rabbit’s urine can vary in color from clear to yellow to brown to bright red. None of these colors is a cause for alarm unless there are additional symptoms — such as sitting and straining to urinate, loss of appetite, or an elevated temperature. When you see red urine, don't panic; it doesn’t necessarily indicate blood in the urine. But do keep your eyes open for other signs that can indicate a problem. The red color will usually be gone in a day or two, but it can last much longer. Actual blood in the urine looks like urine with red specks. If you're in doubt, don't risk your bunny's health: Have your veterinarian test for blood in the urine.

Rabbit health emergencies

Ask your rabbit vet about the proper procedure in the event of an emergency that occurs after office hours or on a holiday. Some veterinarians will refer you to an on-call vet, and others will send you to an emergency clinic. Keep in mind that many clinics do not have exotic pet vets on staff. They will stabilize your rabbit, but you will have to follow up with your rabbit vet as soon as possible.

Rabbit health conditions that require emergency care (within 24 hours) include:

  • Diarrhea with listlessness
  • Loss of appetite with bloat and/or abdominal gurgling
  • Loss of appetite with labored breathing
  • Loss of appetite with runny nose or eyes
  • Head tilt or loss of coordination
  • Paralysis
  • Incontinence
  • Abscesses and/or swelling
  • Any sudden behavior change
  • A thick nose or eye discharge
  • Any sign of severe pain (loud teeth grinding, hunched posture, shallow or rapid breathing, excessive grooming, reduced activity, or facing the corner with head down)

Finally, note that amoxicillin is very toxic to rabbits, so don’t ever let a veterinarian give your rabbit this antibiotic, which is pink in color and smells like bubble gum. Amoxicillin and other forms of penicillin kill the beneficial bacteria in the rabbit's intestines and can cause other organs to malfunction.

There are other antibiotics that can safely be given to rabbits, such as Chloromycetin, Tetracycline, and Baytril. Occasionally, a rabbit cannot tolerate an antibiotic (some signs are a loss of appetite and diarrhea), so your vet might have to try another instead. Always keep your vet updated on any new or developing symptoms.