Rabbits are masters at hiding when they're feeling sick, so knowing the signs of a healthy bunny is important. Giving your pet rabbit a wellness check every two to three months is good preventive medicine. And it will help you learn what is normal for your rabbit and what might need medical attention. Here are the key areas to check when gauging rabbit health.
Healthy rabbit eyes are clear and bright. If you pull up or down on the eyelid, the eye tissue should be pink, not red or very pale. Red, inﬂamed eye tissue and/or discharge from the eyes could be a sign of infection. Very pale tissue can also be a sign of illness. In these cases, your rabbit needs to see a veterinarian. Also, rabbits have a “third eyelid,” a thin white membrane that protects the eye. If this third eyelid is prominent, it could mean that the rabbit is stressed.
A small penlight can help you get a good look into your rabbit’s ears. Look for wax or dirt buildup. Dark crusty material can mean the rabbit has ear mites and needs treatment from a veterinarian. If the ears need a general cleaning, use warm water or saline solution and a gauze or cotton pad to gently wipe out the ears.
A rabbit’s nose should be free from discharge. If you do see discharge from the nose, consult with your veterinarian. Rabbits wipe their noses on the inside of their front paws, so also check the front paws for crustiness or wetness.
Rabbits have a scent gland under their chin. If you see a waxy buildup under the chin that is matted with the rabbit’s hair, carefully trim it away or wipe it off with warm water. If your bunny drinks water from a bowl, it can sometimes result in a little irritation under the chin. If the underside of the chin looks inﬂamed, however, consult your veterinarian.
Gently pull back the upper and lower lips. You should see the upper front teeth aligning with the lowers and a slight overbite. If the top teeth are very long and growing over the lower teeth, your rabbit’s teeth are maloccluded, which means there’s an abnormality in the way the teeth come together. The rabbit needs to see a veterinarian to have the teeth trimmed or possibly removed. Maloccluded teeth can make it hard for a rabbit to eat and drink, potentially resulting in signiﬁcant health problems.
Check the rabbit’s mouth area from the outside. Look for any bumps or painful spots that can indicate a dental abscess. If you see anything suspicious, consult your veterinarian.
The most common problem with a rabbit’s feet is sore hocks or heels. Sores can develop when a pet rabbit sits on a wire or rough surface in the cage or enclosure. (Cages with wire bottoms are not recommended for bunnies.) These foot sores can be quite painful and can also be a vehicle for infection. Take your rabbit to the veterinarian if you see foot sores, especially if you see open sores.
If needed, keep your rabbit’s nails trimmed. You might want to team up with another person when trimming rabbit nails. A penlight is helpful to locate the “quick,” the portion of the nail containing blood. Hold your thumb and index ﬁnger over the quick, and then cut the nail above your ﬁngers. That way, you know you’re not cutting into the vein. If you do nick the quick, use pressure and styptic powder to stop the bleeding.
Rabbits have scent glands on either side of their genitals that emit a musk-like scent. The glands can become impacted with a dark, wax-like substance. Gently wipe away the material with a gauze pad or Q-tip soaked in warm water. A buildup of this material is normal, but it can lead to infections, especially in older rabbits.
If you can smell the musky odor, it is probably time to clean the glands. Have your veterinarian, a vet tech, or a knowledgeable rabbit person show you how to ﬁnd and clean the glands. While you are checking the scent glands, note any caked-on feces or urine burn on the rabbit’s bottom. This could be a symptom of illness.
Fur and skin
A soft, shiny coat is an indicator of good rabbit health. As part of the wellness check, run your hands through your rabbit’s fur. Check for any skin irritation, loss of fur, and ﬂeas or fur mites. Fur mites can be detected by white scabs or crusty skin, but those symptoms can also be dandruff. The only sure way to tell whether your bunny has mites or dandruff is to have your vet look at a fur sample under the microscope.
Be aware that many ﬂea and tick prevention products used for cats and dogs are toxic to rabbits. The product called Revolution contains ivermectin, which is generally safe for rabbits, but always consult your veterinarian before giving your rabbit any of these products.
Rabbits shed about three times a year, and some enjoy a gentle brushing. Long-haired rabbits need brushing frequently because their fur grows fast and quickly forms mats if it isn’t brushed. Bunnies have very sensitive skin, so use extreme caution when cutting out matted fur. Keep your ﬁngers over the skin line, and cut above your ﬁngers with blunted-tip scissors.
A rabbit should never be immersed in water for a bath because it can cause shock. “Spot cleaning” is OK for a soiled bottom. Rabbits are generally very clean animals, and unless they are physically unable they do a good job of keeping themselves clean.
Finally, while you are running your hands through the rabbit’s fur, check for any abnormal lumps, bumps, or scabs. Check the tummy, head, between the legs, and back. Have your veterinarian look at anything suspicious.
Additional rabbit health tips
Here are some final tips and reminders when performing a rabbit health check for your pet bunny:
- To make the process easier, partner with another person who is comfortable handling rabbits.
- Always provide support to the rabbit’s back while doing the wellness check.
- If the rabbit seems stressed, try again another time or complete the check in multiple short sessions.
- Ask an animal professional to demonstrate any wellness check tasks you are unsure about, such as how to clean scent glands, clip nails, or check teeth.
Finally, make sure to select a veterinarian who is experienced in treating rabbits. And find out from your vet where you can get emergency treatment for your bunny after office hours or on holidays if the clinic is closed. Having an emergency plan and being proactive with wellness checks will help to ensure your rabbit lives a happy and healthy life.