Rabbits are masters at hiding illness, so giving your rabbit a “tune-up” or wellness check every two to three months is good preventive medicine and will help you know what is normal for your rabbit and what might need medical attention. If your bunny is a challenge when handled, get a friend to help you with the tune-up. Consult your vet, a vet tech or an experienced rabbit person if you are unsure how to trim your bunny’s toenails or clean his scent glands. So, let’s get started!
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. A dark crusty material may 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 chins. 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 the upper and lower lips back. 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 his teeth trimmed or possibly removed. Maloccluded teeth can make it hard for a rabbit to eat and drink, potentially resulting in signiﬁcant health problems.
Another thing to do is to check the rabbit’s mouth area from the outside. Look for any bumps or painful spots that may 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 rabbit sits on a wire or rough surface in her 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. 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. You might want to team up with another person when trimming nails. 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 health. As part of the tune-up, run your hands through the rabbit’s fur. Check for any skin irritations, loss of fur and ﬂeas or fur mites. Fur mites can be detected by white scabs or crusty skin, but those things could also be dandruff. The only sure way to tell if 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 bunny health-check tips
Here are some final tips and reminders when performing a home wellness check for your pet bunny:
- 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 do the tune-up in short sessions.
- Ask an animal professional to demonstrate any tune-up tasks you are unsure about, such as how to clean scent glands, clip nails and check teeth.
- Consult with a veterinarian who’s experienced in treating rabbits. To find one, go to the House Rabbit Society’s website.