Pain In Rabbits
By Emily Hoppmann, DVM
Even though we look at our pets as domesticated animals, they still have strong instincts from the wild and often the theory of natural selection, where only the strongest animals survive, plays a huge part in their behavior. Due to these instincts, animals learn early in life to hide weakness or illness because in the wild if they don’t they’re destined to be cast out from their group or even become some hungry hunter’s lunch. Unfortunately, with our pets, this protective instinct can come at a great cost because attempting to act strong and healthy makes it much harder for us to recognize their pain or illness. Since animals cannot tell us that they are in pain, the burden of pain assumption, recognition, and assessment lies with owners and our veterinary team. This involves keen observation skills to detect pain and working with our veterinarian’s team to uncover its cause.
Signs of pain in rabbits include:
Rapid and shallow breathing
Increased thirst and urination
A reluctance to move
Bulging, strained, or unfocused eyes
Lack of normal activities
Hiding or avoiding contact with other pets or people
Some bunnies in pain may appear to be breathing from their abdomens instead of their chests, and others will press their tummies to the ground or extend their necks. Without relief from pain your bunny’s intestines will slow down, called gastrointestinal stasis, which will generally lead to your rabbit not eating or defecating. Eventually the rest of the body will start to shut down as circulation decreases and the body temperature drops, often leading to death. This is it why it is so important to be very watchful for subtle signs that your rabbit is not acting like him/herself and to get in for an appointment with our veterinary team as soon as possible. Again, rabbits are masters at hiding disease from us so any change from normal behavior should be taken as a red flag, and immediate care from a veterinarian who is very familiar with rabbits should be sought out.
There are a variety of injuries, diseases, and/or infections that can be painful and it is just as important to determine and address the underlying cause of your rabbit’s pain as it is to control the discomfort. Some problems are more obvious than others because there are other clinical signs that can be seen, such as bleeding or swelling, diarrhea, or appetite loss. Painful musculoskeletal injuries include arthritis, broken bones, bone tumors and spinal disk rupture or fractures. Issues with the ears, including infections, ear mites, or foreign objects in the ear canal can also be unbelievably painful, especially if the eardrum ruptures. Issues with the mouth are also a big source of pain since rabbits teeth grow throughout their lives and if they are not fed the correct diet, the teeth can overgrow and cause ulcers or abscesses in the mouth or even entrap the tongue. Skin issues can also result in a great deal of pain and can range from cuts to infections/abscesses to parasites on or underneath the skin to ulcerative pododermatitis. Ulcerative pododermatitis is when sores are present on the areas of the legs where the rabbit places weight. Intestinal issues (such as infection and inflammation), diseases of the uterus (such as inflammation, the presence of excess tissue, or cancer) and bladder issues (such as sludge or stones) can also all be very painful. Sometimes there are very few outward clinical signs other than your rabbit not acting like him/herself, which is why a good physical examination and the necessary diagnostic tests are critical to getting to the root of the problem.
Some aches and pains that might be harder to detect include lacerations or abscesses hidden under the fur or in the mouth. Abscesses in rabbits are very different than in other animals because the body tends to wall-off the infection and the “pus” does not drain because it is much thicker than the discharge from infected areas in other animals. This is why abscesses in rabbits usually have to be addressed with a combination of medical and surgical intervention.
It is equally important that your rabbit’s environment be set up in an ideal way to try to minimize the chance that he/she will become affected by any painful conditions. For example, rabbits should never live outside and the bottom of your rabbit’s cage needs to be flat and padded with a substance like Carefresh bedding (and never any type of wood chips). Your rabbit should also be on a monthly flea prevention that is safe for rabbits and dosed to the individual weight of your pet (since most flea preventions for dogs and cats can be fatal for rabbits). Your rabbit’s diet is just as important as his/her environment and all rabbits should be on at least 90% Timothy Hay (not pellets) to encourage the rabbit to chew on the hay throughout the day in order to wear the teeth down correctly. It is best to have your rabbit’s mouth examined by your veterinarian at least every six months so that if there are any issues with the teeth, they can be addressed. Also, you want to limit the amount of calcium rich foods in the diet so that the body is not excreting a large amount of calcium in the urine, which can lead to higher incidences of bladder sludge and/or bladder stones. It is also best to have your rabbit neutered or spayed at a young age, not only to avoid certain behavioral issues, but also to try to prevent diseases of the reproductive organs.
Things that you can do at home to help are to really observe and know your pet’s quirks and habits – any changes should alert you to a potential problem. If you suspect your pet is in pain, carefully look him/her over, check out his/her environment for signs of illness (such as diarrhea or blood), and then call your veterinarian to schedule an appointment. Your rabbit needs to be seen as soon as possible if you suspect that he/she is having any issues and it is an absolute emergency if your rabbit acts lethargic, stops eating or defecating, or is bleeding. Keep in mind that the causes of pain are almost infinite and it may take some time and additional testing to get to the bottom of the problem. However, we will always do our best to provide your baby with the relief he/she deserves and needs.