You may be faced with a rabbit emergency. We hope this article will help you understand how to identify illness or injury so you can help save your rabbit's life.
Obviously, we can't cover every eventuality. And, if the rabbit in your care looks sick or uncomfortable when you see them, watch and evaluate the rabbit and call the vet if the situation has deteriorated. If the rabbit is doing something that isn't listed here but you are still worried, follow your instincts - it's safer to over-react than under-react. The worst that can happen is that you make an un-necessary call to the vet. You are their guardians. Only you can know when they need help. Only you can get them to the doctor.
Rabbits are unlike dogs or cats - they do their best to conceal any illness. What's different about rabbits? Rabbits are programmed to conceal their illnesses. This is a behavioral adaptation of a creature at the bottom of the food chain: a wild bunny showing obvious signs of illness becomes an easy target for a predator. Unfortunately, for pet rabbits, this tendency to conceal signs of illness can lead to catastrophe. Whereas dogs that have tummy ache usually look pathetic straight away, rabbits don't shout from the rooftops when they feel unwell. In fact, they can look remarkably normal ("just a bit quiet") even when at death's door. To make matters even worse, rabbits are small animals. This means that if they do become unwell, they can become dehydrated (and hypothermic) very rapidly.
Prompt veterinary advice is vital if the rabbit is to have fighting chance of surviving a serious illness. Delaying 24 hours to see what happens can prove fatal. These are examples of danger signs that indicate you need to contact a vet immediately:
- Rabbit has difficulty breathing and/or lips and tongue bluish in color
- Rabbit has severe diarrhea (watery feces)
- Rabbit is bleeding uncontrollably from a wound or has been attacked
- Rabbit may have a broken back or limb(s)
- Rabbit is limp, floppy or cold
- Rabbit is in pain
- Rabbit isn't eating
- Rabbit has flystrike (maggots)
Rabbit has difficulty breathing and/or lips and tongue are bluish colored
The normal respiration rate in an adult rabbit is 30 - 60/minute, but some breathe faster than this if they are hot or stressed. The time to get worried is if breathing is laboured (long hard breaths rather than rapid panting in rabbits) or grunting. If the lips and tongue are blue tinted, your bunny is not getting enough oxygen. Sitting still with head slightly tilted upward is a clear sign of inability to breathe. Call the vet immediately.
Rabbit has severe diarrhea
Bunnies who are sitting hunched in a pool of diarrhea (either liquid/watery feces or jelly-like material) need veterinary help fast. Baby rabbits are especially vulnerable to developing acute diarrhea (the weeks after weaning, just as young rabbits arrive in their new home, are especially high risk) and because they are so small, can become fatally dehydrated very quickly. A rabbit that has had an episode of runny or soft stools but is otherwise alert, lively, eating and generally his/her usual self should be safe overnight, and you can call the vet for advice in the morning if the problem persists. Don't forget that excess caecotrophs (smelly, shiny, dark colored droppings like miniature bunches of grapes) do not count as diarrhea and do not need an emergency trip to the vet. However, if your rabbit's backside is caked with caecotrophs they are at risk of flystrike, and will need to see the vet within a day or so for full evaluation.
Rabbit is bleeding uncontrollably from wound; or has been attacked
Bleeding that isn't controlled by firm, direct pressure needs prompt veterinary attention. Also, if the rabbit has been attacked by a dog (or cat, fox, ferret) telephone the vet for advice even if there are no apparent injuries or those you can see seem minor. There may be internal damage and/or a risk of shock developing. Other bleeding from mouth, ears, rectum or other orifice needs vet.
Rabbit may have a broken back or limb(s)
Skeletal injuries usually occur when rabbits are dropped or fall from a height - which is one of the reasons why allowing young children to pick up rabbits is a bad idea. Spinal injuries causing partial or total hind limb paralysis are very serious, but not necessarily hopeless. Aggressive treatment with steroids as soon as possible after the injury helps some bunnies by limiting swelling in the spinal cord, and some lucky rabbits recover sufficiently to lead a pretty normal houserabbit life. Broken legs can sometimes be fixed by lightweight casts, or pins and plates. A rabbit that has fallen from a height may also have internal injuries.
Rabbit is limp, floppy or cold
These rabbits are very, very sick and may be close to death. The common end point of dehydration, shock or sepsis is a weak floppy rabbit, often with cold ears. They tend to sit hunched in a corner and 'feel funny' when you pick them up. Wrap them up warmly and get to the vet ASAP.
Rabbit is in pain
Rabbits who are in pain sit hunched up with their eyes half closed, reluctant to move, grinding their teeth firmly. As well as being a welfare issue for the poor bunny suffering it, pain is very dangerous to rabbits. As well as putting strain on their kidneys, pain is a very common trigger for the development of gastrointestinal stasis (ileus), a potentially lethal condition when the gut stops moving normally. Hence, if you think the rabbit is in pain, it is imperative that you seek veterinary treatment immediately. A few years ago, vets were sometimes reluctant to prescribe pain relief for rabbits, but thankfully things are much better these days. Even so, you might need to remind your vet to make sure your rabbit has adequate pain relief prescribed for any condition that has the potential to cause pain - including dental problems, abscesses and after neutering.
Rabbit isn't eating
Missing an odd meal is no big deal for dogs or cats, but often indicates serious trouble in bunnies. Rabbits who have stop eating are often suffering from GI stasis. Or, if they have stopped eating for another reason (e.g. pain due to dental problems) then it probably won't belong before they do go on to develop GI stasis. Check the Caring for Your Rabbit page for articles on GI stasis and bloat. If the rabbit has stopped eating entirely, call the vet immediately for advice. Check the litter tray, and specifically look for small droppings, pools of diarrhea, or droppings strung together by strands of hair. The vet will need to know if the rabbit has been eating, drinking, peeing and pooping normally! If your rabbit is still eating but with reduced enthusiasm, or if s/he is eating some foods but not others, you should be OK to wait until next morning.
Rabbit has Flystrike
"Flystrike" is the common name for a condition called myiasis, which occurs when blow-flies lay eggs on rabbits (usually on soiled/moist fur) that hatch into maggots within hours. The maggots can literally eat the rabbit alive, and trigger severe shock and infection. If you do find maggots on the rabbit, get your rabbit to the vet fast. You can pick off visible maggots with a pair of tweezers, but don't think that pulling off all visible maggots will solve the problem - some may have already migrated under the skin. Even with antibiotics and fluid therapy, the prognosis is guarded. Give them a chance. They have likely been kept in poor condition - dietary issues often cause poopy bottom - this wet area is also a perfect are for flies to lay their eggs. Any rabbit can suffer from flystrike (we have heard of a case in a bunny who had a wet patch on her side from lying against her water bottle, and the flies lay eggs there), but some rabbits are at particularly high risk. If your rabbit is elderly; overweight; struggles to groom him/herself; has "sticky bottom" problems; urine scald; or any wounds or discharges (e.g. chronic runny eyes) you need to be especially careful. Rabbits must have their bottoms checked daily in warm weather; and if your bunny falls into a high-risk category talk to your vet about products you can use to protect him/her.
Ask your veterinarian for the name and number of the nearest rabbit savvy emergency room. Keep the emergency number in a place where you can get to it in a hurry. Your bunny's life could dependon it.