Rabbit Health and Welfare

Rabbits are increasingly becoming one of the most commonly kept pet alongside our companion dogs and cats. Thay can make for very good companion pets with a lot being toilet trained to use the litter tray.

As prey animals they rarely show signs of disease until it is severe. As vets and vet nurses, we can help owners notice the subtle changes that this species may show during times of stress, illness or injury.

Rabbit owners need extra support to ensure that they do not miss signs that urgent and emergency care is needed. We as veterinary professionals should discuss and demonstrate to owners, including how to examine their rabbits, and what preventative healthcare is vital.

Observation is key and primarily done by the owner at home. An owner should observe their rabbit several times a day . They should keep a note of normal behaviours, such as eating habits, running, binkies (a sudden jump of joy with a twist in the air), interaction with the other rabbits, digging and grooming. Any changes should be noted.

Recommended daily examinations owners should carry out at home.

  • Breathing rate/effort
  • Eating habits
  • Faecal pellet amount/size/shape/colour
  • Urine colour
  • Mouth for drooling/pain/swellings
  • Bottom region for adhered faeces/flystrike
  • Fur for matts

Closer observation should include breathing rate and effort (to be measured from a distance), noting that rabbits generally breath relatively quickly (normal respiratory rate 30–60 breaths/minute) and that any slow rates, noise, or increase in effort is significant. When eating, mouth movement should be smooth and fast, and food should not be dropped. Urine is normally passed by elevating the tail towards the wall/litter tray side and passing a steady stream of urine. Any straining should be noted. Urine may be various shades of yellow, orange or pink, but not brick red. Urine that is bloody or clotted is significant. Rabbits pass around 150 faecal pellets per 24 hours. The faeces should be round, firm and uniform in colour and size. Any changes should be noted and a reduction in number is always relevant. Rabbits are coprophagic and owners should not normally find the caecotrophs left uneaten by the rabbits. New rabbit owners may be unaware of this normal behaviour, and the appearance of caecotrophs, but this can be easily remedied with photographs and information on a handout or website. Changes to these normal behaviours should prompt a call to the clinic.

 Rabbit emergencies warranting consultation.

  • Respiratory distress (mouth breathing or tachypnoea)
  • Flystrike
  • Bloat
  • Loss of appetite
  • No faeces in few hours /small pellets
  • Seizures
  • Collapse
  • Choke
  • Bleeding from an orifice
  • Blood in urine
  • Trauma (e.g. severe lameness)
  • Heatstroke
  • Rolling/severe head tilt
  • Dental issues likely to progress and cause more severe illness

Owners need to be made aware that dental problems are one of the most common reasons for a pet rabbit to be presented to the veterinary practice due to their continual growth, so it is important to have appropriate equipment available for diagnosis and treatment. Unlike the dog or cat, rabbits tend to have small mouths with a narrow gape, so visibility is often a limiting factor. A conscious examination with the aid of an otoscope will reveal moderate–severe lesions but patients should always be deeply sedated or under general anaesthesia for a full oral examination and imaging if dental abnormalities are suspected.

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