Rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain and in the wild the weakest are the first to be preyed upon. Thus, rabbits instinctively hide illnesses and injuries to avoid detection by animals of prey. This may be a good survival tactic in the wild, but for domestic rabbits, hiding their symptoms of illness only misleads their caretakers and prevents prompt medical attention.

People who live with rabbits need to be particularly attentive to subtle changes in behaviour or litter box habits.

If your rabbit usually greets you with leaps and bounds and he is now lying in the back of his pen when you approach, this could be a cause for concern. Couple this behaviour change with no droppings in his litter box and food left untouched, and you could have a very sick rabbit.

What is “normal” behaviour? Some rabbits jump up to greet you; some don’t. Some rabbits are very active, running all over the house; some aren’t. In general, rabbits mellow a bit as they age. A three-month-old bunny might seem hyperactive compared to a more sedate five-year-old rabbit. Both activity levels are normal, just different. But this behaviour will be consistent and known to you. Any deviation of that behaviour could signal illness.

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The following information is offered as a layman’s guide to some rabbit ailments. Be sure to find a rabbit-experienced vet before your bunny gets sick. When your bunny is ill, you need help quickly and you won’t have time to “shop” for a vet. If you are ever in doubt about your rabbit’s health, call your vet for advice.

Tooth grinding Loud tooth grinding is a sure sign of pain. Note: This tooth grinding is different from the softer “tooth purring” you may hear when you snuggle and kiss your bunny’s face!

Body heat Rabbits regulate body temperature by their ears. Very cold or hot ears could indicate a fever or a drop in body temperature. This, coupled with other warning signs would warrant a trip to the vet.

Runny eyes or nose, laboured breathing or chronic sneezing These could indicate an upper respiratory infection, a blocked tear duct or other problems. See your vet right away.

Wet chin or drooling Usually a sign of tooth problems or malocclusion. You may also notice a decrease in appetite and ability to eat hard foods such as a piece of carrot. See your vet. Left untreated, tooth problems can lead to infection of the jaw bone, which is very difficult to treat. Depending on the severity of the misalignment, your rabbit’s teeth may need to be trimmed regularly. In severe cases, teeth can be extracted. A wet chin can indicate malocclusion. In this case, the bunny’s front teeth needed to be extracted.

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Loss of balance or a head tilt This is most often a sign of wry neck, which is an inner ear infection. This can occur very suddenly. Although treatment can be lengthy, and improvement not noticeable for some time, wry neck may be cured if treatment is begun quickly. Editor’s note: Head tilt can also be caused by the E.Cuniculi parasite and must also be immediately treated by your vet.

Excessive itching or scratching, head shaking Fleas, ear mites and/or fur mites are the usual culprits. In some ear mite cases, scabs can be seen in the ear canal. Your vet will decide what treatment is needed. If one rabbit in your house has mites, it is best to have all the rabbits checked, as mites can be transferred easily.

Fleas are common in the summer months. Although they may seem harmless, flea infestations can kill rabbits, dogs and cats by causing a deadly case of anemia. Use a flea comb and consult your vet about the use of a flea treatment. (Do NOT use Frontline, which has been linked to rabbit deaths.) Have your carpet steam-cleaned or treated with a commercial borate-compound product to kill the flea eggs and larvae. The borate treatment is usually guaranteed for a year. Be sure the products used are safe for rabbits. (Rule of thumb: If it’s safe for kittens, it is usually safe for adult rabbits.)

Sore hocks This is when the fur on the rabbit’s hock, or heel, is worn down to the bare skin or, in severe cases, to the bone. Sometimes the rabbit forms calluses and gets along just fine. Problems arise when the skin turns into an open wound. You may notice the rabbit favouring a foot as he tries to avoid putting weight on his hocks. Causes are numerous, including wire cage bottoms with no resting area, a damp resting board, wet bunny beds or dirty litter boxes. Overweight and large-breed rabbits are particularly prone to sore hocks, as are the Rex breeds, since they do not have a lot of padding on their feet.

If there are open wounds on your rabbit’s hocks or if the area is swollen, see your vet. To prevent sore hocks, give your rabbit a soft, clean resting area. Also, keep your rabbit’s weight within normal range, and examine your rabbit’s feet regularly.

Blood in the urine, straining to urinate The two may or may not go hand in hand. While certain foods can turn urine red, actual blood in the urine can be a sign of cancer, bladder infection or urinary stones. If your rabbit is straining to urinate or is “leaking” puddles outside the litter box, you should be concerned. You may also notice “urine burn,” caused when urine-soaked fur keeps the skin underneath damp and irritated. This is a serious health issue, so take your rabbit to his veterinarian.

In one end, out the other Your rabbit’s litter box contains a wealth of information. A healthy digestive tract will produce large, round faecal pellets. Increasingly smaller, irregularly shaped droppings or droppings strung together with fur (or carpet) may indicate a problem. Proper grooming by you, especially during a moult, and plenty of fresh hay will help produce optimum digestive tract health, along with appealing to the rabbit’s urge to chew. If you find the litter box has no droppings in it, a vet visit is needed to see if your rabbit could have a blockage.

Lumps and bumps Abscesses and tumours can be serious and should be checked by your vet as soon as possible. Sudden “lumps” under the skin could signal serious and fast-growing cancers.

Loss of appetite or lethargy Even a rabbit can have a bad day. But if your rabbit refuses his usual fresh food or any of his special treats, and seems particularly lethargic, you should call your rabbit’s vet right away. We encourage you to observe your rabbit’s behaviour, activity level and droppings daily. Each rabbit is different and knowing what is normal behaviour for your rabbit could save his life.

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