scan0015What a blessing to have your beloved bunny for his entire life – which by comparison to ours is all too short. The average lifespan of a bunny used to be four to five years, but now we are seeing our rabbits live 10 years and up. To what do we owe this good fortune? I credit the love and devotion of house rabbit caregivers. Those who have demanded good care from their vets have created a demand for knowledge that is continuing to grow on the professional level. When I was in veterinary school in Colorado from 1974 through 1978, we heard not a single word on the rabbit as pet. Even cats were relegated to last position and lumped in with dog lectures (as if they were the same!). Now all major veterinary meetings have lectures on rabbits as pets and textbooks are being written on all aspects of rabbit medicine and surgery and preventive health care.

So what can you expect from your ageing rabbit and what should you be looking for to keep him healthy? Paying attention to the basics early in life and staying in tune with your rabbit’s needs will get you a long way. These basics are: spaying females before one year of age, feeding a high fibre, low carbohydrate diet, making sure teeth are normal and nails are trimmed and providing a safe but stimulating environment. Observation of normal daily activity will increase the chance that you will spot a problem while it can still be solved.

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What to watch for

Some specific problems of older rabbits are similar to those found in other small mammals. We can observe each body system for signs of disease. All older animals can suffer from kidney failure or chronic renal insufficiency. Clues can be drinking more water, urinating greater volumes more frequently, dehydration and anorexia, leading to eventual death. The hope is early detection so a treatable cause can be found or the process slowed through administration of additional subcutaneous fluid and nutritional support. Blood tests can determine if the kidney failure is advanced or if there are other problems such as anaemia or concurrent liver disease. A full blood test should be done on any rabbit over five years old as part of a preventive health care programme.

Heart disease may appear to be sudden in onset, but cardiomyopathy probably has been a pre-existing problem. Acute onset of difficult breathing may be the only sign. A radiograph can show an enlarged heart or fluid in the chest. Symptoms can be treated but the prognosis is very grave. Respiratory disease usually is associated with pasteurella or other bacteria. If your rabbit has had chronic snuffles, abscesses, or tooth abscesses, he will become more susceptible the older he gets, as his immune system may not be as strong. Early detection and treatment by your vet is essential.

Tumours can appear at any age but are more associated with the elderly. The uterine carcinoma can be prevented by early spaying. And some rabbits can still survive if the tumour has not spread outside the uterus when detected. Yearly check-ups of your young pet and biannual check-ups of your older bunny are recommended by this vet. Abdominal palpation can reveal many organ diseases early (if your bunny is not overweight!). Tumours of the muscle and connective tissue (sarcomas) can be surgically removed with the best success if detected early. Anaesthesia in the elderly rabbit with isoflorane gas, i.v. fluid and a pre-op blood test can be safe, and surgery curative. Waiting too long to act on a tumour can mean the loss of a limb or life.


Our hopes for the future

As we begin to see more older rabbits, we will learn new techniques and medications and be able to help them more. We may discover new diseases that can be treated (as hyperthyroid in cats was discovered in the 1970s – previously, the symptoms had been attributed to “old age”). General slowing down, gradual weight loss, and changes in grooming habits are to be expected. You may have to do a lot more for your bunny. Old age itself is not a disease but, as I stated at the beginning, a great blessing. Think of all the old pets and people that have been part of your life or are in your life now. What a treasure.

Josie Thompson, DVM

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