This page is intended to provide general information about rabbit health risks. It does not substitute for a trip to your veterinarian or more in-depth study of rabbit health concerns. Furthermore, we are focusing on the most common life-threatening concerns.
Every rabbit caretaker should educate him or herself about the most common rabbit health issues. In addition to the overview below, we recommend that everyone who has a rabbit read Rabbit Health in the 21st Century and the 4th edition of The House Rabbit Handbook.
It’s up to you to make sure that you’ve done your homework to help your rabbit, should she develop a health problem. Choose your veterinarian wisely, and treat her or him with respect, but don’t be afraid to get a second opinion and do your own research. We also recommend that you have alternative veterinarians in case your primary vet is unavailable, and that you consider in advance what you will do if your rabbit has an after-hours emergency.
Here are some of the most common problems we see in domestic rabbits:
GI hypomotility (also known as GI stasis, or ileus, or “a hairball”): this occurs when a rabbit’s digestive system slows down. There may be a buildup of gas, causing pain and inappetance. There is already a ton of information on this subject at www.rabbit.org and other internet sites. Search for “GI stasis in rabbits” and read; the best known article is “GI Stasis: the Silent Killer” by Dana Krempels, PhD. GI hypomotility is a very common problem and often unnecessarily fatal.
Overheating: any temperature over 80 degrees Fahrenheit can be dangerous for a rabbit. See our heat warning page for more detailed information and tips on how to keep your rabbit cool during the summer months or whenever there are unexpected spikes in temperature.
Injuries: rabbits have a delicate spine and powerful back legs. As a result, when they are dropped or struggle to get free from being held, they can break their own backs. Before you adopt a rabbit, learn how to properly handle one. There are many demonstration videos on YouTube showing how you hold one hand under the rabbit’s front legs and another over the tail, holding the rabbit securely and firmly against your body. Never lift the rabbit with her front legs or with your hands around her belly; always support her spine and sternum (under the bones). Always have one hand supporting her back. We use the phrase “always support the back of the bunny” to reinforce this message.
If your rabbit is injured, you must take her to the veterinarian to assess the damage. X-rays are often necessary to determine the extent of injury, and a course of antibiotics may be necessary. It’s important to know that predator attacks can be fatal even if you see no injury to the rabbit. A cat’s mouth is teeming with bacteria that can be fatal to a rabbit, especially a baby, if the rabbit’s skin is broken. Raccoon attacks are often fatal even when the rabbit is not killed outright. You must keep your rabbit safe from predators! Rabbits can have heart attacks and die with absolutely no physical contact. This happens most often when rabbits are in backyard hutches, when a raccoon tries repeatedly to get at the rabbit. Another common problem with backyard rabbits or indoor rabbits that are not kept clean is fly strike, which can be fatal.
Poisoning/Change in diet: see our toxic plants list here. If you suspect your rabbit has eaten something toxic, call the poison control center or your veterinarian immediately. You can administer liquid charcoal and fluids if you have those on hand. Do not feed your rabbit human food or change your rabbit’s diet suddenly.
Tooth problems/malocclusion: you can look at your rabbit’s front teeth to see if she has incisor malocclusion, but your veterinarian will have to look at the back teeth with a scope. Signs that a rabbit might have molar problems include drooling or a slowdown in consumption of hay (or pellets) to a greater extent than veggies, or eating in a more gingerly fashion. When the back teeth cut into the gums and tongue, it becomes painful to eat hay; you may see your rabbit start to eat hay or pellets and then let them drop out of her mouth. It’s best to be proactive and have a wellness exam every year to detect problems before they impact your rabbit’s ability to eat.
URIs (upper respiratory infections), abscesses, and other problems caused by bacteria: bacterial infections in rabbits are common. Rabbits will sometimes have long-term bacterial infections in their upper respiratory system. You should try to clear these up under the supervision of a veterinarian, with one or more courses of antibiotics. A culture and sensitivity test will help your veterinarian determine which antibiotics are likely to be effective. Sometimes rabbits get pneumonia, which probably rates as the “second silent killer” of rabbits after GI hypomotility since rabbits tend to hide their symptoms. Abscesses often have to be surgically removed and then treated aggressively with antibiotics. Head tilt is often caused by a bacterial infection or abscess. If left untreated, these problems can become serious. With proper treatment, however, many rabbits have recovered completely from head tilt, URIs (including the often misnamed “pasteurellosis”), abscesses (even the formerly dreaded “jaw bone abscess”) and have gone on to live long, healthy and happy lives.
Ear mites/fur mites: these are very easily treated but absolute misery for the rabbit when they are not. If your bunny has a crusty brown buildup in one or both ears and scratches them often, odds are she has ear mites. Fur mites are harder to detect; flakes and loss of hair are among the signs that your rabbit should see a veterinarian. The most common effective drug of choice now for treating ear mites or fur mites is selamectin. It is available only with a prescription from your veterinarian. Ivermectin is available without a prescription, however, it doesn’t have selamectin’s residual effect and has to be administered more often.
Defining an emergency: any change in your rabbit’s normal behavior should be cause for concern. The most serious is a change in appetite, or refusal to eat. Any time a rabbit refuses to eat for several hours at a time, it should be considered an emergency. Other signs of a health emergency include but are not limited to: lethargy, sitting in the litter box or in a corner for a prolonged period of time, head tilt, drooling, panting, tooth grinding (a sign of severe pain). As prey animals, rabbits hide symptoms of illness; if you detect that your rabbit is in pain, it’s probably extreme. If you have any doubt, consult with a veterinarian who has extensive experience treating rabbits.
Locating a rabbit vet: to find a veterinarian experienced with rabbits in the Los Angeles area, please see our list here.
Useful publications: Rabbit Health in the 21st Century, 4th edition of The House Rabbit Handbook.