Your rabbits' health: what to look out for

Make sure you health check your rabbits weekly and look out for any changes in their behaviour every day – rabbits can be very good at hiding any health issues until they are really suffering.

Sometimes, even the smallest thing, such as their poo looking a little smaller than normal or not rushing out to receive fresh food straight away, can be a clue to a poorly rabbit. If you have any concerns, act quickly and contact your vet.

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Your rabbits’ life expectancy

Rabbits tend to live for between 8 and 12 years, though many survive into their teens.

How to health check your rabbit

Ideally, bring your rabbits indoors and sit them on a towel so they are comfy.

  • Use some small scales to check their weight. The average breed rabbit, like the dwarf lop, should weigh between 2.2 and 2.5kg once fully grown. Your rabbit should appear lean and pear shaped. Large shoulders or a double chin is a sign of obesity
  • Check their nail length and clip, if needed
  • Feel over their body for any lumps and bumps. These often appear under the jaw line due to dental problems or along the legs if they have been in a recent fight
  • Check their ears, skin and fur for any signs of parasites
  • Check their eyes. One or both weeping eyes can indicate dental disease. Swollen, red, puffy eyelids can also indicate early signs of myxomatosis
  • Check their mouth and front incisors for any signs of unusual growths
  • Check their nose for any discharge or sounds of noisy breathing
  • Your rabbits should appear bright, alert and inquisitive with a healthy looking coat
  • Monitor their hopping. Rabbits should never appear to walk on their tiptoes. This can indicate spinal problems
  • Check their bottom area for a build-up of faeces, blocked glands or signs of fly strike. All can be an indication that your rabbit is overweight
  • Check that your rabbit doesn’t have head tilt or appears to be swaying to one side. This could be a symptom of E. cuniculi
  • Lastly, check their litter trays and accommodation for any signs of abnormal poo, as this can be an early sign of several life threatening illnesses.

Always neuter your rabbits

Neutering your rabbits is extremely important. It:

  • Prevents unwanted litters
  • Dramatically increases the chances of bonding a pair of rabbits successfully
  • Stops males from spraying and mounting
  • Reduces ‘grumpy’ behaviours
  • Stops females from going through stressful phantom pregnancies
  • Prevents uterine cancer in females, which is very common in rabbits over the age of two years

Male rabbits can be neutered as soon as their testicles have appeared – around four to five months. Females can be neutered from five to six months. Although the procedure is now very straightforward and considered safe, it’s extremely important you take your rabbits to a recommended, experienced rabbit vet to avoid complications.

Skin conditions

Rabbits can be prone to mites, which can affect them on the body or around the ears. Signs to look out for include:

  • Flaky dandruff and fur loss between the shoulder blades, known as walking dandruff fur mite
  • Very small, black dots seen when back combing the hair around the rump
  • Head or ear shaking and scratching
  • Blood spots, scabs or crusts building up around the ears

If you spot any of these conditions, take your rabbits along to a rabbit-friendly vet.

Myxomatosis and VHD

Your rabbits will need vaccinating against both once a year. Both are fatal and easily contracted. Myxomatosis is spread by mosquitos and fleas, so even indoor rabbits are at risk.

Signs of myxomatosis to look out for:

  • Puffy, red or swollen eyes and genital area
  • Small bumps and lumps appearing in the ears and over the body
  • Noisy breathing
  • Sitting hunched and fluffed

VHD is very much a silent killer with little or no symptoms. Spores from the virus can be brought to your rabbits on your clothes if you’ve unknowingly been in contact with it, or if your rabbit comes into contact with a rabbit in the early stages.

If your rabbit passes away suddenly with no obvious reason, have a post-mortem carried out so that positive results can be documented and aid the tracking of the virus’s movements.

Signs of VHD include:

  • Sudden death with no symptoms
  • Jaundice
  • Sudden collapse where death follows within hours
  • Projectile diarrhoea followed quickly by death
  • Loud scream followed by death

Dental health

Poor dental health is one of the most common killers in rabbits, often because of an incorrect diet. Rabbits should eat a diet of at least 85% hay – if they don’t their teeth may elongate and begin to wear unevenly causing sharp ‘spurs’. These may cause ulceration to the tongue or cheeks. The tooth roots can also break through the jaw bone or grow up into the eye sockets of the rabbit causing pain and abscesses.

Feeding your rabbits the right diet will dramatically reduce the risk and in some cases resolve very early symptoms. Signs to look for include:

  • One or both eyes weeping or blocked tear ducts
  • Weight loss
  • Drooling
  • Mucky bottoms or regularly finding soft stools within the accommodation
  • Lumps/abscess along the jawline
  • Lack of appetite
  • Fly strike
  • Overgrown front teeth with matted fur wrapped around them

A rabbit with perfect teeth can still develop dental issues in later life. Monitor your rabbit closely for signs of problems and visit the vet at least twice a year for regular dental checks.

Unfortunately, dental disease is rarely treatable, only manageable – it can be a very slow and painful end for your rabbit. It may be kinder to euthanize sooner rather than later, with the support of your rabbit-friendly vet.

Fly strike

Fly strike is very preventable, yet it can come on suddenly and cause your rabbit a lot of pain, and even death. Fly strike happens when a fly lays its eggs around the rump or tail area of the rabbit. These look like small grains of white rice. Maggots quickly hatch out and start to feed on your rabbits’ flesh and move up through the genital area. Rabbits commonly at risk include:

  • Those without litter trays or trays that are not cleaned daily. This reduces the smell that flies are attracted to
  • Elderly, less mobile rabbits
  • Hutch or indoor cage-bound rabbits
  • Long hair breeds prone to becoming matted
  • Obese rabbits with double chins
  • Rabbits with digestive issues that often produce smelly grape-shaped poo

If your rabbit is at risk, they will need daily checks to monitor for any signs of eggs or maggots. If you suspect your rabbit has fly strike, get to a vet immediately as time is very limited.

Keep an eye on their poo

Although not everyone’s favourite subject, it’s important to monitor your rabbits’ poo regularly for any change in size, shape, consistency, smell or amount. Healthy poo should be around the size and shape of a pea or larger in big breeds. It should be light brown and be made up of lots of hay.

Poo is one of the biggest clues to a poorly rabbit, so if you spot anything unusual, contact your vet. Look out for:

  • Very limited amounts or none seen in the last 12 hours
  • Smaller size or strung together like pearls
  • Coated in a smelly, jelly-like texture. Yhe rabbit may have a very bloated belly and appear to be sitting uncomfortably
  • Very loose poos with a watery consistency

Is your rabbit obese?

Obesity can cause many health problems in rabbits. Signs of an obese rabbit include:

  • ‘Sticky bottom’: a big build-up of smelly faeces around the bottom
  • Regularly seeing lots of soft poos around the hutch. These look very similar to bunches of grapes, just a lot smaller.

If you suspect your rabbit is obese, contact your rabbit vet for advice about a change of diet and weight management.