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5 Common Rabbit Diseases

Veterinarian holding a pet rabbit

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Rabbits are delightful, intelligent and playful companions. And, like everyone, rabbits can get diseases, so it’s vital to know what signs to look for that may indicate illness. Detecting rabbit diseases early on—or better yet, preventing them—will help you keep your beloved pet happy and healthy.

1. Reproductive Cancer

Did you know that your rabbit should be spayed or neutered? Most people know to take their dogs and cats in for altering when they are young, but rabbits often fall through the cracks.

The potential for an unspayed rabbit to develop cancer and other reproductive cancers is very high. Early in the course of the disease, the signs can be subtle. Affected rabbits might not feel well, not eat as well as normal and act sluggish.

Further along, rabbits affected by reproductive cancer may begin to show signs of blood in their urine as well as more obvious signs of general illness. Note: This is different than the normal red hue of rabbit urine. Your veterinarian can test the urine specifically for blood.

Reproductive disease isn’t limited just to the females, either. Male rabbits can develop testicular or prostate cancers.

The moral of the story? Have your rabbit altered early in life. The procedure doesn’t just prevent baby rabbits; it can be lifesaving for your bunny. Should your rabbit develop reproductive disease, this sometimes can be treated if caught early enough

2. Abscesses

Rabbits are unusually prone to developing abscesses—both in their skin and internally. An abscess is a ball of white blood cells that has been called to an area to fight an infection.

In most cases, the blood cells do their job and then move back into the body for processing. Sometimes, however, the body determines to “wall off” the infection and forms a barrier, thus preventing these white blood cells from returning to the system, and an abscess is formed.

Rabbits have a uniquely thick form of pus in their abscesses. It somewhat resembles cottage cheese (not to ruin anyone’s lunch!).

The combination of this thick material with the body’s wall around the abscess makes it almost impossible to treat these rabbits with antibiotics alone, and often surgery is necessary.

In fact, rabbit abscesses can be so aggressive that I think of them like a “mini-cancer” when I remove them. I work very hard to remove every last bit of the abscess during surgery to try to prevent them from coming back. I also follow up the surgery with antibiotics to try and catch any missed cells.

Signs of abscesses include lumps and bumps anywhere on your rabbit, but especially the face. If your rabbit is injured (say with a fight with another rabbit or even a cat), it also is likely an abscess will form at the injury site.

Clean any wound well and seek immediate care from your veterinarian. Preventing an abscess with careful wound care and appropriate antibiotics may help avoid the development of larger problems down the road.

3. Pasteurellosis

Pasteurella is perhaps better known as “snuffles in rabbits.” This common respiratory disease in rabbits is caused by bacteria. Almost all rabbits have been exposed to this illness at some point in their lives, but not all rabbits will show signs.

Symptoms include a runny nose, runny eyes and frequent sneezing. Sometimes the most obvious sign is discharge staining on the forepaws where the bunny repeatedly has wiped his runny nose.

Snuffles can be very difficult to treat, because it tends to come back repeatedly, especially in times of stress. Other conditions, including dental disease, can mimic snuffles, so obtaining a diagnosis is important in most cases. Your veterinarian can perform a blood test to conclusively diagnose Pasteurella as the problem.

The good news is that there are many options for treatment, and most bunnies recover from the disease, even if they experience flare-ups down the road.

4. Dental Disease

Dental disease is one of the most common reasons sick rabbits are taken in to see the veterinarian. Rabbit teeth are “open-rooted,” meaning they continuously grow throughout the bunny’s life. If your pet does not wear his teeth down properly, they can overgrow and cause significant pain and illness for the rabbit.

Dental disease has several causes, but the one we have the most ability to correct is diet. Rabbits were not designed to eat pellets poured out of a bag. Think about those wild rabbits in your yard—are they plucking rabbit pellets off of trees? No. They are eating green plants and fibrous materials.
Pellets do not wear down the teeth; they crunch and break when chewed. Think about how much more work it is to chew on a piece of hay or kale than a rabbit pellet. Rabbits need to eat hay and green leafy vegetables with only small amounts of rabbit pellets.

Signs of dental disease in rabbits include decreased appetite, drooling, swellings around the face, weight loss, eye discharge, avoiding hay and greens and preferring pellets—they don’t need to be chewed!—and generally not feeling well.

Diagnosing and treating dental disease is a relatively involved and expensive process, so this is absolutely a disease where prevention is far better than treatment.

5. Gastrointestinal Stasis

Gastrointestinal what? Though you probably are thinking you’ve never heard of this, it is very common and seen every day across the world in our pet rabbits.

Rabbits are designed to accomplish two basic tasks in life—eat and reproduce. If a rabbit’s intestinal tract stops doing its job, even for a short period of time—because the rabbit was ill, ingested too much fur while grooming, has mouth pain from dental disease, or even because bunny got stressed—it can be tough to get the intestinal tract up and running normally again.

When the digestive tract slows up and doesn’t function, we refer to this as gastrointestinal stasis. Signs include smaller-than-normal stools, decreased appetite, looking bloated, not feeling well and acting uncomfortable.

Treatment depends on diagnosing the underlying problem, so blood tests, radiographs and a thorough exam typically are needed. But you can help prevent gastrointestinal stasis by feeding your rabbit greens and a hay-based diet, as well as grooming your bunny daily to remove excess hair.

Long story short, however, any rabbit who has not eaten normally for 24 hours should be seen immediately by a veterinarian. We consider this an emergency in my practice.

Although rabbits are prone to many rabbit diseases, you can do a lot with proper rabbit care to help prevent problems. Be sure to find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian well before your bunny becomes ill, as they can help you to fine-tune your home care to prevent as many illnesses as possible.

Here’s wishing you and your buns a long and healthy life full of binkies!

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Sandra

Sandra Mitchell, DVM, is a graduate of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. She enjoys working with all animals, whether cats, dogs, rats, ferrets or guinea pigs. Over the years, she has owned just about every animal commonly kept as a pet, as well as a few that many people have never kept, such as sugar gliders, spiders and skunks. Currently, she works as a relief veterinarian, helping out at veterinary offices when a doctor needs to go on vacation, and she teaches both veterinarians and veterinary students.

Featured Image: Via iStock.com/FatCamera