Common Rabbit Illnesses

Keep your rabbit healthy by recognizing common health warnings.

by Sharon Vanderlip

When illness strikes your rabbit, the medical consequences can be serious. Daily observations of your rabbit and annual veterinarian checks are the best ways to detect and treat medical problems before they become serious and life-threatening.

Keep common rabbit illnesses in mind when interacting with your rabbit on a daily basis, and consult your veterinarian for the best way to treat them:

Gastrointestinal Problems

Gastrointestinal (GI) problems are the most common and some of the most serious health problems in rabbits. When left untreated, GI problems can quickly lead to a painful death. GI problems always require immediate veterinary care. Look for these signs of GI-tract upset in your rabbit:

  • Lack of appetite or refusal to eat
  • Inability or failure to pass fecal pellets, or passing smaller and drier-than-usual fecal pellets
  • A large, doughy abdomen and the presence of hair in fecal pellets due to the accumulation of hair in the GI tract, sometimes referred to as “wool block”
  • Dehydration 
  • Diarrhea 
  • GI obstruction due to eating non-food items and foreign objects, such as carpet or plastic
  • GI adhesions or obstruction due to adhesions from previous surgical procedures, such as spaying

Pasteurella Infection

Pasteurella infection (also known as pasteurellosis or “snuffles”) is highly contagious and may be spread by direct contact, contaminated objects or in the air. The disease may also be spread by venereal transmission and at birth. A rabbit showing signs of the infection should receive veterinary care immediately. Pasteurella infections can spread quickly throughout the body in the blood and lead to septicemia and death.

Signs of Pasteurella infection vary but are easy to identify:

  • Inflammation of the tissues inside the nose and a mucus or whitish yellow purulent nasal discharge
  • Inflammation of the tissues around the eyes (conjunctivitis) and tearing, discharge, redness, and hair loss around the eyes
  • Snoring sounds and sneezing
  • Pneumonia
  • Middle-ear infections that may be accompanied by a head-tilt and sometimes nystagmus (rapid back-and-forth eye movements)
  • Uterine or testicular infections
  • Abscesses
  • Septicemia (generalized blood and tissue infection)
  • Discoloration of the insides and tops of the rabbit’s front feet to yellowish gray from nasal discharge that was transferred to the paws (Note: Even when the nose appears clean and dry, if the front feet are discolored with pus, it’s a sign of Pasteurella infection.)

Dental Malocclusion

The teeth on the rabbit’s upper jaw should align and mesh with the teeth on the bottom jaw in such a way that the teeth grind and wear evenly. Teeth misalignment is known as dental malocclusion. While this problem is not always obvious, if left untreated, rabbits suffering from malocclusion can slowly starve to death.

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Signs of malocclusion include weight loss, reluctance to eat and, sometimes, drooling. Unless the rabbit shows signs of drooling, malocclusion is difficult to observe unless it affects the front teeth (incisors). Dental examination requires skill, expertise, special equipment and, sometimes, sedation. 

Heat Stroke

Rabbitsmay overheat at temperatures of 80 to 85 degrees F if not given enough shade, fresh water and ventilation, especially when humidity is high or they are overweight. To prevent heat stroke in your rabbit, house it inside during extreme temperatures.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency, and time is critical. Even with treatment, most rabbits suffering from heat stroke do not survive. Immediately follow emergency first-aid care to with veterinary emergency care, observation, fluids and corticosteroids.

Foot Sores

Foot sores (pododermatitis) are caused by housing rabbits on hard, wire-mesh floors. Overweight rabbits are most often affected. Signs of foot sores include feet that are red, swollen and thickened and the inability for the rabbit to hop or walk. Only the bottoms of the feet are usually affected. A severe bacterial infection caused by Staphylococcus aureus develops from foot sores, and the infection can spread to the rabbit’s tendons and bones, causing osteomyelitis.

Foot sores can be prevented by using a solid bottom cage floor, by providing a solid resting board, or by covering wire mesh floors with soft, clean, comfortable, dry bedding material and keeping the housing area clean.

About the Author: Sharon Vanderlip, DVM, has provided care to animals for more than 25 years. She has written scientific articles and pet-care books.

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