In a recent and very interesting development, doctors are using the ability of pets to sniff out potentially fatal diseases in humans before they progress to advanced levels. Call it ESP or an enhanced olfactory sense that allows them to detect abnormal scents, the programs are remarkably accurate and so far, dogs are stealing the show.
But doctors and researchers opine that even rabbits aren’t too far behind when it comes to detecting health conditions in humans. For example, it has been noted that rabbits display behavioral changes if and when their parents have fluctuations in their blood sugar levels.
If only, we could detect health problems in pets so easily. But unfortunately, most pet parents rely on symptomatic assessment of health conditions in pets rather than using preventive measures. And if you are a rabbit parent, spotting the symptoms may take a lot more than casual observation.
Rabbits have an inherent ability to hide symptoms. By the time one realizes that something is amiss, the condition may well have progressed to advanced levels requiring immediate medical assistance from a rabbit veterinarian.
Having reared and bought up more than a dozen bunnies, we have had our fair share of misses. From shock to panic to desperation, we have been through all the emotions that most rabbit parents go through at some point in their lives.
So, we figured that this was a great time to create a list of the most common health issues that might crop up in your bunnies from time to time and some tips on how to spot them early.
#1 – Gastrointestinal Stasis
GI Stasis is a rabbit parent’s worst nightmare come true. This serious and potentially fatal condition occurs more commonly in rabbits than one would like to imagine. And what makes it so serious is that the symptoms are extremely difficult to spot.
GI stasis occurs when the rabbit’s digestive system comes to a halt. Any rabbit food that the rabbit consumes is no longer processed and the metabolism is shut down.
Lethargy, lack of appetite, bloating and reduced fecal matter. One of the easiest ways to detect GI Stasis in rabbits is to rest your ears on your bunny’s abdomen gently and listen for sounds of the digestive system functioning normally. There’s typically a gurgling sound or something similar. If you do not hear any sounds at all, then there are chances that the digestive system may have shut down.
In most of the cases, emergency surgery by a rabbit veterinarian may be the need of the hour. But if you have spotted the condition early, then your vet may be able to treat the condition using motility drugs and IV fluids. But if the condition has progressed and the digestive system has shut down completely, then the only way to reactivate the rabbit’s digestive system is via surgery. Contact a veterinarian immediately if you notice any of the above mentioned symptoms.
An active bunny is a fit bunny. One of the ways to prevent GI stasis is to ensure that your bunny has an adequate supply of a variety of fresh hay, time and place for exercise and lots of fresh water. A high fiber diet will keep the digestive system active and also help reduce the risk of dental problems.
#2 – Ear Mites
Ear Mites are undoubtedly among the most common health conditions that can occur in rabbits. That’s irrespective of whether you keep your bunny indoors or outdoors. The good news is that the condition appears to be a lot more serious than it actually is. It is easily treatable. Having said that, if left untreated, it can quickly progress into secondary infections of the middle and inner ear. In extreme cases, mite infestations can also progress to meningitis. So, like any other health condition, you might want to start diagnosis and early treatment for ear mites.
Ear mites are contagious. So the chances of your bunny picking up mites after coming into contact with another infected bunny are high.
One of the first symptoms of an ear mite infestation is intense bouts of itching around the ears, neck and head. The itching may be generalized or focused mainly around the ears. There will be scales on the inner ear which will eventually form thick crusted lesions. There may be hair loss and occasional peeling of the skin. If the infestation has penetrated into the inner ear, it may cause loss of balance or head tilt in bunnies. Mite infestations can also spread to other parts of the rabbit’s body especially the belly and the area that surrounds the anus.
Diagnosis involves taking samples of an exudate that is secreted from the crusted lesions. Your vet may then prescribe anti-parasitic drugs like ivermectin. Treatment also involves cleaning and treating the rabbit’s enclosure or hutch because the condition is contagious and can recur. Everything from the rabbit’s bed to utensils and combs must be completely disinfected before reusing. Never remove the crusts from the ears because it may expose the underlying skin which is prone to infections. Home remedies include using honey or vegetable oil to remove infestations in the early stages.
The best way to prevent mite infestations in rabbits is to avoid contact with other infected bunnies. Maintain healthy grooming habits that allow you to spot the infection early. Keep the rabbit’s environment clean and sanitized. Ensure that your rabbit has ample room. Ear mite infestations have also been linked to increased stress in rabbits. Keep your pet clean and happy to keep the pesky bugs away.
#3 – Sore Hocks
‘Ulcerative Pododermatitis’ also known as ‘sore hocks’ is a condition in which the sole on the rabbit’s rear legs get infected and inflamed. The condition is typically localized in the area of the rabbit’s feet which come into contact with the floor as the rabbit rests.
Sore Hocks can occur due to multiple reasons. But the most common one is a hard floor or wired floor often seen in low quality rabbit hutches. Excessive moisture can also lead to inflammation of the feet. If left untreated, the condition progresses to severe inflammation and can cause lesions filled with pus. In extreme cases, it can affect the connective tissue making it impossible for the bunny to rest or walk normally. It may also limit the supply of blood to the connective tissue leading to brittle bones and even bone death.
Sore Hocks can range from mild to severe and are usually graded depending on the severity of the condition. In grades I to III, the condition is considered moderate and the bunny will show signs of hair loss near the bottom of the rear feet. Swelling is rare but not unusual. In some cases, the skin will become excessively red and may form scabs and ulcers which can be prone to infection.
Grades IV and V are advanced stages which are usually characterized by pustules, abscesses and inflamed tendons. Bone marrow infection can occur leading to disability, imbalance and an abnormal posture.
The earlier the condition is diagnosed, the easier it is for the rabbit to recover fully from it. Diagnosis involves ruling out abscesses caused due to injury or fractures. Most vets may recommend an ultrasound to detect how advanced the condition has become. Rabbits that are diagnosed with bone infections will require undergoing an extended treatment that may take months. In early stages, the treatment revolves around pain management, reducing discomfort and inflammation. In the later stages however, surgical procedures may be recommended to remove dead tissue and prevent extreme infections.
Well, the good news is that sore hocks can easily be prevented. Ensure that your rabbit has a soft and dry surface to rest on. It must be free of excessive moisture, including urine and feces. Keep the rabbit hutch in a dry environment. Keep an eye out for early signs of infection. If the rabbit hutch has a wire floor, then cover it with a thick and soft layer of flooring.
#4 – Snuffles
Snuffles are one of those conditions that look innocuous enough to avoid the need for veterinary assistance. But in reality, this annoying upper respiratory tract disorder can leave your bunny gasping for breath and if left untreated, can quickly progress into other conditions like conjunctivitis, wryneck and imbalance.
What is worse is that almost every domesticated rabbit will be hit with a bout of snuffles at some point or the other. One of the reasons that it is so widespread is because the condition is incredibly contagious. So, if your bunny is out for their periodic vet visit and comes into contact with an infected bunny or even the nasal discharge, they are on track to get infected themselves and possibly infect their partners who share the hutch.
There are many different strains of the bacteria that cause snuffles. The symptoms that your bunny will display depend on the exact strain that has infected them. Some can be as mild as a runny nose with a watery discharge. In advanced cases, the discharge is thick, yellowish and has a mucous like consistency. This is followed by bouts of sneezing and snuffling during which the rabbit finds it difficult to breathe normally.
If left undetected or untreated, the infection progresses into the inner ear triggering a horde of unpleasant symptoms. Wryneck which is an uncharacteristic twisting of the neck is one of the conditions triggered by untreated snuffles. Rabbit parents often find it impossible to believe that the runny nose could have triggered something so severe in their pets. There have been cases in which untreated snuffles has triggered pneumonia in rabbits.
The normal mode of treatment is antibiotic therapy that may last for almost a month depending on the severity of the condition. But antibiotics and the digestive system in bunnies are not a great combination because it often ends up killing the healthy bacteria in the gut that aid digestion. So, vets usually supplement the healthy bacterial strains during treatment with antibiotics. Ensure that your rabbit has a healthy and nutritious diet during treatment. If the condition was not diagnosed early, then it may develop chronic sinus infections that take prolonged treatment to control.
There have even been cases in which the rabbit needed lifelong medication to keep the condition under control.
For a condition so prevalent among domesticated rabbit breeds, prevention plays a very critical role in ensuring that your pet is not infected with snuffles. If you have multiple pets and one pet is showing signs of an infection, then strict quarantine should be maintained until the infected bunny heals completely.
Any shared bedding, food, water and hutch should be cleaned and disinfected. Keep your bunny healthy and active at all times to prevent their immune systems from being suppressed or compromised. Stress can often trigger conditions like snuffles. If you are a rabbit breeder, then ensure that you select a healthy young rabbit that does not have any signs of a possible infection.
#5 – Cocci or Coccidiosis
If you have ever been to rabbit support groups or checked online forums for support on rabbit health, you are most likely to have heard about Cocci or Coccidiosis. It has a nasty reputation for being one of those conditions that can lie hidden in your pet for days or even weeks without any symptoms whatsoever. By the time you start to notice that something is amiss, the infection may already have progressed to severe requiring urgent medical attention.
For the uninitiated, cocci are caused due to a parasitic infection by a parasite known as Eimeria sp. There are more than 25 known species of the parasite and most rabbits are believed to be asymptomatic carriers of the protozoa. This means that a healthy bunny’s immune system develops immunity to the condition. However, if the immunity is compromised or the rabbit is young or ailing, then the infection can be triggered.
The symptoms in coccidiosis are extremely difficult to spot. In early stages, it may be as common as a lackluster coat which overlaps with a plethora of other conditions in rabbits. Some other symptoms include anemia, dehydration, weight loss, lack of appetitie and depression. In intestinal coccidiosis, advanced stages can lead to convulsions and even paralysis in rabbits. On the other hand, in hepatic coccidiosis, it can lead to liver damage and bile duct damage. In extreme cases, it can lead to coma and even death.
Early and accurate diagnosis is the key to successful treatment of Coccidiosis. Most vets start by discussing the pet’s history and by using symptoms to narrow down on the exact cause. Fecal examination can at times reveal oocysts. But once again, it is extremely difficult to separate those from normal yeast which are common in rabbit feces. In advanced cases, vets may recommend a radiograph to detect signs of liver damage or fluid buildup.
Unfortunately, treatment is aimed at management of the condition rather than completely curing it. Treatment methodology is dependent on the symptoms. If the rabbit is displaying signs of dehydration, then intravenous fluids are administered to help restore normal fluid levels in the body. Intestinal coccidiosis is treated with antiprotozoal drugs like Sulfaquinoxaline. Treatment is started for small time durations like 7 days and then repeated to ensure that the condition is contained. The same medication is prescribed for hepatic coccidiosis as well but it rarely prevents liver lesions from forming.
Some vets also prescribe antibiotics and dietary supplements which help to boost the immune system as the primary infection is being treated. With early diagnosis and treatment, most rabbits are able to build a lifelong immunity against the protozoa.
Prevention of cocci in rabbits is possible with a regular and stringent sanitation program. The rabbits environment should be cleaned and checked periodically for signs of infection. The hutch should be scrubbed clean of any fecal matter. Use ammonia 10% solution to disinfect the rabbit cage. Keep your bunny active and healthy by providing them with ample room to move around. A healthy diet that is rich in timothy hay with fresh vegetables and fruits will help develop a strong immune system and gut.
This is not the most exhaustive list of illnesses and health conditions that can occur in rabbits. But these are by far the most common ones that you are likely to encounter. We hope that this helps you in the early diagnosis, treatment and most importantly, prevention of these conditions in your pets. We would love to hear your thoughts. So feel free to chime in.
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