by Nancy J. LaRoche
Copyright 2006 – All Rights Reserved
(May be copied for free distribution)
Emergencies Requiring Immediate Veterinary Care
Note: Medically, rabbits are designated “exotics” and cannot be treated by most small animal veterinarians. Rabbits need a veterinarian specifically trained in rabbit medicine. Click here for information about Rabbit Veterinarians
GI Stasis is probably the most common rabbit ailment. You will almost certainly encounter it sometime in a rabbit’s life. GI Stasis refers to the condition where a rabbit suddenly stops eating. Such a rabbit won’t even eat his favorite treat. The danger when this happens is the rabbit’s body temperature begins to fall rapidly. You can lose a rabbit to hypothermia in a matter of HOURS.
You need to determine NOW how you will restore or stop the drop in body temperature while you’re rushing your rabbit to the veterinarian. One of the best ways to do this is to place a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel in the bottom of a carrier and place the rabbit on top of it. Microwave bags that can be heated, or even a bottle or jar with a good seal could be used instead. Warning: It is imperative you do not allow your rabbit to get wet! Getting wet may cause the rabbit’s body temperature to drop faster!)
GI Stasis is usually easily treated, but it is deadly if the body temperature drops low enough or appropriate treatment is not given quickly enough. Typical treatment includes a motility drug, warm subcutaneous fluids, and Simethicone if there is bloating. If bloating is causing pain, it is very important for pain medications to be given
Please note: Veterinarians not familiar with rabbits may not know how to treat this condition, or not even know that hypothermia is the greatest immediate danger. They may give antibiotics or do nothing at all. Your rabbit will not survive if s/he does not receive appropriate medical care!
Head-tilt or Vestibular Disease
Head-tilt (Vestibular Disease) is most often caused by an infection of the inner ear. You can see the ear drum if you look down the ear canal using an otoscope. That is the area where middle ear infections occur. “Ear infection” usually refers to this part of the ear.
The vestibular area is located behind the ear drum, where you can’t see. This contains the cochlea – the organ providing balance. When an infection occurs here, a rabbit may seem to be losing balance or wobbling uncertainly when she hops. The nerves are sending false signals to the brain, saying “up” is several degrees to one side of what should be perceived as “up.” Commonly, the first symptom of this problem is a slight head-tilt that does not straighten up.
A good way to see what this symptom looks like is to put a rabbit on one stair in the middle of a staircase with the head and tail pointing to the walls on the sides of the staircase. Attract the rabbit’s attention either to the top or bottom of the stairs. Because rabbits’ eyes are on the side of the head, she will tilt her head to see up or down the staircase. This is what the first symptom of head-tilt looks like.
Rabbits with one floppy ear may look like they have head-tilt when they don’t. Look at the rabbit from behind, looking at the head in relation to the spine to determine if the head itself is actually tilted.
If the rabbit does have head-tilt and is given an appropriate antibiotic, the head usually comes back up and the incident is over. It is essential, however, that the full course of antibiotics be completed!
Often within 3 to 12 hours from the first symptom, the rabbit will be tumbling uncontrollably. Do not try to protect the rabbit with towels. She will tangle in them and break her legs. Once this tumbling begins, it continues for as much as 12 weeks or even more. During this time the rabbit cannot eat, drink, or sleep on her own. You must do it all for her. (See our article on Head-Tilt Nursing for information about how to do this.) When the rabbit finally recovers, a permanent head-tilt of as much as 90° may remain. However these head-tilt bunnies are quite capable of enjoying a quality life despite their unusual posture.
Obviously, the difference in consequences between catching the problem quickly or having the rabbit (and yourself) suffer 12 weeks of tumbling and ending with a permanent, severe, head-tilt, is extreme. Quick veterinary intervention is essential to minimize the danger.
Diarrhea is not common in house rabbits, but it can occur. Diarrhea means liquid. It does not mean soft pills or caecal droppings. Rabbits with diarrhea dehydrate rapidly. Dehydration is a threat to a rabbit’s survival; you must get the rabbit to a veterinarian quickly.
Requiring Veterinary Care – Not Emergencies
Messy nose, sneezing, messy forepaws from cleaning nose
(“Pink eye”) Pus collecting on cheek below corner of eye
Tear duct may be blocked causing tears to roll down cheeks. Get the tear ducts flushed as soon as possible to avoid permanent blockage
Weakness, soreness in any limb
May be sprain, strain, break, arthritis, or E. Cuniculi infection
Any lump, anywhere on the body
Especially around the chin or jaws – do NOT mess with these yourself! Get veterinarian’s diagnosis quickly
Unusual amount of wax in an ear
May indicate problem with rear leg
Any unusual spot in the eye
May be an infection, a cataract, E. Cuniculi, etc.
If not dealt with, it can result in permanent malocclusion
Eating slowly or slobbering
Rabbits can develop points on their molars that irritate the cheek or tongue, causing them to slobber or eat carefully.