Guide to Rabbit Health and Diseases

Rabbits and the field of rabbit health are becoming increasingly popular due to the popularity of this mammal as a household pet. Over  the past several decades, rabbit husbandry and care has evolved quite dramatically. Typical rabbit housing has gone from outdoor wire rabbit hutches to spacious indoor habitats. Rabbit veterinary care has evolved in much the same way. These days, rabbits are spayed and neutered and their medical needs are met in the same way as a dog or cat’s needs would be met. If you are a new rabbit owner, you are probably wondering what types of diseases and conditions to watch out for in your new pet.

rabbit health
Signs of Rabbit Health in this Chinchilla include a well groomed coat, clear eyes and healthy ears without flakes or wax buildup.
Source: Washington State University

Most health problems in rabbits are due to a poor diet or intestinal problems. If a digestive system gets out of  balance it could cause problems such as stomach upset. The result is gas and a reluctance to eat. Often this can be corrected by adding probiotics to the diet such as Probios.

Quick Guide to Rabbit Diseases and Conditions:
If you have a rabbit health question, we'll answer it for free by filling out the form below.  If you have an urgent rabbit health question, we suggest using this online veterinary service that can answer questions 24 hours a day.  You can also download this guide to rabbit health (PDF download).

Signs of a Healthy Rabbit

Whenever you purchase or check your rabbit, look for the following signs of good rabbit health.

Area to Check on Rabbit
Signs of Rabbit Health
Mouth and Teeth
Straight teeth that are not broken or discolored.  No drooling.  Healthy pink gums
Skin and Coat
Healthy looking.  No flakes or fleas.  Check the skin for lumps or abscesses.
Ears
Clean with no crust.  No wax buildup or flakes
Nails
Trimmed nails
Toes
No signs of injury
Legs
Bottoms covered with fur. No signs of infection. No limping when walking.  Able to hop, sit up.
Personality
Active, playful. Moves easily.
Urine
Urinates in litter box or other usual area. No blood in the urine or red spots.  No urine stains on fur where urine exits the body.
Feces
Large, moist feces.
Body Temperature
Normal Levels
Heart
Normal heart beat.
Breathing
Normal, not rapid breathing.
Nose
Clean with no crust
Eyes
No discharge. Rabbit eyelids are pink under the lid.
Scent Glands
Clean rabbit scent glands
Source: The Rabbit Haven

Rabbit Symptoms

Rabbit health symptoms are not always obvious and may not appear until the advanced stages of a disease. This is a survival reflex, with rabbits showing no overt indications of pain or illness. Because of this, it's important to watch your rabbit carefully for obvious signs of disease such as:

  • lethargy
  • appetite loss
  • pain when walking (limp)
  • problems urinating
  • teeth grinding
  • hair loss

Seek emergency rabbit health care if you see any of the following symptoms:

  • if the rabbit is unresponsive
  • if you believe the rabbit is in a coma
  • tilted head or lean (caused by middle ear infection, parasites that invade the brain or head injury)
  • bleeding that will not stop
  • heatstroke
  • body temperature below 99F (37.2C)
  • collapse: caused by prolonged anorexia, urinary obstruction, trauma, heat stress, gastrointestinal problems, respiratory problems
If you see these rabbit symptoms, seek medical care as soon as possible:
  • rabbit diarrhea that is severe
  • maggots
  • breathing or respiratory problems
  • constipation
  • behavior change

Rabbit Body Temperature

A normal rabbit rectal temperature is between 101F and 104F. You can take a rectal temperature with a digital thermometer.  If the temperature is 104F or higher be sure to see a veterinarian.

Rabbit Heatstroke:

One risk to rabbits is heatstroke. Rabbits doe not sweat like people, making it more difficult for an animal to control body temperature. The one exception in rabbits is the ability to sweat through the ears. They can regulate their temperature by drinking water and through heavy breathing. Symptoms also include high body temperature. To lower the rabbits temperature, apply cool water to the body. Prevention is to avoid the problem by providing a rabbit with cool water and shade in the rabbit cage

Rabbit Dental Disease

One of the most common types of diseases seen in pet rabbits is dental disease. Rabbits have continually growing teeth and require appropriate chewing materials to help keep their teeth properly worn down. The absence of appropriate chewing materials can cause the teeth to overgrow, leading to a condition called malocclusion. Rabbit teeth will naturally grow approximately 4 inches per year.  Genetics are also thought to contribute to the development of malocclusion. Signs of malocclusion include sudden weight loss, difficulty chewing food, and/or visualization of the incisors when the mouth is closed. Malocclusion can occur with the incisors (the front teeth) or the molars (the cheek teeth). If your veterinarian suspects malocclusion, he or she will perform a thorough oral exam, including a speculum for visualization of the cheek teeth. Treatment of malocclusion involves extraction or trimming and filing of the teeth. If left untreated, malocclusion can lead to oral abscesses, severe malnutrition, and even death.

For more on rabbit health and teeth, listen to this AVMA podcast on rabbit dental care:


rabbit teeth
A rabbit health issue where the teeth that grew too long. Rabbits need access to grass or something to chew on in order to keep teeth at the normal length

Rabbit Skin Diseases

Skin diseases are also very common in rabbits. Often, rabbit health issues such as skin diseases are parasitic in nature as described below:

Rabbit Fleas and Mites

Just as in the cat and dog, flea dermatitis is one of the most common types of skin disease. Rabbits are just as habitable to the flea as a dog or cat, and fleas can easily be transmitted between animals within a household. Mites are also fairly common in rabbits, particularly the ear mite. Fleas and mites both cause intense itching, and both are visible with the naked eye. Fleas are small, dark-colored, and flat. Mites are even smaller and white in color. Fleas are treated with a topical veterinary flea product, such as Advantage®. Remember that every pet in the house needs to be treated, even if the fleas are only visible on one pet. Mites are treated with injections of ivermectin, which can be given by your veterinarian.

Rabbit Ear Mites

Rabbit ear mites will cause a crusting in the ears. (Psoroptes cuniculi). These are not the same mites that cause dog mite problems. In addition to crusting, symptoms include ear scratching and shaking. Treatment includes ear cleaning with mineral oil. Advanced cases require prescription medications such as the ivermectin mentioned above. A rabbit suffering from ear mites should be kept away from other rabbits until the treatment has been completed.

Rabbit Skin Abscesses

Skin abscesses are bumps which appear just under the skin in either an area that has been injured to where bacteria has taken hold. The lumps will feel solid. They do not cause the rabbit pain with touched. An abscess can also form behind the eye, causes the eyes to bulge. Rabbit skin abscesses are treated by draining the abscess and then with antibiotics.  The disease is prevented by keeping the rabbit cage clean.

Rabbit Coccidia

Coccidia in rabbits is an intestinal parasite.  A type of rabbit coccidia can inhabit the liver causing an enlarged liver, inhibiting a rabbit's growth. Diagnosis of liver disease is through a fecal examination. Intestinal infestations are often asymptomatic (shows no symptoms). Symptoms in young rabbits include diarrhea and weight loss.  Treatment is with a medication that kills parasites such as trimethoprim-sulfa. The rabbit health disease Coccidia is prevented by maintaining a hygienic hutch/cage, including the removal of feces.

Rabbit Diarrhea

Rabbit diarrhea is a symptom of some other disease or problem. Symptoms of rabbit diarrhea include soft or loose stools, and an increase in bowel movements. Causes include a high carbohydrate diet with low amounts of fiber.

Rabbit Diarrhea Age 1 to 14 Days

Diarrhea in baby rabbits is usually caused by intestinal bacteria (escherischia coli). All rabbits in a litter are usually effected.

Rabbit Diarrhea: Weaning Rabbits

Diarrhea in weaning rabbits is usually caused by bacterial enteritis.

Diarrhea in Adult Rabbits

There are several causes of rabbit diarrhea in adults:

    • Enteritis: inflammation of the rabbit's small intestine. It is #1 cause of death in weaning rabbits. Causes include improper feeding, such as foods that cannot easily be digested by young rabbits. Antibiotic use can also trigger the condition.
    • Enterotoxebenemia: condition in rabbits where the blood contains a toxin produced in the intestines. Rabbits that have just been weaned have the highest risk.
    • Hairballs
    • Foreign Objects or Bodies: Items the rabbit swallowed such as carpet fibers or plastic (rabbits like to chew). Symptoms include abdominal pain, reduced appetite, and no bowel movements. Diagnosis is with an X-Ray and surgery if required to remove the foreign object.
    • Dietary Change: sudden changes in diet can result in stomach problems

Rabbit Hair Loss

There are several causes of rabbit hair loss.  These include:

  • Dominant rabbits pulling out the hair of subordinates
  • Pregnant rabbits pull out their own hair
  • Low fiber diets
  • Fur mites
  • Ringworm
  • Injuries or skin wounds
  • Skin Infection

Cancer in Rabbits

rabbit testicular cancer
Cancer in 5 year old Giant Rabbit due to testicular tumors. Right rabbit testicle enlarged due to tumor (rabbit cancer). Testicle on left is a normal size.
Source: Washington State University

A third type of disease that is commonly seen in pet rabbits is cancer. Tumors of any body system can occur in rabbits, just as in any other species. Signs of internal cancers can be vague. If you notice that your rabbit seems lethargic or if he is not eating, that could indicate cancer or a variety of other diseases and he should be seen by a veterinarian. External cancers, such as skin tumors or mammary tumors in female rabbits are often visible and palpable. Uterine cancer, which is frequently seen in un-spayed female rabbits, is often accompanied by an abnormal vaginal discharge or bleeding. Any abnormal growths or discharge in the female rabbit should be evaluated by a veterinarian. Additionally, female rabbits should always be spayed to reduce the incidence of reproductive cancers.

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References:

The Rabbit Handbook
Gendron, Karen

The Collapsed Rabbit
O'Mailley, Bairbre, MBV CertVR, MRCVS
Assoc. Lecturer Exotic Species
School of Veterinary Medicine, Dublin, Ireland

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