Is your bunny healthy?
This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary
care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.
The basic physical exam
Start without touching your bunny. Watch your bunny’s activity level,
attitude and breathing. A normal bunny is aware of what is going on
around him or her. In upright-eared bunnies, the ears are perked up and
the bunny is paying attention to what is going on around him. He should
be able to walk around on the floor without dragging any legs or feet
and be curious about what he finds there. The bunny’s breathing should
be even and regular. A nervous bunny will often sniff the air quickly,
but it should never seem to be fighting to take a breath.
To do an exam, start at the front of the bunny and work toward the rear.
Look at your bunny’s eyes, nose and ears. All should be clean; there should
not be any matted fur, which can indicate a discharge. There should also not
be any abnormal smells coming from any of these places on your bunny. The
eyes should not be cloudy and the rabbit should be able to see well. You can
evaluate vision by watching your bunny move around the floor, possibly
putting obstacles in his way. The nose should be clean with no matted hair
or crusting below his nostrils. The bunny should also not be sneezing more
than once or twice in a row. The bunny should hold his ears evenly and
should not be sensitive about having his ears touched. Never try to clean
your bunny’s ears with q-tips. If the bunny jumps, you can puncture an
eardrum and possibly cause your bunny to become deaf.
Next look at your bunny’s teeth. You will only be able to see the front
teeth, called incisors. These teeth should be even (both top teeth the same
length and both bottom teeth the same length). There should not be much food
stuck between the teeth. There should also not be any cracks in the teeth
and the teeth should not be able to be moved. Back teeth usually require a
trip to a veterinarian or a very experienced bunny person to examine them
and some special equipment.
Now you can move on to the rest of the bunny. Check the chin and insides
of the front legs for matted fur, which can indicate drooling and teeth
problems. Also, check the bottoms of the front feet for redness, stuff
coming from them or pain when the feet are pushed on. These can be signs of
pododermatitis. Also look at the bottoms of the back feet for the same
signs. Usually, bunnies will develop pododermatitis on the back feet, not
the front. Next, look at your bunnies’ stomach (underside) and behind.
Again, there should not be any matted hair or material (usually feces) stuck
to the hair around this area. This can be a sign of obesity or a sign of
Finally, look at the bunny from the top. The bunny should usually be
slightly pear shaped. If your bunny looks more like an apple with a head, it
is probably too fat and needs to go on a diet.
Now that you know what you are looking for when doing a physical exam,
lets talk about some of the diseases that your bunny may get, what causes
them, and what you can do to prevent your bunny from getting them.
There are many factors that contribute to tooth problems in bunnies. Most
bunnies are fed diets that are high in pellets, but lacking in fiber.
Remember, wild bunnies don’t have someone feeding them pellets. Bunny teeth
grow during their entire life, so they won’t wear out their teeth during
their life of eating tough grasses. The lack of tough stuff to help wear the
rabbit’s teeth down is a major cause of overlong teeth.
Some rabbits are genetically predisposed to develop teeth problems. Lop
eared rabbits especially, have lower jaws that are shortened compared to
other bunnies. Though this might not be enough to see, it is enough to
affect the way the teeth wear on each other and abnormal teeth can develop.
Systemic diseases may result in teeth problems if the animal is not
feeling well enough to eat a normal amount of fiber. Conditions which may
cause this include any stressful event or any disease that decreases the
Finally, trauma can result in teeth that do not grow normally or do not
grow at all. Trauma can result from anything from someone trying to use the
wrong tools to trim a rabbit’s teeth to suffering a fall from a few feet up
where the bunny can damage the roots from where the tooth grows.
If your rabbit has tooth problems, the bunny will generally not eat as
well as he did or may only eat the softer foods that you offer. It may also
show signs of drooling where the hair on it’s chin becomes matted and you
may notice the rabbit grinding its teeth or a bad smell coming from the
Teeth in this condition, generally require work by a veterinarian to
attempt to even out the tooth length, but may result in severe lesions or
abscesses in the mouth that the veterinarian may not be able to help with.
You may also find that these severe problems require trimming the teeth
often, a procedure that requires a vet visit, anesthesia, and trimming every
month or so.
To prevent tooth problems, make sure that your rabbits have access to
lots of good quality grass hay, not too many pellets and that you check the
rabbit often. The sooner you notice tooth problems, the less likely that
they will be severe enough to require years worth of work. Unfortunately, we
cannot put braces on bunnies.
Obesity is the second most common problem seen in pet bunnies. This
condition again usually results when an animal is being fed too many
pellets. Rabbit pellets are high in calories and low in fiber. Obesity can
also result when a rabbit is kept in a cage for most of it’s life and is not
allowed much time outside of its cage to exercise.
Obesity can contribute to many other health problems. It can contribute
to stomach and urinary tract problems because the animal doesn’t get a
chance to move around, which helps keep his intestines and urinary tract
moving at a normal rate. It also can contribute to pododermatitis (foot
problems) because there is more weight resting on the feet than there should
be. Aside from making your animal unhealthy in these ways, it can also make
it so your animal is less able to survive a trip to the vet when it becomes
necessary. A rabbit that has had no exercise has a weak heart and is prone
to heart attack at the time of a trip to the vet and is more likely to die
under anesthesia if this becomes necessary. A rabbit that is too fat also
has difficulty grooming itself and you may have the joy of cleaning your
rabbit’s rear end frequently to prevent conditions called urine scald (where
the urine that the animal can not clean off his fur, burns the skin
underneath) and fly strike (where the feces that can become matted in the
fur attracts flies which lay their eggs). You then get maggots eating the
unhealthy flesh of your rabbit’s behind.
To prevent your animal from becoming obese, it needs time out of the cage
to exercise. Wild rabbits have a home range of about 2 acres and would cover
this range at least once every day foraging for food. A big difference when
compared to our rabbits where the average rabbit cage size is about 2ft by 2
ft. We also need to control our animals’ diets very closely. Unless you are
breeding your rabbits, normal rabbits do NOT need to eat rabbit pellets.
These are very high in calories and our usual rabbits don’t get the
opportunity to use all the calories that they consume. You can feed some
pellets to rabbits that are housed outdoors during the winter, but you have
to watch their weight closely.
To tell if your rabbit is obese is sometimes not easy. Look at the rabbit
from the top. It should be pear shaped, not shaped like an apple with a
head. If the dewlap is large enough that it touches the rabbit’s elbows when
it is sitting up, it is obese. If you see extra skin that touches the ground
around the back end of the rabbit, it is obese. You should be able to feel
the rabbit’s ribs without seeing them. Rex rabbits are particularly prone to
Pododermatitis is unfortunately a very common problem. This is an
infection of the feet sometimes known as sore hocks. This is very commonly
seen in overweight rabbits, but can also be seen in rabbits that are on all
wire bottom cages with nothing to sit on to get off the wire, or in rabbits
in a cage with a completely solid bottom that is not cleaned often enough.
Urine is very irritating to tissue and will burn, so if the animal can’t or
won’t get out of the urine (if the most comfortable place to sit in the cage
is the litter box) the urine can burn the bottom of the feet.
This condition can range from very mild where changing the caging
situation may be enough to let the animal heal to extremely severe where the
bones in the feet have been affected and may require amputation of toes, the
foot or the entire leg. I have seen an animal with disease so bad that it
would have required amputation of three of it’s legs. We had to put that
animal to sleep.
Prevent pododermatitis by making sure that your animal doesn’t get
overweight, that its cage is cleaned often and that it has something besides
wire to sit on that can be cleaned or changed regularly. Remember, wood
absorbs urine and doesn’t dry quickly, so it isn’t a good thing for the
animal to sit on. Cardboard is easily changed daily when it becomes soiled.
A mat made of t-shirt material or a pillowcase over a few layers of
terrycloth works well too, and you can change it every day and clean it in
the washing machine.
If you’ve been doing bunnies very long, you’ve heard of Pasteurella, also
called "Snuffles". This is a bacterium that can cause many problems in
bunnies. Unfortunately, most bunnies are exposed to Pasteurella when they
are babies, so there is no way to keep your bunny from being exposed. The
trick is to keep your animals from coming down with clinical Pasteurella
where you see signs of the disease. Pasteurella usually rears it’s head in
two ways. One, it will be seen as respiratory disease which may range from
so mild that there is a little discharge from the nose and eyes and the
bunny sneezes occasionally, to so severe that the rabbit develops severe
pneumonia which may result in the death of the animal. The second most
common way that we will see Pasteurella is in the formation of abscesses (a
collection of diseased and dead infected material (pus)). These often form
in the jaw and neck area, but can develop anywhere. They can be very
difficult to get rid of and many rabbits with jaw abscesses have had part or
all of their lower jaw surgically removed to try and keep the abscess from
To try and keep your bunny from developing a clinical Pasteurella
infection, keep him as healthy in all other ways as possible. Often the
animal develops signs of disease at times of stress, meaning times when he
is too hot or too cold, times when he is transported, times when he doesn’t
feel well for other reasons, or when his body has to work too hard to
survive because he is overweight. If your animal is actively showing signs
of disease, please DO NOT take him to any shows. If you do, you may expose
other rabbits to the disease, these rabbits may or may not have already been
infected, but exposing them to it again at a time when they are stressed (a
show) may result in your friend’s rabbit getting sick. You wouldn’t like it
if someone else did it, so don’t do it…
If you notice a runny nose or a lump anywhere on your rabbit, it is best
to take him to a veterinarian. Sometimes the small lump that you can see is
really huge under the skin, but the best chance your bunny has is to have
all the abscess material removed and be put on antibiotics to try and keep
it from getting worse.
Gastrointestinal disease (GI disease) is a general term that includes any
problems with the stomach, intestines, colon, or cecum. This can include
anything from intermittent soft stools to diarrhea. Believe it or not, most
GI disease is again the result of obesity, lack of exercise and high pellet
diets. The rabbit is designed, from its teeth clear through the GI tract to
eat a large amount of high fiber, low calorie food every day. The GI tract
needs the fiber of grasses to push the food through at a normal rate.
Pellets are too "easy" to digest, they don’t have to chew them much, they
don’t have the fiber to keep the track running normally, and they don’t
contain the water that a normal diet would.
An obese animal’s GI tract doesn’t function normally. It’s squished in
too much fat, and the animal can’t move as well as it should which slows
down further the actions of the GI tract, so everything begins to come to a
stand still. The animal may feel bloated, have a tummy ache and without
things moving through at the right rate, there will be growth of bad
bacteria. All animal’s, including us, have bacteria in their GI tracts; it’s
normal. But with bunnies, when their GI tract isn’t moving things through
fast enough, bacteria that can very quickly (in less than 1 day) kill your
rabbit get to take over the other, good bacteria. This happens too, if you
have a bunny that can’t come out to exercise. Lack of exercise makes a
bunny’s GI tract slow and lazy, so we get the same problems.
One of the easiest ways to prevent this is to feed your rabbit lots of
high quality grass hay, very few, if any pellets, and make sure it doesn’t
get fat and has time and room to exercise.
Urinary tract disease is linked to a diet high in pellets, obesity and
lack of exercise. The urinary tract includes everything from the kidneys to
the urine that you see on the cage floor. A common problem that I see is
excessive calcium in the urine. Sometimes this isn’t a problem, but if there
is too much calcium in the urine that you are seeing, there is also too much
calcium in the urine that is in the animal’s bladder. Pellets, since most of
the ones we can get are alfalfa based, are very high in calcium. In most
animals, the extra calcium that the body doesn’t need would never be
absorbed from the food, but in rabbits and guinea pigs, the extra calcium is
absorbed. The body still doesn’t need it though, so it gets rid of all that
extra in the urine. This is what causes your bunny’s urine to look cloudy,
it’s all calcium. When your bunny goes to the bathroom a lot of that calcium
comes out, but a lot of it stays in the bladder. When it does it can become
hard and cause a bladder stone. I’ve seen bladder stones as big as my fist
in bunnies and the only way to get them out is surgery.
Just like with the GI tract, obesity and lack of exercise can cause the
urinary system to slow down and become lazy too. The bladder won’t contract
as hard when the animal urinates so it is going to force less of that
calcium sand out of the bladder and make it more likely that you will get a
bladder stone (the sand can be a problem too). In female bunnies the sand
can come out pretty easy if the bladder is contracting well. In male bunnies
however, since their opening is smaller, the sand can actually get stuck on
the way out. This blocks the bunny’s ability to urinate and is an extreme
emergency. An animal can die in about 3 hours if it can’t urinate.
There are lots of other condition’s that can affect your rabbit,
but you can limit some of the worst by following the practices presented
- Feed diets that are as close as possible to what a wild bunny would
eat. Lots of high fiber hay, about 1 cup of mixed greens (green grass,
dandelion greens (non-treated), exotic lettuces) for each two pounds of
- access to fresh water all the time
- room and time to run around and get some exercise and
- appropriate caging situations ...
... all will help keep your bunny as healthy as possible.
There are always things, that regardless of how well you take care of
your rabbit, may show up at some time. So far, we haven’t found anything
that can be done to keep cancer from showing up, but these steps will help
increase the chances that your bunny will grow to be the healthiest that it
This Pet Health Topic was written by
Dr. Nickol Finch,
Washington State University.
Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to
you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.
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