Celebrating Rabbits

Caring for An Aging Rabbit

Companion rabbits are living longer, healthier lives thanks to both medical advances and a better understanding of rabbits’ nature and needs. Though some live past age fifteen, the average lifespan for a rabbit who receives good care is eight to twelve years. Some rabbits will live shorter lives, depending on individual characteristics, genetics, care, and breeding (specific physical traits may result in medical problems).

Signs of Aging

We generally attribute to aging the following hallmarks: thinning fur and color change, slower movements and less agility, venturing shorter distances, resting more often during normally active times, changes in eating and drinking habits, and increased health problems. Some rabbits will exhibit such signs; others won’t. As rabbit lovers know, every bunny is a distinct individual—and the pattern of aging will reflect his or her physical constitution, temperament, and the care you provide.

Brief Discussion of Some Medical Conditions

It’s not unusual for a middle-aged rabbit to exhibit some signs of aging. Although health problems can plague a rabbit at any age, certain medical conditions—such as cardiovascular disease—are more likely to show up when a rabbit is older.

Obesity contributes to many problems, including arthritis, cardiovascular disease, pododermatitis (foot infection often exacerbated by poor husbandry), and hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver), a life-threatening disease. Obese rabbits are also at higher risk during surgery. (Keep in mind that an “overweight” rabbit is above his or her ideal weight, which can compromise health. An “obese” rabbit is at the upper extreme of the overweight scale.)

Arthritis can be debilitating for a rabbit and may require an anti-inflammatory medication. Dr. Bill Guerrera, whose patient roster is 60% rabbits [many from the Colorado (USA) House Rabbit Society], mentions this:

The most common problem I encounter with our geriatric rabbits is osteoarthritis, especially in the lower back. The rabbits tend to develop spondylosis, a progressive degeneration and fusing of the spine. The condition can cause chronic pain and a reluctance to hop, which in turn can lead to muscle weakness and atrophy—causing further instability and progression of the spondylosis.

Fortunately, there have been some significant advances in treating chronic pain in pets. NSAIDs [non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs] such as meloxicam have proven useful in rabbits. Other approaches such as acupuncture and nutraceuticals [veterinary-quality nutritional supplements] are showing very promising results. It’s important to realize that nutraceuticals are currently not well-regulated and sometimes less-expensive varieties may have inaccurate concentrations or be more poorly assimilated by the rabbit. Check with your veterinarian for approved supplements.

While it’s important to maintain these rabbits as pain-free as possible, it’s also important that they exercise to prevent muscle atrophy. When appropriate, locate litter boxes and bowls so that the rabbit has to move (even a little) to get to them. Try to capture his interest with toys and playtime, stimulating his mind and his muscles each day. Massage may help prevent muscles that are not being used from becoming stiff and painful.

If your rabbit shows any sign of paralysis, secondary problems such as urine burn and pressure sores will likely result. Keeping your rabbit clean and dry is extremely important, as urine burn can result in painful blisters and infection. The vet may have to clip fur around the genital area, and gentle washings of the area may be necessary. Some topical treatments are quite effective, and diapers (nappies) are an option for some rabbits.

Dental disorders can be caused by genetics, trauma, or illness, but are most often attributed to acquired dental disease, a condition that progresses over time. Dr. Thomas Chlebecek, who treats rabbits on a daily basis at his practice in Hawaii, discusses common dental problems:

When possible, I trim incisors with the rabbit awake, wrapping him in a towel bunny-burrito style and then holding his head to prevent mouth injury from movement. If use of a water-cooled drill is necessary, the rabbit is sedated first—because of the noise, spraying water, and length of treatment.

Extraction of the incisors is an option if a rabbit requires frequent trims and they are stressful for him. Even without front teeth, the rabbit is able to eat on his own, picking up food with his lips and moving it back to his molars for mastication. It will be helpful to chop food into small pieces first, which is the primary function of the incisors.

Sharp points on the molars can lacerate the tongue and cheek, causing severe pain. Filing the teeth and restoring their natural shape generally returns the rabbit to health. In the case of an infection or a broken or loose molar, it may be necessary to extract the tooth. A veterinary surgeon should be consulted, as the surgery can be difficult, extraction is painful, and the post-operative care extensive.

Serious dental disease from any cause can lead to the most severe complication: dental abscess and resulting osteomyelitis (bone infection). Unless there are genetic or medical reasons for the problem, preventing dental disorders starts with feeding an appropriate diet. Dr. Chlebecek adds:

We know that a diet comprised primarily of grass hays and leafy green vegetables is the most appropriate for our companion rabbits. They should have unlimited access to quality hay so that they can browse throughout the day.

Though it may be necessary to feed commercial pellets—especially when the quality of hay is poor or if a rabbit has pain and is unable to eat the hay—intake should be limited. For most adult rabbits, I recommend grass-hay-based pellets. Select a brand that does not contain any legumes or grains; as Dr. Harcourt-Brown noted in her medical text, those ingredients provide a nutritionally deficient diet for the rabbit.

Another problem that may result from a dental disorder is dacryocystitis (infection of the lacrimal sac), which may result in a blocked nasolacrimal (tear) duct. Sometimes a duct can be opened with flushing; if the problem is caused by a tooth root, flushing will not resolve it. Radiographs (X-rays) will help your vet determine the cause of the disorder.  Other eye problems include conjunctivitis, epiphora (tears overflowing onto the face), corneal damage, cataracts, uveitis, and retrobulbar mass (a mass behind the eye, generally caused by an abscess or cancer).

Respiratory disease is a somewhat common infection in rabbits. Sneezing, nasal discharge, and matting on the rabbit’s front paws are common signs. A cough may signal a deeper infection.

Other chronic diseases may also affect our beloved companions, including kidney disease, cancer, and cardiovascular disease. Dr. Hillary Cook, a veterinarian certified in veterinary acupuncture and the use of traditional Chinese herbs, sees many rabbits in her Virginia (USA) practice. She advises:

When a rabbit drinks more water than usual, I suspect renal disease. It’s often a secondary condition so pinpointing the cause is important. I’ve found that rehmannia, a Chinese herb that supports the kidneys and boosts kidney function, helps improve the affected kidney’s function and prevent worsening of the disease. 

Milk thistle is an herb that’s very effective in supporting the liver.  Liver disease can be a primary or secondary problem to cardiovascular disease, infectious disease, or cancer.

The two most common cancers, uterine adenocarcinoma and mammary adenocarcinoma, are generally prevented when females are spayed before the age of one year (most vets recommend spaying at approximately six months of age). When a rabbit is spayed after one year or remains unaltered, the risk for the cancers increases. Dr. Cook continues:

Cancer happens to be one of the diseases that may not show early warning signs. I recently treated a happy little rabbit who all of a sudden showed signs of paralysis. When it was clear that he would not recover, the rabbit was euthanized. The necropsy report showed multicentric cancer, though the rabbit had not previously exhibited any mobility issues or signs of pain.

Tumors are not uncommon; treatment is based on the type and location. There are other cancers that affect rabbits, such as skin cancer; some of the cancers are treated with the same medications used for cats and dogs.

The threat of cancer is a real worry for some people, but I always tell my clients that their rabbit is far more likely to have a dental or other problem from a poor diet than to have cancer. I think it’s important to emphasize what we can do to prevent common ailments and diseases.

Many times I can avoid the adverse effects of long-term medication use on more-sensitive rabbits by using alternative treatments. For example, I most commonly use acupuncture for treating arthritis, boosting immune function, and for nasal congestion. It can be used as a sole treatment, in conjunction with Chinese herbs, or with conventional medicine such as antibiotics.

Heart disease affects some rabbits and is generally diagnosed and treated with the same drugs as are used for cats and dogs. If a rabbit is overweight, it’s very important to get him on the proper diet and slowly work toward the desired weight. Keeping him stress-free is also a critical part of the treatment.

Abscesses, though they may be contained and removed with good results, can sometimes become chronic and very difficult to treat. Antibiotics may be effective against the infection, but long-term use is sometimes not tolerated by the rabbit. Surgery may or may not be an option. You and your veterinarian will need to devise a plan that supports the rabbit and keeps her comfortable. If the infection is caused by a contagious agent, it’s important to devise a plan that keeps other rabbits in the household healthy as well.

What to Watch For

Any deviation from your rabbit’s normal behavior may signal a problem. Here is a quick guide to monitoring health changes in your rabbit.

  • Have his appetite or eating habits changed? (If he has quit eating, it’s a medical emergency.) Is he eager to eat but, upon feeding, seems disinterested in even his favorite food? Does he drop food?
  • Is he drooling? Is the fur around his mouth discolored or wet?
  • Is your bunny drinking more or less water?
  • Is she urinating more frequently or straining to urinate? Are you seeing any blood or blood clots in the urine?
  • Has her fecal output changed or is there a change in the size (smaller) or consistency (harder) of fecal pellets? (Cessation of the pellets or diarrhea signals a medical emergency.)
  • Is the rabbit eating her cecotropes? Are the cecotropes unusually soft and matting her fur, necessitating routine cleanings of the hindquarters?
  • Is he sitting in an unnatural position or adopting an elevated posture for breathing?
  • Is he reluctant or slow to move around, or does he display an unnatural gait?
  • Is he showing any signs of pain? Is he intolerant of being touched?
  • Has she lost weight?
  • Is her fur dirty, matted, or falling out?
  • Are her ears exuding any discharge or do they smell sour?
  • Do you feel any lumps or bumps anywhere on his body?
  • Is your rabbit suffering from dribbling urine, burning the skin around the urethra and causing infection?
  • Is he coughing or sneezing? Is there any discharge from the nose or eyes?

Working with Your Veterinarian

Finding a qualified veterinarian to treat your rabbit is of utmost importance. Rabbits are considered “exotics” in medical terminology, and they have specific medical needs. An experienced rabbit vet will listen to the signs you describe, perform tests to determine whether the condition is primary or secondary, treat your rabbit accordingly, and devise a home-care plan.

If your rabbit is ill, one way to minimize the stress of frequent vet visits is to learn how to administer subcutaneous fluids and injections at home. Knowing how to take your rabbit’s temperature is also recommended, and it’s a good idea to have a nutritive food on hand that can be syringe-fed in an emergency.

As your rabbit starts to age, take him to the vet on a routine basis, getting baseline blood and urine reports so that if necessary you and your vet will have a point of comparison. If you have more than one rabbit, get baseline reports for each because what is normal for one bunny may not be normal for another.

Devise a record-keeping system to keep track of your notes, your bunny’s weight, changes in behavior and activity, blood or urine work-ups, and vet recommendations so that you have a handy reference in case you suspect changes in your rabbit.

Helping Your Rabbit Grow Old with Grace and Dignity

Do rabbits always show signs of aging as they increase in years? Not necessarily. When my mini lop Oscar-Schneidig turned ten, his fur was still luxuriant and the same color it had always been. He remained inquisitive, sweet, and willful, exploring the house as he wished.

As is true of all animals, the aging process is an individual one. I believe that it is our responsibility as loving caregivers to assist our rabbits in living with grace and dignity. Preventive care is our strongest tool in this task. While we cannot completely prevent our companions from getting diseases, we can support their health with intelligent choices.

Feed a diet low in calories and high in fiber, which will help maintain normal weight. Make sure there is always access to fresh water and unlimited amounts of grass hay. Make it easy to enter and leave the litter box. Keep the rabbit’s fur dry, clean, and free of mats; also keep his living area clean. Provide daily activity times with plenty of exercise options. 

Regularly pet, hold, and groom your rabbit. If she’s not socialized well enough to do that, it’s important to first build her trust. Perform physical check-ups on a regular basis: weigh your rabbit, smell her ears, look at her front teeth, check for lumps and bumps, look at her fur, clip the nails. Share the magic of massage; The Relaxed Rabbit by Chandra Moira Beal can get you started.

Keep your rabbit happy! A good environment (as stress-free as possible), social interaction and playtime, and intriguing spaces to explore will help keep him mentally and emotionally happy.

If your beloved rabbit is alone while you are engaged in work and other activities, consider adopting a compatible bunny buddy. After the two have bonded, they will play, snuggle, groom, and comfort one another. (If you don’t know how to pair rabbits, seek assistance from someone who does.) If you are concerned that a second rabbit might deflect your rabbit’s interest in you, never fear. Rabbits are communal creatures with lots of love to go around. As long as you initiate daily time together, you and your rabbit will continue to have a good relationship. And with two bunnies, you’ll have twice the fun!

 

Warm thanks to the veterinarians who offered their expertise for this article

References

  • Capello, Vittorio with Gracis, Margherita. Rabbit and Rodent Dentistry Handbook. Zoological Education Network, 2005.
  • Harcourt-Brown, Frances. Textbook of Rabbit Medicine. Butterworth-Heinemann, 2002.
  • Harriman, Marinell. House Rabbit Handbook: How to Live with an Urban Rabbit. Drollery Press, 2005.
  • Harvey, Carolynn. “Rabbits: Geriatrics and Chronic Disease”
  • Jenkins, Jeffrey R. “Care of the Elderly Rabbit”
  • Quesenberry, Katherine E. and Carpenter, James W., Eds. Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery, Second Edition. Saunders, 2003.
  • Rosenthal, Karen L. “How to Manage the Geriatric Rabbit”
  • TeSelle, Elizabeth in consultation with Cindy McBee, DVM. “To a Long Life: Geriatric Workups”

This article was first published in Issue 6, Spring/Summer 2008, of Bunny Mad (“The magazine for bunny mad people!”), a United Kingdom publication. www.bunnycreations.co.uk. Used with permission.