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by Maren Bell Jones DVM, MA
In the last issue of Pet Project Magazine, we discussed common issues related to the keeping of pet rabbits. Many diseases that we see in rabbits can be attributed to less- than- ideal husbandry. When evaluating a rabbit that presents to a veterinarian for an illness, one of the first things we do is check the rabbit's diet and how it is housed, as that can lead to clues on why the rabbit is not feeling well.
The rabbit and its cousins have a fairly unique digestive tract. While many people incorrectly assume rabbits are rodents (they are actually classified as lagomorphs), rabbits have a gastrointestinal tract more similar to horses than to rodents. Their whole GI tract from teeth to tail end is built for eating mostly high- fiber grasses. Many problems arise when well-meaning owners attempt to alter the rabbit's natural diet by substituting in too many pellets, iceberg lettuce, root vegetables, or non-nutritious snacks.
High- quality timothy hay that has not been sprayed with chemicals and is free of mold should always be available to your rabbit. This promotes proper digestion, which is essential to the health of your bunny. Ensuring a proper hay is always available may prevent gastric stasis syndrome, where the rabbit goes off their feed and water and produces no stool due to stoppage of the GI tract.
Always ask your veterinarian before trying any new medication with your rabbit, especially antibiotics. Certain antibiotics can be deadly to rabbits because they upset the delicate balance of normal bacteria. This allows harmful bacteria such as E. coli to colonize the rabbit's gut and may give them fatal diarrhea.
"Snuffles" is a descriptive term used for a rabbit with a respiratory infection. These are most commonly caused by a bacterial species called Pasteurella multocida, but can be due to other species of bacteria as well. Bunnies affected by respiratory disease often have nasal discharge around the nose, conjunctivitis around the eyes, sneezing, snorting, matted fur on their face and paws, and low appetite. Head tilt is also seen in some rabbits. Antibiotics from your veterinarian are the treatment of choice. There is currently no reliable vaccine to prevent respiratory disease in rabbits, so it may be prevented by strictly quarantining new rabbits to your home to a different area of the house for close observation before placing them with your other rabbits.
Just as a rabbit's GI tract is somewhat similar to a horse's, their teeth are as well. Rabbits have four incisors (two large, visible teeth and, two small, hard- to- see "peg teeth") used for gnawing and a set of cheek teeth are used for chewing. As almost all the teeth in a rabbit are hard to access and rabbits often object to their mouth being handled, one of the first indications of dental disease in rabbits may be weight loss if they are not chewing and eating properly. Weigh your rabbit regularly to monitor their food intake.
Malocclusions occur when the teeth do not line up correctly. Keeping your rabbit on a proper diet of highfiber hay and a minimum of pelleted foods will help your rabbit wear their teeth naturally. Providing natural, untreated wood blocks in their cage also helps keep their teeth in proper shape. However, malocclusion may also be due to a genetic predisposition or an injury. Maloccluded teeth may also be painful, as the teeth grow in an incorrect way, causing sharp points that cut the rabbit's tongue or inside of their cheek. Treatment includes gradual removal of the incorrectly growing teeth by your veterinarian under sedation or anesthesia so your bunny can eat more comfortably. This procedure is similar to equilibrating or "floating" a horse's teeth.
One of the most common skin diseases is caused by excessive moisture, such as on the chin or neck. Females with excessive dewlaps under their chin may have trouble with this if they drinking out of a water bowl instead of a bottle. "Slobbers" can also be caused by drooling from dental disease, so have your veterinarian check out their teeth as well.
Ulcerative pododermatitis (sore hocks) are very common in rabbits kept in cages with wire bottoms. This can range from relatively mild irritation on their back legs to deep, infected ulcers. Depending on the severity, the back legs may need radiographs (x-rays) to check to make sure any infection has not entered the bones. The treatment can be extensive for the more difficult cases and prevention is key. Overweight rabbits or large-breed rabbits that are large breeds seem to be more prone to sore hocks. Avoid wire-bottom cages when possible and make sure to keep bedding clean and dry. Litter training your rabbit may help prevent this disease as well.
Some rabbits may "barber" or excessively groom one another in times of stress or with inappropriate low-fiber diets. Separation of the two rabbits may be necessary and be sure to provide with the proper hay to prevent barbering.
Just as in other companion animals or as in humans, cancer is prevalent in pet rabbits. The most common cancer in female rabbits is uterine cancer. In certain breeds of rabbits, 50 percent or more of intact female rabbits over the age of four years old may have this type of cancer. The first signs noted in pet rabbits are bloody urine or bloody vaginal discharge. However, occasionally rabbits may have orange, brown, or red urine normally, which is thought to be influenced by their diet. You may bring in a sample to your veterinarian to be sure. They may also have poor appetite and have lower activity levels, especially if the cancer spreads to the lungs, which has a very poor prognosis. Spaying is the both the prevention and treatment of choice for pet rabbits and should be performed before age two to prevent this type of cancer.
As is the case with keeping any species of pet, proper husbandry, nutrition, and regular checkups from your veterinarian may prevent many of these problems. We recommend a check up for your rabbit once a year to keep them happy and healthy.
Note: This article appeared in the June/July 2013 edition of Pet Project Magazine