Updated October 5, 2020
Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of rabbits with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until a rabbit is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy rabbit look and feel like, but familiarizing a rabbit with human handling might help them stay more calm in stressful situations, which is particularly important for rabbits as stress can be highly dangerous to them. Be prepared to check them over at least every six to eight weeks*! Rabbits who spend time outdoors, especially during fly season, will need more regular checks to prevent dangerous issues like flystrike. For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.
Due to rabbits’ fur and many individuals’ aversion to handling, rabbits require close examination to reveal potential ailments and injuries that you may not notice through a cursory observation. As a survival instinct, rabbits are also generally quite adept at masking pain or distress until the symptoms prevent them from hiding it. By paying regular attention to all your rabbit residents, you may see some subtle cues in the event that something is amiss.
A sick, injured, or otherwise distressed rabbit may:
- Avoid contact more often than they used to
- Change their daily schedule or general behavior
- Have labored breathing, coughing, sneezing or a constantly open mouth
- Have matted fur or discharge on the inside of their front paws from rubbing their nose
- Shake or tilt their head
- Be immobile, inactive or unresponsive to your approach (this may indicate a significant health emergency)
- Be sitting far more often than usual
- Seem to have trouble eating
- Have a limp in their step or avoid putting weight on one of their legs
- Have unusual or abnormal droppings including diarrhea, blood in stool, or worms
- Be less hungry or thirsty, or drink water excessively
- Have an abnormally strong or musky odor
- Have an internal body temperature beyond the range of 101.3-104 degrees Fahrenheit (38.5-40 degrees Celsius)
- Have excessively pale skin or mucous membranes
- Vocalize or thump their legs
- Frequently change their position between standing and sitting
- Lose a significant amount of their fur without apparent reason
- Be reluctant or averse to urinating or urinating frequently, or having cloudy urine
- Show signs of incoordination or weakness on a hot day
Conducting The Exam
In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health examination on the rabbit. Generally, the examination should begin at their head, working your way back and down, but depending on the individual, you may want to use whatever order causes the least amount of distress, with ample breaks if necessary. It’s important to keep regular documentation of these checkups, including weight and any abnormal findings, in order to keep an easy-to-follow set of information in case a veterinarian needs the rabbit’s history.
Before stepping into their living space, you should take note of the rabbit’s behavior. Are they acting differently than they usually do? How are they getting along with fellow rabbits? These clues can say a lot about a rabbit’s health.
If necessary, you may have to have a second caregiver on hand to help manage the health examination or help keep the rabbit calm. Once you have the rabbit calm and ready, conduct the following observations:
Most rabbit residents benefit from a gentle occasional brushing, especially longer-haired breeds. NEVER immerse a rabbit in water, because this can cause the individual to go into shock. If necessary, carefully spot clean the individual. Efforts should be made not to move a rabbit onto their back or side during the examination, which can cause distress in rabbits.
Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a rabbit and what good rabbit health looks like, you’ll be an excellent rabbit health ally in no time!
Writing It All Down
As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your rabbit health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable rabbit health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!