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    Daily Observation For Rabbit Health And Well-Being

    a large white rabbit lays down in a carpeted room
    Gloria rabbit. Photo courtesy of Christine Fox
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    Veterinary Review Initiative
    This resource has been reviewed for accuracy and clarity by a qualified Doctor of Veterinary Medicine with farmed animal sanctuary experience as of April 2024. Check out more information on our Veterinary Review Initiative here!

    If you’ve spent much time looking through our offerings, you likely know the important role routine health checks play in keeping residents healthy and catching signs of concern early. Performing health checks regularly is imperative, but this should not be the only tool you use to monitor your residents’ health and well-being. The importance of thoughtful daily observation cannot be overstated. While some issues may be difficult to detect without a hands-on evaluation, other potential signs of concern could be missed during a health check, particularly those that manifest as slight changes in behavior or activity. By incorporating both daily observation and routine health checks into your care protocols, you are more likely to catch issues that develop in the period between health checks, as well as issues that are unlikely to be detected without a hands-on evaluation.

    When it comes to daily observation, the keyword is “thoughtful.” Daily observation of residents must be more than just looking at them. Anyone caring for an animal, regardless of their species or breed, should be trained to observe the individuals in their care for behaviors and physical signs that are abnormal for the species, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species or breed and their warning signs. Of equal importance is getting to know the individuals being cared for and watching for things that are out of the ordinary for that particular individual. To read more about refining your observation skills, check out our resource here.

    Familiarize Yourself With “Normal”

    In order to identify signs of concern, it’s helpful to first consider how a healthy rabbit typically looks and acts. While all rabbits are unique individuals, there are some general characteristics that most healthy rabbits will present. As we mentioned above, it’s important to learn what is “normal” for each individual in your care.

    With that in mind, in general, a healthy rabbit should:

    • Be alert and active
    • Have clear, bright eyes
    • Have a clear nose that twitches regularly while they are awake and active (a healthy rabbit’s nose may twitch anywhere from 20-120 times in one minute)
    • Have soft, shiny hair
    • Be excited to eat and should be seen eating throughout the day
    • Produce a large quantity of small, round, well-formed fecal pellets that are fairly uniform in size, color, and texture (rabbits typically produce approximately 150 fecal pellets during a 24-hour period)

    Potential Signs Of Concern

    Now that we’ve got an idea of what is “normal,” let’s look at potential signs of concern. As prey animals, rabbits will often hide any signs of illness or injury until they are no longer able to do so. This means that once you notice something is obviously wrong, the issue may already be severe. In order to catch and respond to health issues as soon as possible, it will be important to recognize the more subtle signs that something may be amiss. 

    As such, it’s important to get to know the individuals in your care so you can recognize when they are not acting like themselves. Caregivers who really spend time getting to know their residents in terms of their personality, typical behaviors, physical characteristics, and routines can sometimes catch when something is wrong before there are clear signs of illness or distress. Sometimes, it’s something as subtle as a change in their daily routine. Any time you notice a change in an individual’s typical behavior or routine, it’s a good idea to perform a health check and keep a very close eye on them. Be sure to bring any concerns to your veterinarian

    While not an exhaustive list, during your daily observation of your residents, be on the lookout for the following:

    General signs of pain or discomfort, such as…

    • Tooth grinding
    • Rapid, shallow breathing
    • Painful vocalizations such as screaming or whimpering
    • Changes to how they respond to handling, such as vocalizing or flinching when handled

    Changes to their eating and drinking…

    • Disinterest in eating or eating less than usual 
    • Difficulty eating or swallowing
    • Not drinking water or increased thirst
    • Not eating cecotropes (sometimes called “night droppings” or “cecal pellets”) – these are often smaller, softer, and bunched together and have a fermented scent. These provide important nutrients for the rabbits!

    Not Eating Is A Health Emergency!
    If a rabbit is not eating, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately. This is an emergency and could lead to serious, potentially irreversible gastrointestinal issues. If you are planning to care for rabbits, ask for your veterinarian to train you in how to safely syringe feed them and about what supplies you should keep on hand (such as Oxbow’s Critical Care For Herbivores or Lafeber’s Emeraid IC Herbivore, which requires a prescription). Both products can be mixed with water and syringe-fed to an individual who is not eating on their own. If you find yourself in a situation where one of your residents is not eating well and your veterinarian cannot see them right away, knowing how to safely syringe feed them and having the right supplies on hand to do so can help prevent gastrointestinal issues from getting worse.

    Changes in their posture, gait, mobility, or activity level, such as…

    • Standing in a hunched position
    • Lameness
    • Hindlimb weakness
    • Head tilting
    • Moving in a wobbly or disoriented manner
    • Reluctance to move
    • Lethargy
    • Be immobile, inactive, or unresponsive to your approach (this may indicate a significant health emergency)

    Changes to their physical appearance, such as…

    • Swelling of the face
    • Runny, squinty, cloudy, or crusty eyes (a small bit of crust in the corner of the eye is not unusual) 
    • Sunken or dull eyes (this could be a sign of dehydration)
    • Bulging eyes
    • Nasal discharge (rabbits will wipe their nose with their front legs, so in addition to paying attention to their nose, look for matted or wet fur on the front legs)
    • A droopy ear (or ears) in someone who usually has upright ears
    • Irritation or sores on the feet
    • Hair loss
    • Wet, dirty, rough, or matted fur
    • Dirty/wet bum
    • Unusual lumps or swelling

    Changes in behavior such as…

    • Hiding more than usual
    • Being less interactive with companions or caregivers
    • Overgrooming or excessive itching
    • Barbering (pulling out their own hair or that of a companion)
    • More frequent urination
    • Urinating outside the litter box 
    • Changes in grooming behavior
    • Excessive ear scratching
    • Frequent rubbing of eyes or nose
    • Mouth breathing (rabbits are obligate nasal breathers – open-mouth breathing is an emergency, and you should contact your veterinarian immediately)

    Other things to watch for include…

    • Drooling
    • Sneezing, coughing, wheezing
    • Labored breathing (slow, deep breaths)
    • Elevated respiratory rate – normal is 30-60 breaths/minute, but it can be significantly higher in an individual who is stressed (when counting respirations, pay attention to their chest movements rather than their nostrils)
    • Weight loss (in addition to at least monthly weigh-ins, be sure to pet and pick up rabbits often to get a sense of their weight and body condition)
    • Changes in urinary or fecal output or appearance (if a rabbit is not passing any fecal pellets, this is an emergency)
    • Diarrhea/soft droppings – the fecal balls should be separate and not come out in ropes or chains attached together 
    • Bloody urine (urine color can be affected by diet, so urine may appear reddish and be normal – blood in the urine usually appears in spots)
    • Sandy or crystal deposits in urine, strong-smelling urine, or signs of pain or straining when urinating (if a rabbit is straining to urinate or you see spots of blood in their urine, contact your veterinarian immediately)
    • Flies swarming a particular area (the individual should be checked for fly eggs or maggots – if maggots are noted, contact your veterinarian right away)
    • Change their daily schedule or routine

    If you see any of the signs above or anything else out of the ordinary, be sure to investigate further and consult with your veterinarian as needed. Depending on the severity and whether or not there are multiple signs of concern, the individual may need to be seen by a veterinarian immediately. In some cases, conducting a health check, either in full or in part, can help you gather more information about the individual to share with your veterinarian so they can help determine the best course of action.

    Now that you have an idea of what to look for, be sure to build thoughtful daily observation into your caregiving routine if you haven’t already! The more you observe your residents, the better you’ll become at differentiating between “normal” and potentially concerning. Whenever you’re in doubt, err on the side of caution and contact your veterinarian for guidance.


    How To Tell If Your Rabbit Is Sick | Oxbow Animal Health 

    Rabbit Health Check-Ups | Winter Park Veterinary Hospital   

    Rabbit Health Check: Signs of a Healthy Bunny | Best Friends 

    Pain In Rabbits | Litchfield Veterinary Hospital 

    Health Problems In Rabbits | VCA Animal Hospital 

    Signs That Your Bunny Is Ill | Richmond Veterinary Clinic 

    Physical Examination Of Rabbits | The University Of Edinburgh 

    BSAVA Manual Of Rabbits, First Edition

    Rabbit Behavioral Problems: Barbering | Companion Animals Extension 

    Recognising Rabbit Emergencies | Rabbit Welfare Association And Fund 

    Bladder Sludge and Bladder Stones in Rabbits and Guinea Pigs | VCA Animal Hospitals 

    Rabbits | Manual Of Exotic Pet Practice 

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