A few ways to ensure your bunny is healthy is to examine your bunny’s eyes, nose and ears. All should be clean; there should not be any matted fur. There should also not be any abnormal smells coming from your bunny. The eyes should not be cloudy. You can evaluate vision by watching your bunny move around the floor, possibly putting obstacles in his way. The nose should have no matted hair or crusting below his nostrils. Bunnies 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 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.
If your rabbit has tooth problems, the bunny will generally not eat as well as he did or may only eat the softer foods you offer. He may also show signs of drooling where the hair on his chin becomes matted and you may notice the rabbit grinding its teeth or a bad smell coming from the rabbit’s mouth.
When looking at a healthy 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 loose. Back teeth usually require a trip to a veterinarian.
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. 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. Teeth in this condition, generally require work by a veterinarian.
Some rabbits are genetically predisposed to develop teeth problems. Lop eared rabbits especially, have lower jaws that are shortened compared to other bunnies. 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 animal’s appetite. Trauma can result in teeth that do not grow normally or do not grow at all.
To prevent tooth problems, make sure 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 of work.
Obesity is the second most common problem seen in pet bunnies. 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 becoming fat. Rabbit obesity usually results when an animal is being fed too many rabbit pellets and is not allowed much time outside of its cage to exercise.
Obesity in rabbits can contribute to many other health problems, like 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 foot problems because there is more weight resting on the feet than there should be (Pododermatitis).
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 cannot clean off their fur, burns the skin underneath) and fly strike (where the feces that can become matted in the fur attracts flies which lay their eggs).
Pododermatitis is a foot infection sometimes known as sore hocks and 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, or in cages that are 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.
Avoid 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.
Pasteurella, also called "Snuffles” 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. Pasteurella usually rears its 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 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 getting worse.
To try and keep your bunny from developing a clinical Pasteurella infection, keep them 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, DO NOT take him to any shows.
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 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 the actions of the GI tract. The animal may feel bloated, have a tummy ache and 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 one day) kill your rabbit take over. This happens too, if you have a bunny that can’t come out to exercise. Lack of exercise also 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 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 urine. A common problem is excessive calcium in the urine. Pellets, since most 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. When your bunny goes to the bathroom a lot of that calcium comes out, but a lot of it stays in the bladder, which can cause a bladder stone. Some stones are large enough to require 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 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 easy if the bladder is contracting well. In male bunnies however, since their opening is smaller, the sand can 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.
This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian.