The unbreakable bond between rabbits and their owners makes serious illness devastating. Few rabbit lovers feel fully prepared when confronted with symptoms signaling their beloved bunny may be dying. The experience becomes even more heart wrenching if the cause seems mysterious or the decline is rapid. This article provides guidance through 12 common symptoms not to be ignored when a rabbit's health takes a concerning turn. Gain insight on when to seek emergency care, how to provide comfort care, working with your vet, and making humane end-of-life decisions. While painful, understand the symptoms to help your rabbit live their best life for as long as possible and pass peacefully when the time comes.
1. Lack of appetite
A healthy rabbit has a voracious appetite and is always eager for their next meal. Rabbits are herbivores and their diet consists mainly of hay, vegetables, fruit and pellets. A rabbit that suddenly loses interest in food or decreases their food intake dramatically may be ill. If your rabbit stops eating their usual diet, it’s crucial to identify the cause. Anorexia in rabbits can occur due to dental problems like tooth abscesses, gastrointestinal issues like an intestinal blockage, or other internal issues that cause pain and discomfort when eating. Lack of appetite is a serious warning sign in rabbits that warrants an immediate vet visit. Get your rabbit examined and treated before their condition declines further. With early intervention, you may be able to restore their appetite and get them eagerly eating again.
Witnessing your rabbit having a seizure is a disturbing event. During a seizure rabbits lose consciousness, fall on their side, and experience uncontrollable muscle contractions and convulsions. Their legs stiffen, eyelids flutter, and head twists involuntarily. They may urinate or defecate involuntarily too. Most seizures last just a few minutes and the rabbit regains consciousness afterwards, but is understandably dazed, lethargic and unbalanced for a period of time. Seizures in rabbits can be caused by encephalitozoonosis, head trauma, brain cancer, toxins, parasites, or idiopathic epilepsy. If your rabbit has a seizure, take them to the vet immediately to determine the underlying cause and start treatment. Prompt medical care can greatly improve your rabbit's prognosis after experiencing seizures.
3. Erratic movements
Rabbits naturally have quick reflexes and are prone to sudden bursts of speed and jumping. But if your rabbit starts displaying uncharacteristic, erratic movements, it could signal a serious health problem. Neurological issues like viral infections, head trauma or brain cancer can cause a rabbit to roll, circle or act dizzy, drunk and unbalanced. They may have difficulty righting themselves or hold their head at an abnormal angle. If your rabbit can’t control their movements well and seems off balance, don’t delay getting them medical care. Getting to the root of the problem quickly will give your rabbit the best chance of regaining their normal coordination and mobility.
4. Loss of strength or balance
In their normal healthy state, rabbits hop around actively, have good stamina and balance easily as they explore their environment. But a sick or injured rabbit may start showing signs like weakness, lethargy, or an inability to stand up on their own. You may see them lying down or resting much more than usual and struggling to find their footing. Some issues that can cause a loss of strength or balance include arthritis, vestibular disease, physical injury or advancing age. If your rabbit suddenly seems to lack their normal agility and stability when moving around, schedule a vet visit promptly. Getting a diagnosis and treatment can help restore their strength and allow them to maintain a good quality of life.
5. Trouble breathing
Rabbits use their delicate respiratory systems to deliver oxygen throughout their bodies efficiently. But when a rabbit is having difficulty breathing properly, it’s a medical emergency requiring immediate action. Labored breathing or shortness of breath can arise from heart problems, respiratory infections, nasal discharge, pneumonia, or other illnesses. Never ignore changes in your rabbit's normal breathing patterns, as their oxygen intake is being impaired. Trouble breathing may be accompanied by other symptoms like cyanosis of the gums and tongue. Get emergency vet assistance if your rabbit is breathing heavily, rapidly, wheezing, or showing outward signs of respiratory distress. Rapid treatment of breathing issues can help prevent a dire outcome for your rabbit.
6. Abnormal fecal pellets
A rabbit’s digestive system functions optimally when they are healthy, producing round dry fecal pellets. But stress, dehydration, infections, parasites or other intestinal issues can cause variations in their poop. Watch for abnormal fecal pellets that are misshapen, clumped together, strung in clusters with hair or are noticeably soft, small or large. The presence of mucus or blood in the stool also warrants immediate veterinary attention. Likewise diarrhea or complete cessation of fecal pellet production calls for prompt diagnosis and treatment from your exotic vet. Don't assume your rabbit has a temporary tummy upset. Get problematic poop checked out to determine if an underlying condition needs addressed.
7. A dramatic change in behavior
Rabbits each have their own individual quirky personalities, daily routines and activity patterns. But sudden deviations from their normal behavior can be tied to declining health issues. A chronically happy and affectionate bunny that becomes withdrawn, aggressive or antisocial merits investigation. The same applies to dramatic shifts in their typical eating and bathroom habits. Behavior changes may stem from undiagnosed pain or discomfort, so vet exams help determine causes. Early intervention for changes in normal bunny behavior gives your rabbit the best chance of overcoming health hurdles and enjoying many more happy, active years with your family.
Rabbits do vocalize to communicate different emotions, but typically through quieter means like grunting, honking or tooth purring. Loud, frequent and piercing screaming from your rabbit is abnormal and indicates they are under severe duress. This agonizing sound is an instinctive response to intense fear or pain. Potential reasons for screaming include distress from predators, interactions with other pets, mistreatment by humans, severe GI stasis or other extreme medical issues. Don't ignore screaming and never dismiss it as just your bunny being dramatic. Thoroughly assess why they are tormenting themselves with this shrill sound and make all needed changes to alleviate their suffering right away.
9. Blood in their urine
The presence of blood in a rabbit’s urine, a condition called hematuria, gives critical insight that something is amiss within their urinary tract system. Causes can range from bladder stones to cancer to trauma from an injury. To check for blood in the urine, carefully observe the color of your rabbit’s urine – it should normally appear clear to pale yellow. Red, pink or brownish urine indicates bleeding. You may also see specks of blood left behind in their litter box. Don’t delay having hematuria evaluated, as speedy treatment will offer your rabbit the best recovery prognosis. Left untreated, bloody urine can lead to dangerous infections, pain and even organ damage.
10. A low body temperature
A rabbit's normal body temperature ranges from 101-103°F. Hypothermia sets in when their temperature falls dangerously below 99°F. Shivering, lethargy, weakness, and a slowed heart rate all accompany hypothermia. Young, elderly and malnourished rabbits are most susceptible. But any rabbit can become hypothermic in cold temperatures or drafts, especially if wet. Other causes include diabetes, infections, low oxygen and certain diseases or traumas. To take your rabbit’s temperature at home, use a rectal thermometer. If their temperature is below 99°F, begin warming efforts like hot water bottles, blankets and skin contact. Hypothermia is a rapidly advancing, life-threatening condition always requiring emergency veterinary treatment.
Diarrhea in rabbits consists of loose, watery and unformed stools. It's not only messy but also dangerous if allowed to persist. The primary complication of diarrhea is life-threatening dehydration from fluid loss. Diarrhea also upsets the balance of good digestive bacteria in the cecum. Parasites, medications, consuming strange objects, stress or disease can cause the condition. Diarrhea demands a vet visit to pinpoint the reason and direct appropriate treatment. Anti-diarrheal medication may provide relief while pursuing the underlying cause. With aggressive supportive care for dehydration and other complications, most rabbits recover fully from diarrhea.
12. A loss of litter box habits
Rabbits can be fastidiously tidy creatures when it comes to their bathroom habits. Typically once litter trained, they consistently return to their litter box. Sudden lapses in litter box use, like urinating or defecating outside the box, signal an underlying issue. Anything from urinary tract infections to arthritis to cognitive decline could be the culprit. Stubborn litter box avoidance that emerges in a previously well-trained rabbit warrants a full exam and diagnostic tests to determine the cause. Treating accidents with patience rather than punishment is also key. Staying ahead of litter box issues through veterinary care and compassion helps prevent undesirable outcomes like surrendering your rabbit.
13. Paralyzed limbs
Your rabbit relies on all four limbs being able to function. But trauma, strokes, nerve damage or muscle disorders can lead to partial or total paralysis in a leg. Your rabbit may drag their limbs instead of properly hopping and standing. Paralysis compromises their mobility and quality of life drastically. While some underlying causes of paralysis like spinal fractures may be untreatable, others like stroke may be reversible if treated very quickly. Waste no time getting veterinary assessment of paralysis to see if interventions like medication or physical therapy could help restore limb function for your rabbit. Even if a complete cure isn't possible, there are often still options to maximize your paralyzed rabbit's comfort.
14. The rabbit will try to retreat
Rabbits are naturally energetic, curious animals that use their space fully. They interact readily with their owners and environment when healthy and happy. But when a rabbit suddenly loses interest in their surroundings and tries to hide for prolonged periods, it signals they are unwell or in pain. Rabbits demonstrating reclusive behavior or attempting to retreat from sight should never be ignored. There are always underlying reasons why a social bunny wants to be left alone – whether physical pain, illness, stress or depression. Allowing them to isolate too extensively can accelerate declining health. Get veterinary help promptly so they can enjoy engaging with their environment again.
Sometimes there are no apparent symptoms before a rabbit dies
As prey animals, rabbits are masters at hiding signs of weakness, pain and illness through their instincts. This survival mechanism serves them well in the wild but can present challenges in pet rabbits. You may be stunned when an apparently healthy rabbit passes away unexpectedly. Some reasons rabbits die suddenly with no discernible symptoms include heart attacks, seizures, strokes, bloat and blood clots. Don’t blame yourself if your rabbit seemed perfectly normal right until their unexpected death. The key is remembering that rabbits hide illness very effectively. Staying alert for even subtle signs and having twice-yearly check-ups helps detect issues early.
How to comfort a dying rabbit
Discovering your beloved rabbit is terminally ill or nearing end of life is heartbreaking. While their remaining time is short, focus on keeping them as comfortable as possible. Make sure their habitat is warm, calm, and free of loud noises or other stressors. Offer favorite foods and unlimited hay. Lavish them with gentle pets and give medications prescribed by your vet. Transport them using a carrier with soft bedding. Monitor their breathing and alert the vet if oxygen therapy could help. Stay nearby for security and use soothing voices. Your attentive comfort measures in their final phase means so much, even if they can no longer outwardly reciprocate affection.
How to know when it’s time to euthanize a rabbit
The most selfless yet agonizing gift you may have to give your terminally ill or aged rabbit is euthanasia. As their health irreversibly fails, choosing the right time to end unstoppable suffering is crucial. Signs include chronic pain unresponsive to medication, cancer, advanced organ failure, paralysis, severe appetite and weight loss. Personality changes signaling poor quality of life like hiding, aggression and withdrawal also help guide the timing. Partner with your vet and use their clinical perspective. Consider your rabbit’s dignity and be guided by deep compassion, not emotional attachment. While heart wrenching, letting your beloved companion go peacefully when their time comes is the final act of love.
1. Does my rabbit show and accept affection?
Affectionate interaction with their owners brings rabbits joy and comfort. If your rabbit no longer responds to petting, ear rubs, nose kisses or cuddling, it can signal they are losing pleasure and interest in life. While some contentment still remains if they allow handling, withdrawal from all forms of affection is a grave sign of their quality of life declining. Conversely, a rabbit that melts into pets, nuzzles you and craves the reassurance of your touch still has satisfying moments to experience. Gauge their desire for closeness as you ponder difficult end-of-life decisions.
2. Is my rabbit enjoying life?
When rabbits can no longer participate in activities they enjoy, serious consideration of euthanasia is appropriate. For example, a bunny who loved playtime and toys but now sleeps incessantly likely has minimal quality of life left. Compare their current daily experiences and enrichment to the lifestyle they relished when well. Can they still meaningfully interact with their environment? Do they have more bad days than good? Realistically consider if any joy remains or if prolonged suffering is now the central theme. Honestly assessing what they can or can’t delight in any longer steers you toward wise choices.
3. Does my rabbit get excited about food?
A happy rabbit celebrates mealtimes with their owner through eager sounds, movements and healthy appetite. When chronic illness causes that enthusiasm over their favorite foods to disappear, it’s often a clear sign of advanced progression. However, if your rabbit still delights at being fed nutritious treats and looks to you for their regular feedings, take it as evidence some pleasure remains. A rabbit unable to eat, refusing food, or lacking interest despite tempting offerings requires deeper reflection about their current quality of life. It likely signals diminishing opportunities for them to experience joy.
4. Is my rabbit still curious and aware?
A bunny feeling well engages with their environment through alertness, exploration and curiosity. They notice sounds, scents, their owner’s presence and potential for adventure. As your rabbit’s health fails, these meaningful interactions fade. Disinterest in their surroundings, coupled with lethargy and unresponsiveness, provide clues that your pet’s experiences are becoming more negative than positive. However, awareness of and even slight responsiveness to you, their habitat and stimuli indicates some ability to cognitively connect remains. Find ways to continually evaluate and support your rabbit’s level of inquisitiveness.