How Do Rabbits Breathe?

Take a moment to observe your rabbit’s breathing. Notice the rhythmic rise and fall of their tiny chest as they inhale and exhale through twitching nostrils. Rabbits’ intricate respiratory system powers their entire existence, yet most owners know little about this vital process. What enables rabbits to breathe so rapidly during playtime dashes yet so slowly at rest? Why do they stubbornly refuse to breathe through their mouth? What does my rabbit’s breathing rate reveal about their health? Delve deep into the mysteries of rabbits’ airways and lungs to unlock fascinating insights on how these remarkable creatures breathe. This knowledge empowers us to monitor subtle signs of wellness or distress and make sound decisions for better rabbit care. Let’s explore the wonder of rabbit respiration!

Breathing Process in Rabbits

Rabbits, like all mammals, require oxygen to live. Oxygen enters their bodies through the process of breathing and is transported by their cardiovascular system to organs and tissues. Understanding the rabbit's breathing process and respiratory system can help rabbit owners monitor their pet's health.

A rabbit's respiratory system consists of nostrils, nasal cavities, pharynx, larynx, trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, and lungs. When a rabbit inhales, air travels through the nostrils and nasal cavity, where it is warmed and humidified. The air then passes through the trachea, a tube reinforced with cartilage rings to keep it open. The trachea splits into two bronchi that enter each lung. Within the lungs, the bronchi continue to divide into bronchioles, tiny airways that end in grape-like clusters of alveoli.

It is in the alveoli that the important gas exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide occurs. The alveoli provide a huge surface area for this diffusion process. Oxygen diffuses from the alveoli into tiny blood capillaries surrounding them. At the same time, carbon dioxide diffuses from the capillaries into the alveoli to be exhaled.

When the rabbit exhales, the process is reversed – air travels back up the airways and out the nose and mouth. A rabbit's breathing is controlled by the diaphragm, a sheet of muscle located under the lungs, and intercostal muscles between the ribs. When these muscles contract, the chest cavity expands, drawing air into the lungs. When the muscles relax, the chest cavity is reduced in volume, forcing air out of the lungs.

Rabbits utilize two types of breathing: costal respiration, involving the intercostal muscles, and diaphragmatic respiration, involving the diaphragm. Costal respiration is typically used during exercise or distress when more frequent or deeper breathing is required. When the rabbit is at rest, relaxed diaphragmatic respiration is mainly used.

Understanding the anatomy and physiology behind a rabbit's breathing helps owners recognize when something may be interfering with this crucial function. Knowing a rabbit's normal respiratory rate, depth of breath, and breathing patterns aids in monitoring its health and detecting potential issues early. With attention and care, rabbit owners can support their pets' respiratory health and breathing capacity.

Why Rabbits Breathe Through their Nose

Rabbits are obligate nasal breathers, meaning they only breathe through their noses and not their mouths. There are several important reasons why the nasal cavity is essential for a rabbit's respiration:

Nose filtration – The nasal passages contain turbinate bones and sinuses that filter, warm, and humidify incoming air before it reaches the lungs. This protects the delicate lung tissues.

Scent detection – Breathing through the nose enables rabbits to properly detect scents in their environment, crucial for finding food, predators, mates, avoiding danger, and communicating chemically.

Airflow control – The nasal turbinates allow rabbits to regulate and control the flow of air in and out of their nose. This is important for controlling respiration rate and volume.

Moisture conservation – Exhaling through the nose allows rabbits to conserve moisture that would otherwise be lost breathing through the mouth. This helps prevent their respiratory tissues from drying out.

Clearing mucus – Rabbits cannot easily clear mucus or foreign particles from their lungs by coughing like some animals. Nasal breathing allows mucus and particles to accumulate in the nasal passages where they can be expelled more easily.

Preventing choking – Chewing while breathing through the mouth could cause a rabbit to inhale food material and choke. Nasal breathing helps avoid this risk while the rabbit is feeding.

Reduced respiratory water loss – Without moisture recovery in the nose, mouth breathing leads to greater loss of respiratory water. Rabbits' nasal turbinates allow them to recover moisture and avoid dehydration each breath cycle.

The reasons above all contribute to why rabbits only breathe through their noses under natural conditions. It is crucial for their respiratory health and efficiency. Understanding this fact helps rabbit owners monitor their pets for any abnormal mouth breathing, which could indicate respiratory distress or disease. Honoring their obligate nasal breathing leads to better care of rabbits' unique respiratory needs.

How Fast Do Rabbits Breathe?

A rabbit's normal resting respiratory rate is between 32-60 breaths per minute on average. This means when relaxed, a healthy rabbit may take anywhere from 32 to 60 breaths in a 60-second period. Monitoring a rabbit's respiratory rate provides important insight into their health status.

Some factors that influence a rabbit's breathing rate include:

  • Age – Younger rabbits tend to breathe more rapidly than older, mature rabbits. Nestling and juvenile rabbits have respiratory rates in the range of 120-140. As they grow, this declines to the adult range of 30-60 breaths per minute.

  • Temperature – Cooler temperatures speed up a rabbit's metabolism and breathing rate. Warmer temperatures have the opposite effect of slowing respiration.

  • Activity Level – When exercising or active, a rabbit's breathing will speed up to meet increased oxygen demands. When resting, their rate slows.

  • Excitement or Stress – Anxiety, excitement, fear, and stress hormones released in the body stimulate faster breathing.

  • Pregnancy – In the later stages of pregnancy, the growing uterus restricts breathing capacity, causing an elevated rate.

  • Illness – Respiratory infections, heart disorders, dehydration, pain, and other health issues often raise a rabbit's breathing rate.

To monitor a rabbit's breathing rate, observe the rise and fall of their chest while they are calm and relaxed. Time how many breaths they take within 15 seconds and multiply this number by 4 to calculate breaths per minute. Keeping an eye on this vital sign helps clue owners into changing health conditions. Any significant or sustained increase from a rabbit's normal range could suggest an underlying issue requiring veterinary attention. Consistent rates above 100-120 breaths per minute indicate serious respiratory distress.

Is it Normal for Rabbits to Breathe Fast?

While rabbits may briefly breathe rapidly due to exercise or stress, an elevated resting respiratory rate is not normal and indicates an underlying health issue requires attention. Rabbits' resting breathing rate should fall within a range of 30-60 breaths per minute. Any consistent rate above 60 is considered abnormally rapid and a cause for concern.

Some common reasons rabbits breathe fast include:

  • Respiratory infections – Bacterial, viral, or fungal infections often cause inflammation in the respiratory tract, making breathing painful and rapid.

  • Heart disease – Enlarged heart, heart failure, abnormal rhythms and other cardiac issues can lead to faster, labored breathing.

  • Dehydration – Fluid loss causes thickening of the blood, forcing the heart to pump faster to circulate oxygen.

  • Obesity – Excess fat puts pressure on organs including lungs and heart, increasing breathing rate.

  • Heat stress – High environmental temperatures raise rabbits' metabolism and breath rate.

  • Pain – Discomfort due to injuries, dental issues or other sources stimulates rapid breathing.

  • Anxiety – Stress, fear, or excitement can trigger temporary faster breathing accompanied by other signs like freezing or hiding.

  • Pregnancy – In later pregnancy, the enlarged uterus restricts lung expansion necessary for slower breathing.

Rabbits exhibiting rapid, abnormal breathing should be evaluated by an exotic veterinarian for diagnostics and treatment. Underlying issues causing a consistently elevated respiratory rate must be addressed. With proper care, rabbits' breathing rates usually return to normal ranges. Monitoring this key vital sign allows owners to stay alert to changes and ensure their rabbits breathe comfortably.

Is Open-Mouth Breathing Normal in Rabbits?

Open-mouth breathing is almost never normal in rabbits when awake. As obligate nasal breathers, rabbits rely on their noses for effective respiration and only breathe through their mouths under extreme duress. Open-mouth breathing while awake or resting is considered abnormal and a warning sign of possible respiratory disease.

Rabbits may occasionally exhibit temporary open-mouth breathing due to extreme temperatures. In hot conditions, increased panting aids evaporative cooling. In freezing temperatures, rabbits avoid inhaling frigid air through the nose. However, chronic open-mouth breathing in normal temperatures signals distress.

Some causes of abnormal mouth breathing in rabbits include:

  • Obstructed nose – Mucus, abscess, foreign object, or mass blocking nasal passages.

  • Rhinitis – Inflammation of the nasal cavities due to infection, allergy, or irritation.

  • Dental issues – Malocclusion or sharp tooth points irritating the tongue or cheeks.

  • Respiratory infection – Bacteria, fungus, or viruses infecting sinuses or lungs.

  • Heart failure – Fluid in lungs or labored breathing necessitates mouth breathing.

  • Pain – Severe pain or distress from any source.

  • Heat stroke – Panting attempts to lower critically high body temperature.

  • Tumors – Cancerous growths constricting airways.

  • Respiratory acidosis – Excess carbon dioxide requiring emergency mouth breathing.

Rabbits exhibiting frequent open-mouth breathing should receive prompt veterinary care. Underlying issues leading to this abnormality must be diagnosed through chest x-rays, bloodwork, nasal flushes, and other tests. Treatment will depend on the specific cause but may include antibiotics, pain medication, dental trims, steroids, or surgery. With careful attention and medical intervention, rabbits can recover their normal nasal breathing patterns.


In summary, understanding how rabbits breathe provides key insights into monitoring their health and wellness. Rabbits utilize nasal passages, trachea, bronchi, and lungs to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide with the environment. Their resting respiratory rate ranges from 30-60 breaths per minute in healthy adults. Rapid breathing over 60, as well as open-mouth breathing, are abnormal and indicate potential issues requiring veterinary diagnosis. With attentive care and prompt treatment of underlying causes, rabbit owners can support their pets in maintaining healthy, relaxed breathing patterns. Monitoring vital signs like respiratory rate allows early detection of problems, helping ensure rabbits live comfortably and breathe easy.


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