Pet Factsheets

Abdominal abscesses

An xray of a large abdominal abscess clearly visible under the intestines (indicated by arrows)
©David Perpiñán

Abscesses are a reaction to a bacterial infection and can occur almost anywhere on or in the body, including the abdominal cavity.

What is an abscess?

An abscess is a collection of pus, usually caused by a bacterial infection. Depending upon the size and location it may be painful. Some abscesses can also make the rabbit unwell, whilst others may not seem to cause any clinical signs.

Why do they form in the abdomen?

Abscesses may form after a surgical procedure whereby an infection has entered the abdomen. They may also form if the rabbit has suffered an injury to the abdomen or something has penetrated into the abdomen from the environment.

What signs may my rabbit show?

If the abscess is not adhered (stuck) to any of the abdominal organs the rabbit may not show any clinical signs. Rabbits seem to be efficient at ‘walling off’ abscesses - creating a wall around them so they don’t cause illness.

However, if the abscess is causing pressure in the abdomen, is painful, is stopping any of the organs working properly or is causing a systemic infection, then the rabbit may show one or some of the following signs:

  • Pyrexia (increased body temperature). 
  • Anorexia. 
  • Lethargy. 
  • Abdominal pain (hunched posture, pressing abdomen on the ground, constant shifting of position to try and get comfortable etc).
  • Weight loss. 
  • Collapse. 
  • Sudden death.

Are they serious?

They can be. If the rabbit is showing any of the signs mentioned above, an overwhelming bacterial infection can invade the body with fatal consequences. If the abscess ruptures then peritonitis will set in, again sadly with an often fatal outcome. If the rabbit is not eating then gastrointestinal stasis will lead to hypoglycaemia, hepatic lipidosis and may be fatal. It is therefore imperative that you take your rabbit to your vet straight away if you are concerned.

What will my vet do?

Your vet will start by examining your rabbit. They may recommend performing a blood sample to check your rabbit’s organ function and white blood cell count, which are indicative of an infection. They may also advise an ultrasound scan to see if an abscess can be detected, or if they have access to and you have the finances available, an MRI scan.

Your rabbit will also require supportive treatment whilst a diagnosis is confirmed. This may include pain relief, antibiotics, prokinetic medications to stimulate the gut, fluid therapy and supportive feeding.

Will my rabbit need surgery?

Depending upon the location, surgery may be possible to remove the abscess. This will depend what and where the abscess is attached to. If it is attached to an organ which can be removed (such as the spleen, a kidney, part of the liver etc), it may be possible to remove it and the attached organ. However, sometimes they are too invasive and cannot be removed. Sadly, the rabbit is likely to require euthanasia to prevent further suffering at this point.

What about using antibiotic therapy?

Antibiotics may play a part in the treatment but are unlikely to form a cure on their own. This is because rabbit pus is thick (like toothpaste) and the capsule surrounding the abscess is thick and tough (this is a good thing for the body to wall them off, but a bad thing when you want antibiotics to penetrate into them), therefore attempting to drain them or relying solely on antibiotics is unlikely to be effective.

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