Pet Factsheets

Spinal injury

A normal x-ray of the spine
©Vetstream Ltd

Spinal injury is a complex medical problem typically caused by disease or injury. Treatment depends on the severity and precise location of the problem. Even with aggressive treatment, the prognosis can be grave, and ongoing care for the rabbit can be extensive and costly.

What are the main signs of injury or disease of the spine?

A rabbit with a trauma or disease-related spinal injury will usually have immediate and marked weakness, often with partial or complete loss of movement in the limbs and torso. The rabbit may not respond to touchy over the paralysed area, it may show exaggerated reflexes or spasms and it may have rapid laboured breathing. The rabbit may be withdrawn, have a decreased appetite, and it may also have incontinence with faecal/urine soiling of the fur.

What are the causes?

A common cause of spinal injury is trauma. One of the most common sources of trauma in pet rabbits is related to struggling and kicking when the rabbit is picked up. Rabbits have very strong hindquarters and dislocation of the spine can easily occur if they kick out and don't have sufficient resistance or support of their hind end. Often the kicking can cause severe muscular strain or even spinal dislocation and fracture, leading to immediate paralysis.

Another cause of spinal injury is degenerative bone disease which can lead to weakness of the bones, narrowing of the spinal column and disc compression, all of which can predispose the rabbit to pain, fractures or even paralysis. Arthritis, bone cancer and congenital problems are all rare but can cause weakening of the bones leading to increased risk of spinal injury.

How will my vet diagnose spinal injury?

Diagnosis of spinal injury usually begins with a radiograph and possibly a body scan using an MRI or CT scanner. Radiographs and scans require that the rabbit is anaesthetised so that its limbs can be stretched out and held still while the image is taken. Referral is usually required if the rabbit needs and MRI or CT scan since most clinic don't have this equipment.

If an MRI is not available, or if more information is required, a technique called a myelogram (a contrast dye is injected into the spinal fluid and then a radiograph is taken to help examine the spinal cord, surrounding blood vessels and other structures like discs and vertebrae). If pain or paralysis is present but a spinal fracture or dislocation was not detected by the earlier radiographs, the myelogram can determine if there is a herniated disc, narrowing of the space around the spinal column, or the presence of disease like a cyst, tumour or lesion.

How are spinal injuries treated?

Care of rabbits with spinal injury is demanding. Surgery may be indicated in some cases where the injury is minor or straightforward, but surgery is risky with a guarded prognosis. Full recovery is usually unlikely.

Even without surgery, care is intensive. There are many ongoing problems that can occur with a paralysed rabbit, so intensive care nursing will be required. Attention must be paid to addressing pain relief in cases where strain or disc rupture is present. Care of pressure points, prevention of skin damage from soiling, and maintenance of bladder and intestinal health is a challenge, demanding around the clock monitoring, bathing, careful nutrition, and even indwelling urinary catheters. In addition, the high risk of infection makes frequent veterinary care especially important and insurance may not cover all of these costs.

Is my rabbit likely to recover?

Generally, injuries lower down on the spinal column hold the best changes for survival but if paralysis is present, ongoing medical issues will persist and could decrease the chances of the rabbit having a good quality of life. In these cases, euthanasia may be the only option.

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