Pet Factsheets

In rabbits nystagmus can be linked to several diseases

Nystagmus is involuntary eye movement where the eye repetitively moves from side to side, up and down, or in a circle.

What is nystagmus?

Nystagmus is a condition that is usually apparent in both eyes. The eyes will rhythmically flick back and forth horizontally, or up and down vertically, depending on the cause of the problem. Sometimes the eyes can rotate in circles. Often nystagmus is accompanied by other neurological signs such as a head tilt, flopping over, rolling around, seizures and loss of co-ordination.

Nystagmus is usually a clinical sign of another disease, most commonly an inner ear infection that has disrupted the vestibular system, upsetting the body’s sense of balance. Less commonly, nystagmus can be a sign of a lesion or tumour on the brain or spinal column, or by an intracellular protozoal parasite called Encephalitozoon cuniculi.

Nystagmus is not painful but may be irritating for the rabbit and very disorientating as vision can be blurred. The underlying cause of the nystagmus may be painful to your rabbit so prompt veterinary attention is important.

How is nystagmus diagnosed and treated?

As nystagmus is a clinical sign of another disease, diagnostic processes will be aimed at finding the source of the problem. The veterinarian will complete a thorough physical and neurological examination and identify any other relevant clinical signs that can help with the diagnosis. They may also collect blood, urine, or ear cultures for analysis, and possibly skull radiographs.

Supportive care will usually be started, including fluid therapy, assisted feeding, and pain relief. If the rabbit has an inner ear infection, or an infection of E. cuniculi, treatment can begin straight away with injectable or oral antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and/or anti-parasite medications. Treatment may be required for several weeks to fully treat the infection. Inner ear infections can be challenging to cure so surgery may ultimately be required. With quick treatment and surgery, nystagmus can resolve, but if the middle ear and nerves are damaged, the rabbit may continue to show nystagmus, a head tilt, and will often lose hearing.

If the cause of the nystagmus originates in the brain and central nervous system, then it's likely to be difficult to treat and can often be fatal.

What can I do to help my rabbit?

It can be very upsetting and distressing to see your rabbit with nystagmus. Often the condition is accompanied with other signs such as a head tilt, rolling around and falling over. During treatment, your rabbit may not be able to see well, or steady themselves to eat, so syringe feeding may be required. This must be done under careful instructions by your veterinary care team.

You can help your rabbit by minimising environmental stimuli and keeping them confined in a quiet darkened place so they can’t injure themselves. A secure carrier can be padded out with rolled up towels to prevent injury. Be sure to inspect the rabbit’s bedding frequently to prevent them soiling themselves.

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