Pet Factsheets

Caring for an ill rabbit

Rabbits are often stressed in a veterinary environment, so when your vet feels that your rabbit is well enough to go home, they may want you to continue with their nursing care at home. Knowing how to do this, and when to be concerned, will help you to confidently provide them with the best care possible.

What should I do if my rabbit won't eat or drink?

A rabbit who is feeling ill may not be eating and drinking enough or at all. Gastrointestinal stasis is where a rabbit's digestive system slows down and can come to a complete standstill. This is a very serious and often fatal condition, so you need to ensure that your rabbit keeps eating and drinking so they are being provided with calories, nutrients and fluids.

Offer them tempting foods, such as fresh herbs, greens, freshly picked grass, dandelions or whatever their favourite food is. If this doesn't tempt them to eat, then you will need to syringe feed them. Your vet will be able to advise what to feed and will be able to supply this to you and advise you on how much and how often to feed your rabbit. Ensure that your rabbit also has a constant supply of fresh hay and food is left within easy reach.

Make sure that your rabbit has access to fresh water which they can easily reach. If your rabbit isn't drinking then you can try syringing small amounts of water into their mouth, if this is unsuccessful then speak to your vet about the possibility of providing your rabbit with a fluid injection.

What happens if my rabbit can't clean himself?

All rabbits hate being and feeling dirty. Ill rabbits often can't or don't feel up to cleaning or grooming themselves so you will need to do this for them. Gently wipe the corner of their eyes with some cotton wool and warm water. Give their coat a gentle brush. If their nose has any discharge coming from it, you will need to regularly wipe this away so your rabbit can breathe properly. Rabbits are obligate nasal breathers which means they prefer to breathe through their nose; mouth breathing is a sign of respiratory distress, so it is important to keep their airway clean and clear. Make sure that their bottom is clean - if this is dirty or wet then carefully clean and dry it for them. Make sure that you dry them thoroughly, so they don't get cold and don't wet anymore of them than you need to.

How do I deal with giving my pet medications?

Your rabbit may be on a variety of medications such as gut stimulants (prokinetics), pain relief (analgesia), antibiotics or topical medications such as eye or ear drops.

It is very important that your rabbit gets the correct dosage of all their medications at the right time of day and for the correct amount of time. You may find it helpful to write out a checklist for your rabbit's medications and then you can tick them off when you have administered them. If you are unsure about how to give your rabbit medication, how much to give or when to give them, then make sure you speak to your vet or a nurse to clarify any concerns. It is better to check and to get it right than give the wrong amount which can be dangerous.

If you have any problems medicating your rabbit speak to your vet again as they may be able to offer advice or prescribe alternative medication.

If you accidentally overdose your rabbit or forget to give them a dose, speak to your vet straight away before giving any more medication.

What about my rabbit's house and bedding?

It is very important to keep an ill rabbit warm, dry and comfortable. Rabbits that usually live outside are best brought indoors when they are ill so they can be kept warm and monitored more closely. However, this can be stressful so be mindful about where you place them in the house. It needs to be somewhere quiet and away from any other animals in the house, busy environments, away from direct heating such as radiators and loud noises from TV, radios or computers. Bedding rabbits on Vetbed, which draws urine away from the surface, is a good idea to help prevent urine scalding and sores, especially if the rabbit has limited movement - it will also keep them comfortable and warm. However, don't let the rabbit's environment become too warm, an ideal temperature is between 21-23°C.

If your rabbit is able to hop around, then provide them with a litter tray so they can get away from their urine and faeces. Rabbits that are unable to move, need to be turned from lying on one side of their body to the other side, every couple of hours (day and night) to prevent hypostatic pneumonia, whereby fluid builds up on one side of their chest, causing breathing problems.

If your rabbit has a companion, always keep them together. The companion will provide support to the other rabbit, groom them, help keep them warm and minimise their stress. Separating them will have a negative effect on both rabbits and may mean their bond is broken so they won't be able to live together again.

Can physiotherapy help?

Gentle massage and movement of limbs can help to keep your rabbit supple and prevent stiffness if they are unable to move very much - your vet or nurse will be able to show you how to do this. It is important not to try and physiotherapy or massage unless you have been shown how to, and care needs to be taken to ensure the rabbit does not become stressed.

When else should I look out for?

Hopefully you will see a gradual improvement in your rabbit's condition over time, but if you notice any of the following, you should speak to your vet straight away:

  • Trouble breathing, especially mouth breathing
  • Cessation of producing urine or faeces
  • Decreasing or complete loss of appetite
  • Pale/blue mucous membranes, eg gums
  • Diarrhoea - do not confuse with uneaten caecotrophs
  • Fitting or convulsions
  • Loud, painful grinding of the teeth
  • Breeding

Nursing a sick rabbit is very time consuming, tiring and hard work, but can also be very rewarding knowing that you are giving your rabbit the best care possible and seeing them get better is the best reward of all.

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