Floppy rabbit syndrome
The term 'Floppy rabbit syndrome' is used to describe how a rabbit appears due to a sudden onset of muscular weakness. The condition has been attributed to several possible causes that can manifest as paralysis, paresis (weakness) or the rabbit having a generalised flaccid appearance.
How will I know if my rabbit has floppy rabbit syndrome?
Rabbits suffering from floppy rabbit syndrome have an appearance of generalised weakness, which varies in severity. The rabbit is likely to be unable to move around and will lie on the ground. Some are unable to lift their heads or even move their limbs. Up-eared rabbits are sometimes unable to lift their ears and they lie flat to their back. Rabbits will often eat and drink if food and/or water is placed in front of them and they may appear to be in pain.
How quickly does the condition appear?
The condition normally comes on suddenly.
Your rabbit may be fine in the evening and have the appearance of a floppy rabbit the following morning, or even just after a few hours since last seeing them.
What causes floppy rabbit syndrome?
No one really knows for sure, but there have been numerous possible reasons cited, some of which are more commonly seen in rabbits, as listed below.
Vitamin E deficiency/selenium deficiency
This has been described in rabbits and can be associated with food that has been stored too long and lost its nutrients.
Caused by the Eimeria coccidial species, of which several affect rabbits. All but one is found in the intestinal system.
Spondylosis within the vertebral column, scoliosis, lordosis and kyphosis has all been documented in rabbits. They can be incidental if no clinical signs are observed.
Metabolic disease such as hypokalaemia or hypocalcaemia
Low potassium or calcium within the blood.
Anorexic rabbits will quickly start to metabolise free fatty acids from tissue. These are then transported to the liver to be used as an energy source by the rabbit. They quickly start to cause fatty degeneration of the liver.
Botulism and ‘lettuce poisoning’ which contains lactucarium, which is an opioid compound can appear to make rabbits ‘sleepy’.
Parasitic infection that is rare in rabbits (common in cats) but can cause weakness and paralysis.
Rabbits kept indoors are more prone to lead toxicity, especially those in older houses where lead-based paints may be on the walls. Rabbits may lick or chew the walls and ingest the paint.
This has been cited as a possible cause of ‘floppy rabbit syndrome’, but no definitive cases have been identified in rabbits. Myasthenia gravis is an autoimmune disease whereby the immune system produces harmful antibodies that limit the voluntary muscle strength by blocking the receptor sites in the muscles.
How will my vet know what the cause is?
Your vet will want to perform a full clinical examination of your rabbit and will likely want to run blood work which will help determine if there is excess lead in the system, low potassium or calcium levels, check the glucose level and any problems with the rabbit's kidneys, liver, red and white blood cells. This can help to rule out several possible causes.
They may want to perform x-rays to check for any spinal abnormalities. They will also discuss with you the rabbit’s diet, living arrangements, any access to toxins they may have had, if they have a companion, and are fully vaccinated, etc. It is important that you try and provide as much information as possible as this will help your vet try and determine a cause.
It is sometimes not possible to get to the cause of the problem and often the rabbit will be treated symptomatically to help support them through the condition.
What treatment will my rabbit need?
If a diagnosis is made and the cause determined, then your vet will tailor the treatment not only to treat the underlying cause but also to support your rabbit. Often the rabbit is still eating and drinking and doesn’t appear to be in pain. If pain is identified or it is thought that the rabbit is in pain, then your vet will prescribe pain relief. It is important to ensure that the rabbit can reach its food and water and hand feeding may be necessary. Syringe feeding will be required if the rabbit isn’t eating or isn’t consuming enough. Your vet may recommend administration of subcutaneous fluids to help keep the rabbit hydrated.
Make sure the rabbit isn’t lying in their own urine and faeces – use bedding that soaks away the urine, such as Vetbed, and change frequently. You will need to collect the rabbit’s caecotrophs and hand feed them as it is important they still receive the nutrients that these provide, but they won’t be able to collect them to eat them themselves.
Wipe the rabbit’s eyes and ears and gently groom them each day to help the rabbit feel clean and comfortable. Ensure any medications that your vet prescribes is given at the correct dose, interval and method. If you are unsure always consult your vet.
You will need to keep your rabbit indoors in a confined area throughout their nursing care and ensure they don’t become too hot or cold.
What is the prognosis?
Depending upon the cause and severity, many rabbits make a full recovery in a matter of days. It is important to try and establish a cause as some possible reasons for the condition require specific treatment for the rabbit to recover.