Unfortunately, rabbit owners may have to deal with an emergency involving their pet. It is essential to know how to recognize and deal with such emergencies before they arise and to know who to contact when they do. Immediate veterinary attention can mean the difference between life and death for a very sick or injured rabbit. Getting your rabbit to the vet’s clinic (where all the necessary equipment is on hand) is quicker and gives it a better chance than calling the vet out to your home. The most important thing to remember in an emergency is – Don’t panic! – this could cause further anxiety for an already frightened animal and it wastes valuable time.
Firstly, make sure your rabbit is registered with a local veterinary practice and keep their telephone number in a safe place. Secondly, you need to know what signs are normal in your rabbit in terms of temperament, habits, appetite, urination/defaecation and stance. Thirdly, as a matter of routine, you need to check on your rabbit at least twice a day – first thing in the morning and again at night. This way, you will notice signs of developing problems at an early stage. You should always check for the following signs:
- Teeth – look for overgrown incisors (front teeth)
- Drooling from the mouth
- Watery eyes
- Sneezing/discharge from the nose, often with matted fur on the front paws
- Lumps around the eye or jaw
- Soiling around the bottom
If you notice any of the above in your rabbit, call your vet promptly for an appointment.
The common emergencies with rabbits are:
- Bleeding wounds
- Fractured limbs or spine
- Severe diarrhoea
- Fly strike
Rabbits in pain usually adopt a hunched-up posture. They will not show any interest in food or their surroundings. They often half-close their eyes and grind their teeth loudly (NB some rabbits also grind their teeth when they’re happy!). There any many possible causes of pain but gastrointestinal problems and dental disease are probably the most common. Call your vet for advice.
Fighting with another rabbit or an attack by a dog can result in severe bleeding. Direct pressure should be applied to the wounds by clean, washed hands or a clean cloth or gauze pad. If the bleeding continues, contact your vet. Any rabbit that has been attacked by a dog/fox/ferret/cat should be taken to the vet – even if there are no obvious external wounds. The internal organs may be damaged and the rabbit may be suffering from shock which can be fatal.
Fractured limbs or spine
Fractures can occur if a rabbit is dropped, or falls, from a height. There may be obvious signs of injury, eg the rabbit may have difficulty moving around or be lame on one leg. These injuries need urgent attention – call your vet immediately.
Most rabbits at some time will produce runny or soft pellets while appearing as alert and active as usual. This is normal – your rabbit does not need to see the vet unless the pellets do not return to their normal appearance after 2-3 days. However, rabbits that have severe diarrhoea (liquid/watery faeces produced in pools) and show signs of pain (see above) or a lack of interest in food and their surroundings, should be taken to the vet promptly. Rabbits with severe diarrhoea are at risk of becoming dehydrated.
‘Fly strike’ is the term used to describe the condition caused by flies laying their eggs on the skin/fur of a rabbit. The eggs hatch out into maggots which burrow into the skin of the rabbit and start to eat its flesh. The maggots release chemicals into the rabbit’s bloodstream which can kill it. This is a really horrible condition and the prognosis for affected rabbits is very poor. The flies are attracted by feces or urine soiling on the rabbit’s fur. This can result if the rabbit is overweight, has bladder or digestive problems, or is kept in unsanitary conditions.
If you find maggots on your rabbit – you must take it immediately to the vet.