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Find information on animal health topics, written for the veterinary professional.

Routine Health Care of Rabbits

By Diane McClure, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, Veterinarian, Animal Resource Center Veterinary Services

Rabbits should receive annual health checkups. Veterinarians may use techniques for physical examination of rabbits that are used for dogs and cats. A thorough examination of the mouth, including feeling the face and bottom of the jaw with the hands and fingers to distinguish between swellings that are solid and those that are filled with fluid, should be performed to evaluate dental health. An otoscope (an instrument with a light and magnifying glass usually used to examine ear canals) or a pediatric nasal speculum (an instrument with a mirror on it) can help in seeing the molars. Gender can be determined by depressing the external genitalia to reveal a slit-like vulva in females and a penis in males. The testicles descend at 10 to 12 weeks. Normal body temperature is 103 to 104°F ( 39.6 to 40°C). Body temperature less than 100.4°F ( 38°C) or greater than 105°F (40.6°C) is cause for concern.

Spaying or neutering helps prevent unwanted litters, spraying, aggressive behavior in males, and uterine cancer in females.

Nails should be trimmed every 1 to 2 months or as needed. Rabbits should never be declawed. They do not have the same type of nails as cats.

Routine vaccinations are not currently required for rabbits.

Signs of Illness

Signs of illness include discharge from the nose and eyes; fur loss and red, swollen skin; dark red urine; loss of energy, appetite, or weight; drooling; diarrhea or no droppings for more than 12 hours; not hopping or moving normally; and trouble breathing. A rabbit in pain may chatter or grind its teeth while sitting in a “hunched” position. If any of these signs occur, you should take the rabbit to your veterinarian immediately.

Giving Medication

Very few drugs are approved for use in rabbits. Occasionally, drugs approved for use in other species, such as cats or dogs, are used to treat rabbits. Caution is necessary when using antibiotics that suppress normal digestive system bacteria in rabbits. The use of inappropriate antibiotics may result in an imbalance in the normally occurring harmless intestinal bacteria, severe diarrhea, or even death. This has been called antibiotic toxicity. Antibiotics that should not be used in rabbits include clindamycin, lincomycin, erythromycin, ampicillin, amoxicillin/clavulanic acid, and cephalosporins. The flea treatment fipronil should not be used in rabbits, as it may be poisonous for some individuals.

Fasting before an operation is not required or recommended. Rabbits cannot vomit, and their stomachs are never empty, even after prolonged fasting. Your veterinarian may administer a pain-relieving medication prior to surgery to help reduce stress. It is critical to get rabbits eating after surgery, and treatment with pain medication for 1 to 2 days after surgery will help prevent loss of appetite. Hay and water should be offered as soon as possible following surgery. Alfalfa hay tends to entice rabbits with a poor appetite. Rabbits that will not eat after the surgery may require force feeding.

Rabbits will chew out skin sutures; therefore, veterinarians use an absorbable suture that is buried beneath the surface of the skin to close the incision. Rabbits also tolerate staples. Tissue glue has been used successfully as well.

Dental Care

Problems with the constantly-growing front teeth (incisors) are common in rabbits. Proper dental care will help prevent these sorts of problems.

Dental Malocclusion

Malocclusion of the teeth is usually inherited in rabbits but can be minimized with proper care.

All of a rabbit’s teeth, the incisors, premolars, and molars, grow throughout the life of the rabbit. This growth is normally kept in check by the normal wearing action of chewing and grinding of opposing teeth. However, problems with overgrown teeth can occur when the teeth are positioned unevenly in the jaw. This is known as malocclusion. Malocclusion is probably the most common inherited disease in rabbits and leads to overgrowth of incisors (front teeth), resulting in difficulty eating and drinking.

The 2 types of malocclusion in rabbits are an underbite (where the lower teeth stick out in front of the upper teeth), and an overbite (where the upper teeth stick out in front of the lower teeth). A veterinarian can anesthetize a rabbit with malocclusion and trim the teeth to minimize problems. Malocclusion is generally inherited, but young rabbits can damage their incisor teeth by pulling on the cage wire, which results in misalignment and possible malocclusion as the teeth grow. This condition is difficult to differentiate from inherited malocclusion. Inherited malocclusion generally can be detected in rabbits as young as 3 to 8 weeks old.

Occasionally, the cheek teeth overgrow and cause severe tongue or cheek wounds.

Dental Abscesses

Infection of the tissue surrounding a tooth may lead to abscesses. These can be caused by foreign objects (often plant material) that become embedded between the tooth and gum, exposure of the sensitive tissue at the center of a tooth (pulp) following tooth trimming, or other diseases or dietary problems. Several teeth are commonly affected. A thorough dental examination and x-rays are required to confirm the diagnosis. Pulling of the abscessed tooth may be necessary, along with procedures to prevent regrowth of the tooth. If multiple cheek teeth need to be pulled, the chance of recovery is small.

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