Arthritis in rabbits


I can’t wait to discuss arthritis in rabbits with you as it is such an important part in my support as a hospice vet at Dignipets when discussing the plan at home with rabbit carers. As we know rabbits have many predators in the wild and just because they are in a safe environment in your care it doesn’t mean that their behaviour is any different from rabbits in the wild. This means that your rabbit is programmed to hide discomfort. Weakness and vulnerability can are high risk in nature and even though it is felt it is too high risk to show.

Rabbits, wild or domestic, are programmed to hide weakness
Rabbits, wild or domestic, are programmed to hide weakness

Arthritis/joint inflammation can develop in rabbits as young as 2 years so it is important to keep looking for signs and start early with adjustments and pain relief. So how can we make sure we recognise arthritis in our own rabbits?

Signs (warning! can be subtle)

  • Stiffness best spotted after a long moment of lying still. Cold or damp weather increases their stiffness.
  • Struggling with litter tray/others avoidance of litter tray or obvious signs to painful to enter. You may notice sores on the hocks from sitting for long periods or marks on the front of the hindlegs where they are constantly knocked as they can not clear steps.
  • Not able or willing to climb litter tray or other parts of environment not used/forgotten
  • Struggling to clean bottom every rabbit owner knows checking your rabbits bottom is an important part of keeping them safe. Rabbits with arthritis aren’t able to angle their pelvis properly when they wee and that can mean they can’t completely empty their bladders. Is your rabbits bottom dry? Is your rabbit eating caecotrophs from the floor or directly from his bottom as normal?
  • Appetite changes are unexplained appetite changes occurring?
  • Hunched up wobbling, limping everything you notice that is a marked change is important. Are their joints warm and swollen?
  • Aggressive behaviour to you or friends rabbits bond and for them to change their behaviour to their bonded friend can be a sign. Remember that pain and fear are underlying and although it hurts to see the bond disappear please test it so you can recognise and help our rabbit in a timely fashion.


What can we do for support?

Number 1 Ask for it

The first thing to mention is involve EVERYONE that is involved with your rabbit even if it is just by seeing them regularly. Explain what is going on and start a see and report system. Give them the link to this article. Start a WhatsApp group called Rabbit watch and exchange observations on there. When you have guests who see your rabbit infrequently ask them for their opinion about your rabbit’s behaviour or movements.

Your rabbit’s diet and other tips
  • Ensure your rabbit isn’t too heavy. Obesity will put extra strain on the joints.Get a kitchen weigh scale to observe your rabbits weight but make sure the surface is not slippery and the weighing itself is not a frightening or painful experience! A good diet for a rabbit is 80% grass or hay, 5% pelleted food and the rest vegetables and treats. There are senior foods with joint supplements but there is no research yet to prove it is helpful. If the effect is similar to what we see in other pets and you are considering making this purchase then it is important to start when symptoms are still mild so your rabbit has the long term benefit.
A good diet for a rabbit is 80% grass or hay, 5% pelleted food and the rest vegetables and treats
A good diet for a rabbit is 80% grass or hay, 5% pelleted food and the rest vegetables and treats
Make changes in their environment
  • If floors are slippy, provide some covering so that your rabbit doesn’t slip and strain already inflamed joints.
  • Keep areas as free as possible from obstacles. A weak leg may get tangled in hay, or toes may be stubbed on things your rabbit has to pass. It will be harder for an arthritic rabbit to hop over obstacles, so a clear floor area is a great help.
  • Provide a litter tray that is low at the front so it’s easier for your rabbit to get in and out. You can cut down one side of an ordinary tray or else try a potting tray that would normally be used for gardening. If you cut down a tray, sand down the cut edges, so it isn’t sharp.
  • Do they have ramps or steps to get up to hutches? Make sure they aren’t slippery.
Check them and their surroundings regularly
  • Keep a careful eye on your rabbit’s bottom. It’s difficult for arthritic rabbits to bend around and clean themselves, so they are in increased danger from the dreaded fly strike.
  • Keep your rabbit warm in cold and damp weather. You can provide a microwaveable heat pad in very cold weather and overnight in the winter. If your rabbits live out, you might start to bring them indoors during the winter.
  • As with any rabbit, ensure that there’s plenty of exercise space. Gentle exercise is good for keeping arthritic joints supple.


Pain Medication and Management

Managing the pain is crucial with arthritis in rabbits. Although there are no painkillers licensed for rabbits, there are products that work very well and can be given long-term. These are normally NSAIDS (Non-Steroidal Anti Inflammatory Drugs) that reduced the inflammation in the joint. Your vet will need to monitor your rabbit regularly to ensure the condition is properly controlled and your rabbit isn’t suffering side effects from the drugs. Some arthritic rabbits will continue to take painkillers for the rest of their lives. It is very important to not withdraw pain relief when you can not monitor your rabbit closely. If someone else is caring for your rabbit or your rabbit is boarding always make sure you can provide with exact instructions and plenty of medication and make sure they can reach you to sense check certain behaviour.

Pain management is not just limited to medication and can also involve acupuncture and arthritis combined with NSAIDs.

I still have questions?

At Dignipets we are available to discuss your rabbits welfare so please do not hesitate to get in touch.

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