How do I know if a rabbit is in pain?

Rabbits are becoming an increasingly popular pet in the UK, and it is important that owners are fully aware of all of their needs, from diet, to housing. It is very likely that at various points in their lifetime, a rabbit will experience pain in some form, and as a caregiver, it is important that we help to alleviate this pain. The first step of this is being able to recognize when this is happening – not so easy when they can not talk to us!

Is pain different for rabbits?

Pain is described in humans as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience, associated with actual or potential tissue damage’. It is very likely that animals, including rabbits, feel pain in the same way that we do, and therefore should be managed appropriately.

Signs of pain

Because they are a prey species, the way that rabbits will show signs of pain is very different to that of a cat or dog. The signs tend to be much more subtle, making them very difficult to interpret – tricky when they already can not tell us what’s wrong! Common things to look out for include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Reluctance to move
  • Squinting eyes
  • Lethargy and depression
  • Difficulty getting comfortable
  • Limping
  • Reduced grooming

What can cause these signs?

There are a vast number of conditions that can cause pain in rabbits, but these are some of the more common ones.

Gut stasis

This is an important condition to highlight, and is a very common reason for a rabbit to present to a vet, and can be potentially life threatening. It occurs when the intestines stop moving as normal, or all together, leading to painful bloating, and even an obstruction. You are likely to have noticed that your rabbit is not eating as much as usual or has stopped eating entirely, and generally seems uncomfortable. Gut stasis can occur secondary to something else, be that poor nutrition, dental disease, liver disease and tumors. It is important that these cases are seen and treated by a vet as quickly as possible.

Injury

Injuries like sprains and breaks will obviously be painful, and in this case, you may see your rabbit limping or not wanting to put weight on a limb.

Dental pain

Rabbit dentition is very different, as their teeth as constantly growing, and rely on their diet to keep the teeth at a suitable length. If this does not happen, or there are malformations within their mouth, painful ulceration can occur. It is very likely that your rabbit’s appetite will be the first thing to go

Arthritis

This painful condition can also affect older rabbits, particularly in their hips and lumbosacral region. Often with these cases, it will become too painful for a rabbit to groom properly, so you may also notice matting and faeces around their back end.

How can they be treated?

It is extremely important that if your rabbit seems under the weather to take them to the vet straight away. Because they are so good at masking pain, it is very possible that their condition could be much more serious than they are letting on. Your rabbit will require a full physical examination, including a dental exam and it is likely that you will be offered a further work-up, perhaps blood test and imaging, to help get to the bottom of what is causing the pain.

Pain relief is vital. There are a number of options for your vet to choose from. These may include the following:

  • Meloxicam (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory) 🡪 useful for milder pain
  • Opioids 🡪 useful for severe, acute pain
  • Paracetamol
  • Tramadol

Depending on the underlying cause of the disease, other medication may be indicated, including pro-kinetics (drugs that encourage intestinal movement). They may also need to go on IV fluids (a ‘drip’). Some conditions may also require surgical management. Your vet will guide you on what options are available for you and your pet.

In conclusion

If you are at all concerned that your rabbit may be in pain, seek veterinary advice immediately. The sooner you do so, the better. You know your rabbit better than anyone, so if something seems different, do not hesitate to ask for help – it could save your rabbit’s life!

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