Hospitalising rabbits

Caring for rabbits is a challenging task, particularly when a loving owner hands over the responsibility to you and your veterinary team. It’s essential we remember that rabbits are a prey species, and will always be acutely alert to potential danger. We must therefore ensure we make them feel safe, secure and comfortable during their stay at the surgery to try and reduce stress and pain related problems.

Posted: 26 June 2018

Hospitalising rabbits

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The stress of hospitalisation alone can cause major issues, and in some cases can sadly result in death from gut stasis.

Critical times include post surgery (routine neutering), post anaesthesia (dental procedures) and intensive medical care (e.g. following myiasis).

At Burgess Pet Care we are passionate when it comes to rabbit welfare, so we’ve put together a guide to keeping rabbits happy in hospital. Below are our 14 top tips.

Hospitalising rabbits – 14 top tips

1. Ask about home – on admission, ask the owner as much about the rabbit’s routine and home as possible. Find out about their husbandry and feeding routines. Some suggested questions would include;

  • What is fed and how much? - You could also ask them to bring their pet’s favourite food to offer whilst hospitalised.
  • How much is usually eaten?
  • How is water offered at home – bottle or bowl?
  • Litter tray – do they use one at home, and if so, what litter?
  • Any medications to be given during the day?
  • Companions – should they come in for company?

2. Use a rabbit ward – in an ideal world, we would all have a quiet room, away from the dogs and cats, which can be devoted to the care of rabbits and small fibrevores. In the absence of this, then it’s better to find a quiet part of the practice rather than place your patient in the same room as predators.

3. Use a large cage – rabbits need to feel secure but also need space for exercise. Cat baskets and cat cages should be avoided. A better alternative is a rabbit enclosure. Make sure it can be cleaned effectively between patients.

4. Provide hiding places – being a prey species, rabbits will seek places to hide when stressed. Simple disposable cardboard boxes with access holes cut into them will provide plenty of opportunity for your patient to jump inside and feel secure.

5. Encourage foraging – stuff small cardboard tubes (toilet rolls work very well) and use hanging balls with good quality hay. Rabbits will move about, explore, browse and pull out the hay.

6. Take time to observe – whilst in your care, checked the patient regularly. Look for normal behaviour, observing and recording the resting respiratory rate before handling. Check for any unusual behaviours such as teeth grinding, yawning, excessive grooming, salivating or wheezing. Signs that a rabbit is suffering from fear or stress include;

  • Hiding
  • Over grooming
  • Excessive drinking
  • Chewing cage bars
  • Motionless in cage
  • Sitting with a hunched appearance
  • Nervous expression e.g. bulging eyes
  • Aggression when handled – biting or thumping back legs
  • Heavy breathing
  • Reluctance to move
  • Repeated circling in the cage

7. Look at the ears and facial expression - the Rabbit Grimace Scale can be used to assess pain in the hospitalised rabbit.

Find out more about the Grimace Scale here >

8. Examine at a quiet time - the clinical examination is best on the consulting room table at a quiet time of day. Use a towel or vet-bed on the table to prevent slipping.

9. Provide heat – as with all patients post surgery and anaesthesia, thermal regulation needs to be supported. Under-floor heat pads are great, but do make sure the electric cables aren’t accessible for chewing. Don’t forget to provide a cooler area as well, to allow the rabbit to select its preferred temperature zone.

10. Keep everything clean – transmission of diseases such as E.cuniculi is a risk in any hospital situation. Be vigilant and have a practice protocol on cleaning food and water bowls, litter trays, boxes and cages.

11. Give pain relief – rabbits will rapidly deteriorate if they are left to cope with pain. They are so good at hiding the signs, often sitting there quietly and motionless. Therefore be proactive with good pain relief pre and post surgery. Common analgesics used include meloxicam and buprenorphine.

12. Motility support – all cases of gut stasis need early medical management. Drugs such as metoclopramide and ranitidine will help support the peristaltic movements and protect from gastric irritation.

13. Critical Care Feeding – we’re all used to syringe feeding our rabbit patients. Make sure you use the best quality, long fibre foods available. We have a great product called Excel Dualcare which can be mixed with water and syringe fed. Another product commonly used in the early very critical stages of nutritional care is Emeraid.

Have you read our article on syringe feeding rabbits? >

14. Handle with care – nervous rabbits can associate handling with being carried by a predator, so be aware incase it tries to escape your grip. It’s at this time they can injure themselves if not restrained appropriately. Place one hand on the shoulder and the other under the body. Hold firmly against your body. Sometimes it helps to cover the head with a soft towel to restrict vision and hearing.

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