The rabbit examination – 10 top tips

Providing good quality veterinary nursing care to rabbits can be quite a challenge in practice. In order to achieve we must have a thorough understanding of all their special requirements as well as understanding the common clinical conditions they present with.

In this article we’ve got lots of advice to help you provide the best.

Posted: 07 March 2018

The rabbit examination – 10 top tips


Don’t rush the examination

Being able to make an effective assessment of the animal is key. Always visually assess the patient from a distance before rushing in to making your physical examination.

Take your time, read the history and ask lots of questions. Watch the animal to see how it’s responding.

Questions you might ask include;

  • Animal details – ask the age, breed, sex. How long have they kept rabbits? Where did the animal come from?
  • Companions – do they live with any other rabbits or small mammals
  • Diet – what are they currently feeding? How much?
  • Housing – where does the patient live? What king of space, shelter, heating, bedding. How often is it cleaned?
  • General alertness – is the patient bright, alert, responsive and aware of its surroundings?
  • Respiration – what is it’s breathing like? Fast, slow, more effort, noisy?
  • Pain – is there any evidence of pain or discomfort? Any grunting, unusual stance, licking wounds or limbs?
  • Check for abnormalities – look for lesions, swellings, discharge, bleeding
  • Beware of stress – many rabbits will exhibit a ‘stress’ response, where they’ll appear to freeze in the consulting room. This will typically mask signs of illness.

Only after watching the animal for a few minutes should you attempt to begin your hands on clinical examination.

A different approach

As a result of their unique biology you need to modify your approach to examining a rabbit compared to a dog or cat. The emphasis is often on identifying areas of sub-optimal husbandry and diet as many of their problems are attributed to either or both of these areas.

It’s also important to make an assessment of how much the animal can tolerate at any given time during its examination and treatment. Because of the unique way that rabbits fall to ‘stress’ and ‘gut stasis’, it may be necessary to carry out your tests and examination in a staged fashion, allowing the patient recuperation time between handling periods. It may also be safer to consider sedation or anesthesia to minimize stress.

The rabbit examination – our 10 top tips

  1. Take time – rabbits require careful handling which often means more time will be required. Don’t allow rabbit consultations to be rushed. They may need a double appointment slot. It’s also better to schedule the appointments at the end of your morning appointments when all the noise, hustle and bustle of a busy surgery has settled down.
  2. Critical care – be prepared for a ‘sick rabbit’ being critical. They hide disease well, and by the time they come to the surgery are often in a life threatening condition requiring critical care and nursing. Supportive care is essential. Make sure your practice is prepared with the appropriate staff, equipment, drugs and facilities.
  3. Prone to stress – most rabbits will be stressed when in unusual situations and are intolerant to handling and the stress it induces.
  4. Give appropriate warnings - even when treatment seems to be going well, many rabbits can become compromised and critical very quickly. Owners need to be aware and informed of this problem.
  5. Knowledgeable staff – it’s most important that anyone working with rabbits has a good knowledge. Key members of the clinical team should be identified and asked to lead rabbit welfare in the practice.
  6. Appropriate CPD – all staff working regularly with rabbits should receive training regarding their handling and husbandry. It may help to hold training sessions within the practice. Did you know that Burgess Pet Care supports free CPD via The Webinar Vet? Take a look at our CPD archive here.
  7. Specialist drugs and supplies - some additional equipment and medications will be needed. For example you’ll need to include small gauge needles, small syringes, specialist endotracheal tubes.
  8. Rabbit only ward - Prepare a space in your practice that is ready to care for small mammals only. A quiet space away from the smell and sounds of dogs, cats and other predators.
  9. Rabbit protocols - create a plan to respond to medical emergencies. It’s worth discussing within your team to ensure you have a common approach to most of the common medical or surgical conditions.
  10. Antibiotics - avoid using oral penicillin, clindamycin, cephalosporin and oxytetracyclin.

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