Rabbits are the third most popular pet in the UK and can make wonderful companions. Sadly, just like us, they can experience pain. While it generally has a protective function, if left uncontrolled it can seriously impact an animal’s quality of life. What can we do to make sure our bunnies have the best quality of life they can?
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What is pain?
Pain as a concept is quite complex. The definition of pain is ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience, associated with actual or potential tissue damage’, meaning it not only involves what you feel, but how that makes you feel too.
Pain can broadly be placed into two categories:
This happens when a potentially harmful stimulus (like cutting, crushing or burning) is applied to the body, and acts to protect it by causing a withdrawal from the danger and resting to recuperate. Rabbits can experience this kind of pain after surgery, due to injury, or secondary to other conditions.
This kind of pain is persistent and long lasting, arthritis (joint inflammation), which often affects animals for a number of years. It can fluctuate in severity, meaning that sometimes ‘breakthrough’ pain can occur.
What are the signs of pain in rabbits?
Rabbits are prey species and therefore it can be more difficult to know when they’re not their usual selves. The most important thing you can do as an owner is to have a good idea of what is normal and what is not for your pet. Common things to look out for include:
- Loss of appetite
- Increased respiratory rate
- Reluctance to move
- Grinding their teeth
- Squinting eyes
- Lethargy and depression
- Difficulty getting comfortable
- Hunched posture
- Reduced grooming
- Behaviour changes, including uncharacteristic aggression
Why might my rabbit be in pain?
Obviously, there are many things that may cause pain in rabbits, but common things are common! Conditions frequently dealt with by vets include:
This condition occurs when the guts slow down or stop moving all together. This can lead to bloating or even an obstruction, both of which are extremely painful. If left untreated, it can be fatal. Common signs to look out for include a reduced appetite, reduced faecal output and lethargy.
Rabbits have continuously growing teeth, which can become overgrown due to poor diet or malformations in the mouth. This can lead to painful ulceration. It is likely that they won’t want to eat, or eat slowly, and may generally be quieter than usual.
This is the medical term for joint inflammation, particularly in the lower spine, hips, knees and elbows. They may seem ‘slower’, stiffer, and may have difficulty grooming.
Rabbits can, of course, get into accidents and experience injuries like sprains and fractures. In this case, your rabbit may limp or not want to put weight on a limb.
What can be done?
Your vet will be able to guide you as to best help manage your rabbit’s pain. They will be able to choose pain-relief most suited to your rabbit and their condition. Common painkillers used for rabbits include:
Always give medications as instructed and always contact your vet if you have any questions about the medication your rabbit is receiving. And never, never use human medicines in a rabbit without checking with your vet – the dose rates are quite different even in those medicines which can be used safely.
It is important to consider quality of life in cases of chronic pain, particularly if it becomes very difficult to manage the pain your rabbit is experiencing. In cases such as these, your vet may offer euthanasia.
Knowing what is normal for your rabbit is very important and makes it easier to spot changes in their behaviour. Keep a close eye on what they’re eating and drinking, plus their toileting habits. Changes in demeanour should also be taken seriously. If you are concerned about your rabbit, you should contact your vet immediately.