Diagnosing rabbit illnesses can be difficult even for experienced, rabbit-savvy vets and observations from the owner can be very helpful...
Rabbits are prone to a wide variety of ailments, the risk of which increases greatly in immuno-compromised or elderly rabbits (5 years +). Dental disease, parasitic illnesses such as E. Cuniculi, ear and eye infections, arthritis, abscesses and recurring bouts of GI stasis are all things which rabbit owners may find themselves dealing with on an ongoing basis. Many owners therefore become by necessity minor experts on a topic and the input of the owner in helping the vet treat the rabbit is invaluable.
Why are rabbits difficult to diagnose?
Rabbits are prey creatures and hide signs of illness instinctively as in the wild a sign of weakness would mark them out as easy prey to a predator. Often the only sign will be that the rabbit has stopped eating or is not moving around so freely. This lack of obvious symptoms can make it difficult for a vet to diagnose and treat a rabbit effectively. Perhaps more so than any other animal, rabbit owners and vets need to work very closely together.
What can I do as an owner?
Signs of illness tend to be picked up much quicker in house rabbits due to the fact that their owners are with them for a large part of the day and can observe any changes in behaviour. If you have a hutch rabbit, check on it at least 3 times a day and, if possible, spend some time observing it over a half hour period every day.
Check your rabbit's droppings daily - anything too small or too squishy may be a sign of illness. Check the urine also - it should be a golden brown colour and anything too white or cloudy is cause for concern. Watch it while it eats - if it drops bits of food, chews very slowly or dribbles, it may be suffering from teeth issues. Weigh your rabbit weekly and understand what its ideal weight should be - any sudden weight losses or gains that cannot be attributed to diet should be reported to your vet.
Observe your rabbit's behaviour - loss of litter training, biting, growling, aggression, 'laziness' i.e. unwillingness to move, lack of sociability etc can all be signs of illness instead of behavioural issues, which might seem the more obvious reason. Any out of character behaviour is a cause for concern and should be passed on to the vet to help with the diagnosis.
Keep a note of all this in your own rabbit health record. You can then pass this on to your vet if your rabbit becomes sick.
Whenever you are concerned about your rabbit, consult your vet as soon as possible - it is better to be safe than sorry and in some cases delays can be fatal. Give him/her all the information you can about your rabbit; even things which may seem minor can help in building up a bigger picture of what is going on.
Ultimately, all illnesses lead back to the stomach - a rabbit that is eating is a happy rabbit. Whatever the root cause of your rabbit's illness, if it stops eating it can be game over very quickly. Owners of rabbits with ongoing illnesses have to syringe feed their rabbit liquid food when necessary - for example, a rabbit that has spurs on its teeth which prevent it eating will need an operation under general anaesthetic but may have to wait a day to get booked into the vet for the op. In the meantime, the owner needs to keep the rabbit's digestive system moving by syringe feeding. Owners may also be required to give painkillers, usually orally but sometimes via injection under the skin.
Rabbits are fragile creatures, designed by nature to multiply quickly and die relatively young. Pet rabbits can live long, happy lives but are quite likely to develop health problems of some kind, particularly after the age of 7, and rabbit owners therefore often find themselves taking on a lot more responsibility than they had anticipated. It is a big commitment to care for a rabbit with health issues but with advances in rabbit medicine and knowledge it is certainly possible and often rewarding, leading to a very close personal bond between rabbit and owner.