With improved husbandry, nutrition and medical care, many rabbits can nowadays live happily until 10-12 years of age. Breed variability exists as dwarf and giant rabbits have different life expectancy.
As a prey animal, rabbits are hard-wired to disguise any signs of illness, as this could make them a target for predators in the wild. Due to this, it can be especially tricky to recognise that they are unwell. Often, a rabbit is hopping about happily one minute, only to be collapsed and seriously ill the next. By bringing them for regular vet checks and monitoring them closely in their golden years, we can have a better chance of diagnosing any medical problems early and prevent struggles with ill health later in life. There are no specific signs related to the aging process and not all rabbits show obvious evidence of aging. However, some rabbits may show one or more of the following signs:
- Reduced mobility and agility
- Thinning of the fur and/or change in coat colour and condition
- Increased sleeping time
- Loss of muscle tone and/or weight loss.
In our clinics, the older rabbits we see experience these issues most commonly:
Some are surprised to learn that rabbits, just like other animals, can be affected with osteoarthritis that causes progressive wearing and damage of any joints but more commonly affects the spine. You may spot that their muscle here wastes away over time, making them look quite skinny over their spine. A painful rabbit may not be able to scratch his ears properly and this may cause an increased build-up of wax or even otitis. You might also pick up on the fact that they are moving about less and are grumpy when handled.
Some bunnies struggle to groom their back end and this can lead to fur matting and even faecal soiling, especially if they find it hard to ingest their caecotrophs (the soft poo that a normal rabbit should pass and quickly eat).
“Sore hocks” may worsen in these patients. A vet should examine rabbits showing any of these symptoms. Investigations may need to be performed (for example, x-rays or a CT scan) to try to identify the source of pain. Managing osteoarthritis may include a combination of the following:
- Essential to alleviate pain
- Dietary management to reduce weight in obese animals
- Nutritional supplements (e.g. chondroitin and glucosamine), which may have some benefits
- Environmental modifications (e.g. using non-slipping surfaces, removing ramps and preventing climbing, allowing easy access to food, water bowls and litter trays).
Some rabbits will suffer with dental issues their entire life, while others may only start to experience it in their twilight years. Rabbit molars are practically impossible to see without special equipment, so always ensure your vet checks your rabbit’s back teeth when brought in to be checked over. As teeth constantly grow, rabbits need to continue to eat lots of hay and grass to keep them in check. Watch out for the classic signs of dental disease:
- Reduced appetite
- Change in chewing motion
- Weight loss.
Uterine Cancer (adenocarcinoma)
Over 50% of older female rabbits who are not spayed can develop this cancer of the uterus. You may notice a vaginal discharge, weakness, lethargy and swollen mammary glands. If caught early enough, a surgery to remove the uterus should be successful in curing the cancer. However, it is best to prevent this disease completely by having rabbits spayed at a young age.
May be seen with increasing frequency in aging rabbits. Any abnormal swelling should be immediately checked and any effort should be made to establish the extent of the disease and any evidence of metastasis. Surgery may be effective in some cases.
A nasty condition whereby flies land on a rabbit’s bottom and lay eggs which hatch into maggots, fly strike can be quickly fatal as a rabbit goes into shock. Fly strike tends to occur in warmer weather and may affect old and unwell rabbits more than others as they become less mobile and more prone to faecal and urine soiling. Older rabbits should be checked for signs of fly strike twice daily in warm weather and a preventative product such as ‘Rearguard’ can be used in its prevention.
Sore Hocks (pododermatitis)
Can occur in rabbits of all ages. However, it is not uncommon for an older rabbit to show more severe lesions secondary to other concurrent diseases. Inflamed hocks may be seen more often in a rabbit that is less mobile, perhaps due to an injury or chronic arthritis. Those who are overweight are most at risk due to the extra pressure put on the limbs.
Improving husbandry, hygiene and adequate environmental modifications alongside investigations and treatment of underlying disease may help in some cases.
Other conditions that may be seen in older bunnies, may include:
- Liver disease
- Cataracts (clouding of the lens in the eye, which leads to a decrease in vision)
- Heart disease.
Just like any other pet, rabbits need some extra TLC when they become seniors. This means keeping a closer eye on them and having them seen by a vet regularly. While some bunnies can find vet visits stressful, it is important to ensure rabbits are up to date with vaccines and have frequent check-ups, especially in their old age.