By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut.
As we are taking greater care of our rabbits they are living longer which is wonderful, but does lead to some complications as they become more senior.
While in the past people expected their rabbits to be short lived pets, they are now routinely living to the age of 9 and above and the care of a young rabbit and a senior rabbit are very different.
At what age is a rabbit classed as senior? This is very difficult as it varies wildly between breeds. As with most species, larger breeds such as French Lops and Continental Giants have a shorter lifespan, being classed as senior as early as 3-4 years old, while the tiny Netherland Dwarf may not be classed as senior until 8! The best advice is to class every rabbit as an individual and to judge each on their own merits.
The mobility of senior rabbits can alter for a variety of reasons, from a general calming down of behaviour as they mature to issues with health conditions. Arthritis and/or spondylosis can affect older animals and is a multifactorial condition which essentially leads to stiffness and inflammation of joints. This makes movement more uncomfortable and often leads to a restriction in activity levels. The typical signs seen in cases such as these are a gradual slow down (can be difficult to spot), changes to the way they move including an unwillingness to binky, reduced hopping, dragging legs and not using areas of their enclosure they might have before e.g. shelves, ramps etc. If you spot any of these signs it is important that you take your rabbit for a vet check as soon as possible, firstly to get a correct diagnosis as some of these signs can be linked to several problems, but also to ensure that the correct treatment is started as early as possible to reduce pain and discomfort. The veterinary surgeon may recommend x-rays and lifelong medication might be recommended. As well as medical treatment, changes need to be reflected in the environment and the diet as mentioned later. Areas of the enclosure such as ramps and steps might need to be adjusted to allow for any limited mobility.
Reduced activity may also mean prolonged periods sitting in one place, which can lead to pressure sores (pododermatitis) on hocks. Other factors which can lead to pododermatitis include rabbits being overweight and their breed – Rex rabbits have a thinner layer of fur on their heels making them more prone to issues. Providing soft bedding such as high-density polyester bed (e.g. Vetbed) can help to reduce that pressure and avoid issues.
Dental issues can be a problem for rabbits at any age and have often presented themselves before this point, but traumatic malocclusion can occur at any age. As with rabbits of any age, any reduction in appetite or faeces output, change in food choice, dribbling, weight loss, overgrowth of incisors or lumps along the jawline should be investigated by a veterinary surgeon as soon as possible.
The diet of a senior rabbit should still be made up almost entirely of good quality hay, but the pellet food can be adjusted as senior diets are available – usually marketed from 4 years plus. The number of pellets needed for senior rabbits are variable based on the individual. It is generally recommended that an average adult rabbit has a tablespoon of pellets per kg body weight per day, for a senior rabbit with limited mobility this should be reduced to ensure they do not become overweight, however some rabbits can lose muscle mass as they age and may need more – again you can be led by your vet on the body condition score of your rabbit and gain advice to maintain their ideal weight. Being overweight as a senior rabbit can lead to issues with pressure sores as previously mentioned, but also issues with grooming. This can prevent them grooming properly, leading to a higher risk of flystrike (flies laying eggs on soiled areas of coat, hatching into maggots and eating into the flesh, often fatal).
Vaccination and flystrike prevention are still important in older rabbits, if anything more important as their immune system can decline with age and they can be at higher risk. These vaccination visits can also be a perfect opportunity to get your rabbits fully health checked by your veterinary surgeon and should be taken advantage of.
The same care should be provided for senior rabbits as any other rabbit in extreme weather condition, but they can be affected more severely so provide extra sources of warmth and insulation in cold temperatures and cooling packs with plenty of shade on hot days.
Regular checks should be made on rabbits of any age but these health checks become even more important as they get older. Sadly, as our rabbits become elderly we have to consider end of life care. While the decision to put a pet to sleep is difficult, if quality of life is affected to the point where the rabbit cannot behave in a normal manner without pain and discomfort euthanasia might need to be considered. If you want to discuss this further please contact your veterinary team who can help with this difficult time.
We are lucky that we get to keep our rabbit friends for longer but need to ensure we provide the best care at all life stages.