Advice from the expert: How to care for ageing bunnies

By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut.

Our pet rabbits are living longer as we learn more about how to care for them and keep them healthy. However, these requirements change as they age and we need to be able to adjust their care appropriately.

When is a rabbit senior? This varies between breeds. 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 a Netherland Dwarf may not be classed as senior until 8! The best advice is to class every rabbit as an individual. Regular checks should be made on rabbits at any age but these health checks become even more important as they get older.

Important things to check include:

  • Weight checks – ideally weigh and body condition score weekly and record this, allowing any changes to be spotted
  • Checking their bottom to ensure no soiling, soreness or flystrike
  • Checking the feet to ensure no soreness or open wounds, and trim claws as they can overgrow when mobility is reduced
  • Check incisors and feel around the jawline for any lumps and bumps to indicate dental problems
  • Check down the sides of the head particularly in lop rabbits to feel for any lumps potentially indicating ear problems
  • Regular grooming to avoid them ingesting too much loose fur or having excess stuck in the coat, especially around moulting.

Activity levels of older rabbits vary due to a general calming down of behaviour as they mature and can also be affected by other 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 uncomfortable and usually leads to a restriction in activity levels. Typical signs can include a gradual slow down, reduced hopping (more ‘walking’), an unwillingness to ‘binky’, 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 you take your rabbit for a vet check, firstly to get a correct diagnosis of the condition, 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 needed.

As well as medical treatment, areas of the enclosure such as ramps and steps might need to be adjusted. 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 it is linked to specific breeds – Rex rabbits have a thinner layer of fur on their heels making them more susceptible. Providing soft bedding such as high-density polyester bed (e.g. Vetbed) can help to reduce the pressure and avoid issues.

The diet of a senior rabbit should still be 80% good quality hay, but the pellet food can be switched to a good quality senior variety – usually marketed from 4 years plus. It is generally recommended that an average adult rabbit has a tablespoon of pellets per kg body weight per day, this can vary with other health issues – speak to your veterinary team for advice. Being overweight as a senior rabbit can lead to issues with pressure sores as previously mentioned but also with grooming, leading to a higher risk of flystrike. 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. 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 same care should be provided for senior rabbits in extreme weather conditions, providing extra sources of warmth and insulation in cold temperatures and cooling packs with plenty of shade on hot days. Vaccination and flystrike prevention are still important in older rabbits. These visits can also be a perfect opportunity to get your rabbits fully and regularly health checked by your veterinary surgeon. 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.

Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for Nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).