Even as recently as a couple of decades ago, it wasn’t typical to see many senior rabbits. Nowadays with increasingly knowledgeable owners and advancing veterinary care, senior rabbits are a relatively common occurrence.
However, as rabbits age, their needs often change and in order to support our OABs (Old Age Bunnies!), some adjustments to their care is often required.
When is a rabbit classed as being senior?
This is slightly complex since, as with dogs, rabbits come in many shapes and sizes and age differently, so classing a rabbit as a ‘senior’ isn’t set in stone. These are all general guidelines and some rabbits may show signs of ageing sooner than others, and therefore the individual rabbit should be assessed and considered rather than simply generalising and categorising by age alone.
The small breeds of rabbit, such as the Netherland Dwarf and Polish are often long-lived.
Lifespan: 12 to 13 years of age
Considered senior: 8 years or older
Medium sized breeds of rabbit, ranging from dwarf lops to those of up to around 3.5-4kg in weight.
Lifespan: 9 to 10 years of age
Considered senior: 6 years or older
The large and giant breeds of rabbit, Continental giant, French lop, Belgian hare, New Zealand white etc.
Lifespan: 4 to 7 years of age
Considered senior: 4 years or older
Many food companies now offer extruded nuggets specifically manufactured for the dietary needs of senior rabbits. Adult rabbits require no more than a tablespoon of pellets per kilogram of body weight per day, but senior rabbits may require slightly more in order to keep their weight from dropping. However, senior rabbits are generally less active than their younger counterparts, so may need fewer pellets. Monitor your rabbit’s weight carefully. You will need accurate scales to pick up slight increases and decreases in weight. Weigh your rabbit weekly and if he’s losing or gaining weight, then adjust his pellets accordingly.
It’s slightly more complicated when you have a pair of rabbits, with one that requires extra calories to the other. In this situation, you may need to separate the rabbits for half an hour a day, to give the senior rabbit a chance to eat extra pellets. The other rabbit can be offered a few handfuls of grass so as not to feel left out! Ensure that both rabbits can still see and smell each other and put them back together as soon as they have finished eating.
Generally senior rabbits do not require any form of supplementation. A good diet should provide all of the vitamins and minerals they require and giving extra supplements can prove dangerous, especially an increased calcium intake. This can lead to stones or sludge forming within the urinary tract, since rabbits metabolise calcium differently from other mammals.
If you feel that your rabbit may have a need for supplements, you should discuss this with your vet before introducing them.
Common ailments and treatments
Many senior rabbits may have some degree of dental disease. This is often diagnosed long before the rabbit reaches a senior age, but traumatic malocclusion can occur at any time. Any rabbit eating less, favouring different foods, losing weight, salivating, producing fewer droppings or showing any swellings around their mouth and jaw, should have a thorough dental examination, including skull x-rays to assess the tooth roots.
Arthritis and spondylosis
Arthritis and spondylosis are much more common and vastly under-diagnosed in pet rabbits. Many perceive the rabbit as simply slowing down with old age, but in truth the rabbit is very probably suffering from arthritis and/or spondylosis. Your vet can take x-rays to assess the bones/joints for these problems and medication (which is often for the rest of the rabbit’s life), can be prescribed. This is normally liquid Meloxicam, which is a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), and well tolerated by rabbits. This often makes a vast improvement to the rabbit’s mobility within a short space of time.
It is advisable to perform a blood test to ensure the rabbit doesn’t have any non-symptomatic renal disease prior to starting Meloxicam, and repeat bloods every 3-6 months. Some vets may also prescribe a drug called Raniditine which may help to protect the intestine from possible ulcers as a result of the Meloxicam. This is given alongside Meloxicam.
Keeping their bottoms clean, may be a problem if they are arthritic or overweight, so ensure that these problems are rectified and help your rabbits to keep themselves clean in the meantime.
Senior rabbits are often less active than their younger counterparts and may require their claws to be clipped more frequently as they will not be naturally wearing them down.
Senior entire female rabbits are at a massive risk for reproductive cancers (up to 80% of entire females by the age of 5 years) The symptoms are often not noticeable until the disease is advanced. Therefore spaying all female rabbits at a young age cannot be recommended enough.
Pressure points/sores and Pododermatitis
Pressure points/sores and Pododermatitis may develop if the rabbit isn’t housed on thick and absorbent bedding. Vetbed, which draws any urine away from the body is excellent for senior bunnies, and especially those with mobility problems, excess weight, or a thin layer of fur on the feet, which is found with Rex rabbits.
Elderly rabbits normally have some degree of mobility problems, which will vary from rabbit to rabbit.
Indoor rabbits may need rubber-backed mats placing over slippery kitchen or laminate flooring so they can grip better when hopping around.
Low sided litter trays are often needed, since the rabbit may struggle to hop in and out of high sided trays. Plastic dog beds make excellent litter trays for elderly rabbits, since they have an entrance cut out of them but still have high sides around the rest.
Outdoor rabbits who have a two-storey hutch, or hutch with a ramp into the run area are likely to struggle to get up and down a ramp. You may need to revise their accommodation and remove the ramp.
Losing a companion
Ultimately this is the saddest part of owning a rabbit, but companion rabbits may also grieve, especially if the rabbits have lived together all their lives.
Allowing the rabbit who is left behind time to be with the other rabbit’s body may be necessary so they are able to understand that their companion has gone. This should be supervised and once the rabbit has lost interest in the body, they should be separated.
Spending extra time with the rabbit who is left behind, stroking and talking to him, giving him an extra treat, extra toys and understanding that he too may be grieving, will all help him to accept the situation.
Senior rabbits who have lost a companion or have never had one are normally accepting of a new bunny friend, so a suitable companion should be sought.
Senior bunnies are wonderful and should be treasured. Their personalities shine through, and their ageing faces and grey hairs make them more endearing. With special considerations given to their needs, they can live full and active lives. They may be less active, sleep more and need extra care, but they will thank you tenfold just by sharing their lives with you.