Arthritis (osteoarthritis is most commonly seen in rabbits) is inflammation of the joints. It’s a very painful condition. It’s something we might expect to see in older rabbits but in fact, they can suffer from it when they’re still quite young. It’s likely that any rabbit over 6 will have some arthritis, but it may be present even in 2-year-olds.
Rabbits are prey animals, and they hide pain, so if your rabbit has arthritis, you may not realise until it’s in a lot of distress.
Giant breeds tend to become arthritic at a relatively younger age than smaller breeds.
What to look out for
Watch your rabbit after it has been lying still for a while. Do the first few steps look stiff?
Is there any wobbling?
Is there limping?
Can your rabbit eat caecotrophs direct from its bottom, or does it have to scoot around and eat them from the floor?
Does your rabbit’s bottom get dirty or urine soaked? Rabbits with arthritis aren’t able to angle their pelvis properly when they wee and that can mean they can’t completely empty their bladders.
This can cause bladder sludge or stones.
Does your rabbit move around less when it’s cold or damp?
Does your rabbit stop eating, and you aren’t able to pinpoint why?
Is there unexplained aggression either towards you or towards a bonded partner?
If the answer to some of these questions is yes, then it’s well worth asking your vet to assess your rabbit for arthritis.
What will a vet do?
Your vet will examine your rabbit flexing joints to see any pain reaction and to feel for stiffness.
X-rays may be taken to check for inflammation in the joints. However, your rabbit needs to be very still for x-rays, and this may mean sedation or anaesthesia, which has its own risks. Your vet may advise trying your rabbit with a short course of painkillers instead to see whether they will make a difference. The most commonly used long-term painkillers may have side effects, and your vet may want to check out your rabbit’s liver and kidney function first with blood tests.
Pain management is crucial here. It is vital to keep your rabbit comfortable, mobile and able to eat. Although there are no painkillers licensed for rabbits, there are products that work very well and can be given long-term. Your vet will need to monitor your rabbit fairly regularly to ensure the condition is properly controlled and your rabbit isn’t suffering side effects from the drugs. Some arthritic rabbits will continue to take painkillers for the rest of their lives.
How to help
Ensure your rabbit isn’t overweight. Obesity will put extra strain on the joints.
If floors are slippery, provide some covering so that your rabbit doesn’t slip and strain already inflamed joints.
Provide a litter tray that is low at the front so it’s easier for your rabbit to get in and out. You can cut down one side of an ordinary tray or else try a potting tray that would normally be used for gardening. If you cut down a tray, sand down the cut edges, so it isn’t sharp.
Keep your rabbit warm in cold and damp weather. Provide a microwaveable heat pad in very cold weather and overnight in the winter. If your rabbits live outside, you might start to bring them indoors during the winter.
Provide ramps or steps to get up to hutches etc. Make sure they aren’t slippery.
As with any rabbit, ensure that there’s plenty of exercise space. Gentle exercise is good for keeping arthritic joints supple.
Keep a careful eye on your rabbit’s bottom. It’s difficult for arthritic rabbits to bend around and clean themselves, so they are in increased danger from Flystrike.
Keep areas as free as possible from obstacles. A weak leg may get tangled in hay, or toes may be stubbed on things your rabbit has to pass. It will be harder for an arthritic rabbit to hop over obstacles, so a clear floor area is a great help.