Rabbits in the wild are at the bottom of the food chain. It’s hard-wired into them not to show any sign of weakness. If they show any sign of illness or disability, to make them look slow and vulnerable, they’ll end up as somebody’s dinner. This instinct is present in our pet rabbits too.
This makes it very hard for us to know when they are in pain, and we have to watch carefully for unusual behaviour.
Wherever the pain is coming from, it’s likely to affect their appetite. This is vitally important because to keep a healthy gut, rabbits must constantly be grazing; this is one reason they must always have a constant supply of fresh hay.
stiffness after lying still (possible back problems or arthritis in joints)
difficulty walking (possibly arthritis, sore hocks (pictured), a back problem or Ec)
Drugs that will help reduce pain
If you think your rabbit is showing any of the signs above or is otherwise behaving unusually, then you must take it to the vet immediately. It is very unlikely for the condition to improve once your rabbit is showing signs of distress, and It’s vital to get the pain under control as quickly as possible. Although no pain-killing medications are licensed for rabbits, a rabbit-savvy vet will have a good experience of what drugs are effective and safe when used at the proper dosage.
Until recently, you might have been told to give your rabbit only a few drops of the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug Meloxicam (Metacam, Loxicam, Meloxidyl, Inflacam, Meloxivet, Revitacam or Rheumocam are brand names for this medicine). This is not an effective dose, and vets have learned that, in fact, your rabbit will need quite a substantial dose. You might be surprised to learn that you’ll need to use more than for a dog, weight for weight, and considerably more than for a cat. Your vet will be able to find recommended dosage levels in the current edition of the BSAVA Formulary.
As with any drug, there are risks in using it. It is available only if prescribed by your vet, who will discuss any risks with you and will take any other factors in your rabbit’s general health into account, most importantly, the current health of the liver and kidneys.
Meloxicam should not be used with other anti-inflammatory drugs or steroids.
At times of more severe pain and quite often as part of surgical procedures, your vet may prescribe Buprenorphine (known by many different trade names). This is a much stronger drug and is a morphine derivative. At least in some rabbits, it will cause drowsiness and possibly a lessening of appetite (although its effects on reducing the risk of GI problems due to pain very much outweigh this).
Many other pain-controlling drugs are known to be relatively safe to use with rabbits, but they all have the danger of side effects, and you must always follow veterinary advice when using them. You should discuss a personalised pain management plan for your rabbit in both the short term (e.g. following surgery) and longer-term (e.g. with chronically painful conditions such as arthritis and pododermatitis).