Hocks are the joints facing backwards in a rabbit’s hind legs, the equivalent of a heel on humans. They are a crucial part of the way the hind legs work and keep a spring in their step. When rabbits are moving fast they stand just on their toes and the hock is up off the ground rather like the hind leg of a dog, a cat or a horse. When they are moving more slowly the hock is flat on the ground giving them very long feet to balance on.

Rabbits can develop pressure sores on the hocks and undersides of the feet. This is technically known as pododermatitis and commonly called sore hocks or sore heels. There are things you can do to prevent the condition.

Flat feet

It’s important that the foot can be properly flat and that the rabbit’s weight isn’t thrown back onto the hock, so:  

  • The surface your rabbits live on needs to allow their claws to dig in so the foot stays flat. Ideally and most naturally this would be grass. Wood, paving, concrete etc are too firm and therefore not suitable long-term. The surface also shouldn’t be abrasive which means that carpet also isn’t really suitable. We recommend veterinary bedding/fleece for indoor rabbits.
  • Claws must be trimmed regularly so they don’t force the rabbit’s weight backwards onto the hocks.  
  • The rabbits shouldn’t be overweight. Research found that overweight rabbits are for more likely than rabbits of a recommended weight to suffer from sore hocks.

Keep checking those heels

Examine your rabbit daily, paying attention to the quality of hair over the feet. Familiarise yourself with what a healthy rabbit’s foot looks like.

A small bald patch (about the size of a match head) on the hock is normal, but if any of the following apply then it is a sign of painfulness and you need to see your rabbit friendly vet urgently:

  • The fur is unusually short or thinning.
  • The bald patch is bigger than a match head.
  • The skin is a dark pink or red colour.
  • There is any sign that the rabbit is in pain or discomfort.

Even a small sore can very quickly develop into an abscess so don’t delay if you see any of the warning signs. 

Ground covering (outdoor rabbits)

Ideally rabbits should live on grass.  However, because of the risk of escape or of predators digging into a run, many people keep their rabbits on solid surfaces. This isn’t great for the hocks. Imitation grass may be a reasonable alternative as it’s a soft surface and will allow claws to dig in, but it gets very hot in sunshine, unlike real grass, and of course your rabbits won’t be able to eat it.

A better strategy would be to lift turf, lay mesh on the soil and then re-lay the turf over that. The rabbits will be standing on an appropriate surface but escape isn’t an issue, nor predators digging in.

If your rabbits are on a hard surface, give them litter trays or seed trays containing soil and turf. It’s a good idea to have extras so you can rotate them, keeping some aside and swapping them in when the grass has been eaten down.

When the grass on a section of turf has been nibbled down, remove it, water it, and put the whole thing inside a large, clear plastic bag and tie it up. This will act as like mini greenhouse and the grass will grow ready for re-use.

Floor covering (indoor rabbits)

There are several brands of veterinary bedding/fleece on the market. It most closely resembles grass, where a rabbit would live in the wild. Put absorbent or waterproof layers under it as rabbits tend to wee on it.  

The fleece is easy to launder and can be kept in near-new condition with proper care:

  • To prevent blocking up your machine, before washing, shake out the dirty fleece outdoors to dislodge faeces and hay.
  • Wash no hotter than 60 degrees Celsius. Use detergent only, no fabric conditioner. Spin on a fast spin.
  • Air dry. It will be almost dry after the spin, so getting it properly dry should take no more than half an hour at room temperature.
  • Use an ordinary hair brush to give it a thorough brushing once dry. This will retum the pile to near-new condition. It will be soft and plush, ideal for your rabbits to live on and keep their hocks healthy.

Regular actions to keep sore hocks at bay

  • In the sleeping area, give your rabbits a dense bedding of soft hay or straw and make sure they have permanent access to large, secure exercise area.
  • Ensure the rabbit’s accommodation is cleaned several times a week and all soiled bedding is removed.
  • Weigh your rabbit regularly and guard against obesity. If your rabbit is overweight, obese, reluctant to move, incontinent or otherwise predisposed to hock sores, seek veterinary advice, address any underlying problems and monitor your rabbit closely.

Further reading

There is a detailed paper about sore hocks on the British Veterinary Association’s website.