Rabbits are important parts of many families that have had the experience of caring for them. But unfortunately, and just like other pets, rabbits are prone to a variety of problems and diseases. Some diseases are more common than others but by being educated on these problems you may be able to prevent them, or at least learn to recognize the signs and symptoms more quickly in order to get your rabbit help.
Rabbit Teeth Problems
Rabbits have 28 teeth that help them grind their food. These teeth, unlike those of a dog or cat, grow continuously throughout the life of your rabbit. Without proper items to help keep these teeth trimmed (like hay and safe wood) the teeth can end up becoming overgrown and prevent your rabbit from being able to eat.
Molar teeth (the teeth in the back of the mouth) can grow and create a bridge over the tongue which can inhibit chewing and swallowing. Teeth that become this overgrown can cause your rabbit to starve.
Incisors teeth (the front teeth) will grow and start curling into the cheeks or other parts of your rabbit's mouth. This is very painful and can also cause your rabbit to stop eating.
Abscessed teeth can occur due to trauma or periodontal disease and are painful to your rabbit as well. These teeth need to be extracted in order to prevent the infection that is located around the tooth from spreading throughout your rabbit's body.
Rabbit Reproductive Tumors
Mammary, uterine, and ovarian tumors are far too common in pet female rabbits and testicular cancer does not go unnoticed in male rabbits. Spaying and neutering pet rabbits is recommended for a variety of reasons and one of these reasons is to prevent reproductive cancers. If your rabbit is fixed their chances of developing mammary cancer is greatly diminished (and it's impossible for them to develop uterine, ovarian, and testicular cancers if these parts have been removed). Discuss the risks associated with spaying and neutering your rabbit with your veterinarian as well as an appropriate age to have it performed.
Rabbit Ear Mites
Rabbits are known for their large ears but these ears aren't always clean. Ear mites are small arachnids that feed off of the wax and oil that rabbit ears produce. They are irritating and cause your rabbit to itch, scratch and shake their heads. Secondary infections from ear mites also occur if the ear mites are left untreated and include bacterial and fungal infections. Large amounts of dark, crusty debris are usually seen in rabbit ears that have ear mites.
Rabbits can get ear mites from direct contact with other rabbits, from being outside, and from our hands if we have recently handled an infected rabbit and then pet our own rabbit without washing. They are easy to avoid but also easy to treat. Diagnosis can be done by your veterinarian by visualizing them under a microscope but sometimes you can even see large groups of them moving with your naked eye.
While dental disease often causes abscesses in rabbits, these pockets of pus are seen all over rabbits. They can be found internally on organs as well as in the skin layer of rabbits which makes them difficult to treat. The type of bacteria that is usually inside these abscesses is also a factor that increases the difficulty level of treatment since it doesn't need oxygen to survive.
Antibiotics, cleaning out the abscess (if you can find it), and pain medications may all be prescribed for your rabbit by your veterinarian. Abscesses are serious and we don't always know why they occur but treatment is always needed as they do not go away on their own.
Rabbit Ear Infections
Middle or inner bacterial or fungal ear infections are a primary cause of head tilt and very common in rabbits. These infections may be difficult to detect though with a simple swab of the ear canal so treating the infection with ear medication may be done without a definitive diagnosis. Scratching at the ear, a foul odor, redness, and a drooping ear are also symptoms of an ear infection.
Rabbit Ear Calcium Crystals
Also experienced by some people, these tiny crystals aren't able to be visualized but cause major vertigo in rabbits. A head tilt and sometimes an inability to even stand up are experienced in rabbits with ear crystals or stones but the symptoms may disappear as quickly as they come on. Careful manipulation of the head and neck to dislodge the crystals can be performed otherwise your veterinarian may simply recommend waiting for them to move on their own.
Ileus is also known as GI stasis because it occurs when the normal peristalsis of the intestines stops. Food and hair doesn't get moved normally through your rabbit if it has ileus and gas then builds up. This causes your rabbit to be uncomfortable or painful as well as stop eating and defecating. Ileus is a life-threatening problem and needs immediate attention. Rabbits cannot typiaclly live for more than 48-72 hours if it is left untreated. Syringe feeding green vegetable baby food and water must be immediately done and a visit to your veterinarian must be made for medications and potential fluid administration.
Also seen in pet rats, bumblefoot is a common problem in obese rabbits, rabbits that don't exercise, have a rough surface to sit and walk on, or who like to sit in their dirty litter boxes or bedding. It is technically referred to as pododermatitis and requires antibiotics, pain medications, a new cleaning plan for the cage, and often times dietary plans and bandaging to correct. It is very painful and your rabbit may limp or not want to walk if they have bumblefoot.
What About Hairballs?
Like cats, rabbits groom themselves and therefore ingest their hair. This hair is a not a problem by itself though so rabbits don't get hairballs like cats get. Their hair or fur is simply a normal part of their stomach contents. What can be problematic though, is if your rabbit ingests things it shouldn't or has ileus with dehydration.
If synthetic fibers from carpeting or toys mixes with the hair in your rabbit's stomach, it can cause an obstruction and some people will incorrectly refer to these obstructions as hairballs. These obstructions are actually very rare though and are not made up of just hair. Alternatively, a dehydrated rabbit with ileus can have issues passing the normal hair in their GI tract but the hair is not the problem - the dehydration and ileus are the issues.
What About E. Cuniculi?
You may be wondering why Encephalitozoon cuniculi, or E. cuniculi, is not on this list of common rabbit diseases but that is because it actually isn't common at all. Historically, head tilts were thought to be a result of this protozoan but according to Dr. Karen Rosenthal, a renowed exotic veterinarian, author, and educator, that is no longer the case due to the part of the brain that we know it affects. Additionally, there is no reliable test for E. cuniculi in the United States since the antibody tests are simply showing a rabbit was exposed to it, not that it has an active infection or is causing problems in a rabbit. Veterinarians would often treat a rabbit with a head tilt with a medication called fenbendazole but this medication can cause serious liver and bone marrow issues and should not be used unless proven to be necessary.