Head Tilt in Rabbits: Causes and Treatment

Close up of a dwarf rabbit
Rabbits can develop head tilts that may or may not go away Getty Images/EyeEm/Mate Mile

If your pet rabbit has a head tilt, it is most likely caused by an issue in the ear or brain. Figuring out what exactly is the cause of the tilt can be a little bit challenging. There can be a few explanations for why your rabbit is suddenly cocking its head to one side or the other, but regardless of the why, your rabbit will need to see a veterinarian if you see a head tilt.

Here are possible reasons for a head tilt in your rabbit, including ear infections and E. cuniculi.

Other Symptoms to Monitor

It can be easier to decipher what the cause of the head tilt is from with other accompanying symptoms. Here are some to look out for:

  • Loss of balance/falling over
  • Walking in circles or bumping into things
  • Flickering eye movements, uneven pupils, sinking of the eye(s)
  • Tremors
  • Drooping on one side of their face

Possible Causes

Rabbit Head Tilt from Ear Infections

Your rabbit can get an ear infection in one or both ears. The infection can be due to bacteria, yeast, or sometimes a mixture of both—and it can also cause a head tilt in rabbits.

Your vet will take a sample of the debris in your rabbit's ear (it may just look like wax), smear it on a glass slide, stain it, and look at it under a microscope to see if there is an infection. Topical medications (ear drops) are usually prescribed to treat ear infections in rabbits.

If the ear infection is really bad or has been left untreated for a long period of time, the head tilt may remain even after the ear infection has been treated. Some head tilts may remain permanently, but these rabbits will adapt with their new tilted view on life and do just fine.

Rabbit Head Tilt from an Abscess

Rabbits are very prone to developing localized infections called abscesses. They can get them just about anywhere in or on their body, and if an abscess is in the area of the ear canal, they may cause a head tilt. Tooth abscesses, abscesses behind the eye, or abscesses under the skin by the ear may all put pressure on the ear canal, causing your rabbit's equilibrium to be off and give them a head tilt. Depending on where the abscess originates, it may require antibiotics or surgery to remove it.

If an abscess is due to a bad tooth in your rabbit's mouth, it will need to be extracted under anesthesia. The abscess may also be filled with antibiotics, surgically opened to allow it to drain, and cleaned out. Abscesses are not fun to deal with. They can be very difficult to get rid of and no one likes to give medications to their pets.

Rabbit Head Tilt from Ear Mites

Ear mites are tiny little pests that make their homes in the ear canals of many kinds of animals. Rabbits are prone to be infested by these arachnids, and when ear mites are feeding on the ear wax in your rabbit's ear, it can be very loud, painful, and annoying to your rabbit. These side effects of the ear mites may cause your rabbit to tilt their head, shake their head, scratch at their ear, and rub their head on the ground in an attempt to stop the pain and annoyance.

Ear mites are usually pretty easy to get rid, of but you need to make sure a medication that is safe for rabbits is used. If the wrong medication is used, you could cause such harm as deafness, pain, and even death to your rabbit. Ear mites can be easily seen under a microscope by your vet and typically once the infestation is cleared up the head tilt will go away.

Rabbit Head Tilt from E. Cuniculi

Encephalitozoon cuniculi, more often referred to as E. cuniculi, is a lifelong, debilitating disease that you don't want your rabbit to get. It causes a myriad of symptoms, but most often a head tilt and seizures are seen in pet rabbits. What makes this disease especially frustrating, though, is that a perfectly healthy rabbit can suddenly exhibit symptoms of this infection. On top of that, there is no simple yes or no test that will tell you for sure if your rabbit is infected with E. Cuniculi.

A head tilt caused by E. Cuniculi can become so profound that rabbits will roll on their side and be unable to sit up. Their tilted heads may even appear to be almost upside down on their bodies because the tilt has gotten so bad. They may have difficulty eating. Medications can help manage the disease, but it is very contagious to other rabbits (and immune-compromised humans) and no cures have been established for it. This is often a disease that is diagnosed after other diseases that cause a head tilt have been ruled out.

Lifelong medicating and nursing care will be required to stabilize a rabbit with a severe infection of E. cuniculi.

Treatment

Courses of treatment for any of the above should always begin with a visit to the veterinarian. Many head tilts will improve with treatments, for example, if it is due to an ear infection or ear mites. But, many might persist over time, so it's best to have a vet's opinion to determine long-term treatment.