Rabbits, like dogs and cats, can, unfortunately, have seizures—periods of involuntary physical movement usually accompanied by some kind of mental aberration. In some cases, loss of consciousness can also occur. Seizure episodes can be scary, especially if you've never seen a rabbit or any other pet have one; while many rabbits recover fully from seizures, some do have lasting symptoms.
What Is a Seizure?
According to MedlinePlus, a seizure is defined as "the physical findings or changes in behavior that occur after an episode of abnormal electrical activity in the brain." A seizure does not have to involve convulsions or the shaking and twitching that many people associate with seizures, but those are often the most easily recognized types of seizures (known as grand mal or generalized seizures).
Symptoms of Seizures in Rabbits
Full-fledged seizures in rabbits can result in several short-lived (less than a minute) symptoms that may include:
- Rolling and apparent distress
- Waving or "paddling" of legs
- Temporary loss of vision
- Unusual tilt of the head
- Inability to use muscles in the normal way
- Fainting (rarely)
Focal seizures or partial seizures that do not involve convulsions are not as easy to identify as seizure activity. They can present as:
- A simple ear twitch
- Loss of the function of a leg
- "Bubblegum chewing" when the rabbit licks the air and chomps as though it has peanut butter stuck on the roof of its mouth or is chewing bubble gum rudely
Focal seizures are not as concerning as grand mal seizures and the length of the seizure is important to note. A seizure lasting several minutes will increase your rabbit's body temperature and can cause permanent brain damage while a small, short seizure only lasting 20 seconds will most likely not leave any lasting effects.
Causes of Seizures
There are several possible reasons for rabbit seizures; some are minor or passing issues while others are serious and even potentially fatal. These include:
- Inner ear infections
- E. cuniculi infections (a protozoan)
- Exposure to toxins
- Traumatic injury
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- Congenital malformation
- Poisoning from drugs, plants, or chemicals
- Blood clots
Rabbits that are at greater risk of seizures may have underlying cardiac, kidney, or liver disease, brain injury, or a neurological disorder.
Diagnosing Seizures in Rabbits
Your vet may recommend specific tests to rule out some common causes of seizures including ear cytologies or cultures, MRI or CT scans, radiographs (X-rays), E. cuniculi testing, or blood chemistry screening. There is, however, no "seizure test" that will tell you for sure why your rabbit had a seizure. If the tests come back inconclusive or diagnostics are not financially affordable for you, a "cocktail" of the aforementioned medications may be tried before starting your rabbit on long-term seizure control medications.
If you are present when your rabbit has a seizure, stay calm and hold your rabbit firmly but gently so that it does not flail or fall and hurt itself. Next, look at the clock to see what time it is; most seizures last less than a minute. If your rabbit continues to have convulsions for more than a couple of minutes you should rush it to the closest vet for emergency treatment while you cool it down using a wet towel.
Most of the time your rabbit will come out of the seizure after less than a minute of convulsing. It is important to remain calm and talk quietly to comfort your rabbit when it is coming out of the seizure. After your rabbit is calm and sitting up normally, mark the event on the calendar so that you can track the seizures. If your rabbit has a seizure for the first time you should contact your exotics vet to see what he or she would recommend you do or schedule an appointment to have your rabbit examined. If the frequency of seizures increases over time or if your rabbit has another seizure within 24 hours, visit the vet as soon as possible.
Your exotics vet may try a variety of medications to treat some of the most common causes of seizures. Antibiotics, steroids, anti-parasitics, anti-inflammatories, and even seizure control medications may be used if the definitive reason for the seizures is not found. Phenobarbital is one commonly used seizure control medication that your exotics vet may prescribe.
How to Prevent Seizures
Seizures occur unexpectedly, and often as a result of unknown causes. Prevention, therefore, involves proper medication and care during and after seizures. Regular checkups can help your veterinarian identify possible issues that can contribute to seizures.