Like humans and other pets, rabbits can 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. Seizures may either be caused by less severe issues (like injury or ear infections) or symptoms of other rabbit diseases that can be fatal. Medications may be available for the management of seizures, but treatment and recovery are largely dependent on the cause of the episodes.
What Are Seizures?
Seizures in rabbits are a neurological condition that causes sudden uncontrolled movements, unusual behaviors, and even loss of consciousness. These episodes in both humans and animals are caused by sudden electrical activity in the brain which can have many different causes, including other underlying diseases.
A seizure does not always involve convulsions, shaking, or twitching, but those behaviors are associated with generalized seizures (also called grand mal, the most easily recognizable type). Less severe seizures may go unnoticed by owners because their symptoms can be minimal. If you've noticed any unusual behaviors, especially those including movements of the body, it's best to take your rabbit to an exotic veterinarian who can discuss the signs and perform any necessary testing.
Symptoms of Seizures in Rabbits
The symptoms of seizures can vary widely from mild signs to noticeable behaviors. You may see your rabbit making abnormal movements like rolling, twitching, tilting its head, or being unable to move certain body parts. Grand mal seizures also cause loss of consciousness while experiencing involuntary tremors.
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 mild, short seizure will most likely not leave any lasting effects. If seizures last for at least five minutes or happen more than once in a day, experts recommend seeing a veterinarian immediately. In these cases, your pet should see an emergency veterinarian if your usual exotics veterinarian is unavailable.
Symptoms of seizures in rabbits may include:
Generalized (Grand Mal) Seizures
Generalized seizures are the type that is most commonly associated with these episodes. During generalized seizures, pets lose consciousness and experience full-body tremors. Vocalization is also common, though it is believed that like humans, animals do not experience pain during these episodes. Involuntary movements are a characteristic sign of grand mal seizures, which can include rolling, waving or "paddling" of the legs, tilting the head, and twitching.
Your rabbit may appear distressed throughout the episode. After the seizure, your rabbit may seem confused and disoriented until it fully regains consciousness and the ability to move normally.
During focal seizures, your rabbit may lose function in one leg. Twitching is still present, but it may be limited to small movements of the ears rather than full-body tremors. Focal seizures can also involve "bubblegum chewing" where the rabbit licks and chomps at the air (similar to chewing bubblegum or eating peanut butter).
Treatment options for both grand mal seizures and focal seizures will be dependent upon the episode's cause.
Causes of Seizures
There are several possible causes of seizures in rabbits. Some are minor or passing issues, while other reasons 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. For this reason, it's important to visit your veterinarian when your pet experiences any unusual symptoms so they can properly diagnose any issues before they progress.
Diagnosing Seizures in Rabbits
A neurological examination by your exotics veterinarian will help determine the cause of the seizure. Your vet may recommend specific tests to rule out some common reasons behind seizures including ear cytology or cultures, MRI or CT scans, radiographs (X-rays), E. cuniculi testing, or blood chemistry screening. There is, however, no "seizure test" that can determine the cause with certainty. If the tests come back inconclusive or diagnostics are not financially affordable for you, a variety of medications may be tried before starting your rabbit on a long-term seizure control prescription.
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, which may cause other injuries. 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, take 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 while it comes out of a seizure. After your rabbit is calm and sitting up normally, mark the event on the calendar so that you can track the frequency of any future seizures.
If your rabbit has a seizure for the first time, contact your exotics veterinarian to discuss the situation. A consultation may be recommended. 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 veterinarian may try a variety of medications to treat some common causes of seizures. Antibiotics, steroids, anti-parasitics, anti-inflammatories, and even seizure control medications may be used if the definitive reason for the episodes is not found. Phenobarbital is one commonly used seizure control medication that your exotics vet may prescribe.
Prognosis for Rabbits With Seizures
Because there are many different causes behind seizures in rabbits, the prognosis for your pet can vary considerably. Some less severe seizures may only happen once, or they may be able to be limited in the future with proper medication. In the case of inner ear infections or injury, your veterinarian can typically provide treatment for the underlying cause. After the necessary testing and examinations are performed, a veterinarian can help you determine the best treatment option for your specific rabbit based on their findings.
How to Prevent Seizures
Seizures occur unexpectedly, and often as a result of unknown causes. Prevention, therefore, involves proper medication and care following any previous episodes. Regular checkups can help your veterinarian identify possible issues that can contribute to seizures. Keeping up with your rabbit's vaccination schedule can help keep other conditions at bay that may contribute to neurological issues.