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I’ve written this post because head tilt is pretty common in rabbits, and it can be very scary for rabbits. There’s not much information out there that outlines the best ways to keep rabbits contained, safe, and fairly clean.
My rabbit had a pretty severe case of head tilt, so I have decent experience in how to keep them from rolling over and bashing their head on the side of their enclosure, and I have a method for keeping a rabbit’s bedding dry and soft, but also roll-proof.
It was a lot of trial and error – I’ve done it so you don’t have to.
What is head tilt in rabbits?
Head tilt is a condition that affects a rabbit’s inner ear.
As the name suggests, a rabbit with head tilt will have their head cocked to one side. The degree to which it tilts varies. Daisy’s is pretty much at 90 degrees, but it can be less severe. Sometimes it just looks like your rabbi is concentrating!
Why does my rabbit have head tilt?
There are a variety of ailments that cause head tilt – head tilt is a symptom of an illness, not an illness itself, but it can really knock a rabbit back – not only are they not feeling their best, but they’re feeling off balance too.
Causes of head tilt in rabbits:
- E. Cuniculi (I’ve written more about this here)
- Ear infection
- Brain tumour
An ear infection is the most likely cause of head tilt, but your vet may well treat your rabbit for e. cuniculi just in case.
Ear infections are pretty common in rabbits – they have a lot of ear to get infection, plus ear infections can stem from other common problems like dental issues.
My experience taking care of a rabbit with head tilt
We caught Daisy’s head tilt really early (we knew she carried the EC parasite, so we were vigilant) but even though we got her some Panacur within hours of noticing symptoms she went into full torticollis and had to be given 24 hour vet care.
That was a couple of months ago and the head tilt remains, and she still loses her balance fairly often. It’s a lot for her to get used to.
But in herself, Daisy has been fine. She’s been eating, drinking, and trying to clean herself.
The issues we had were two-fold:
- Keeping her enclosure clean and dry and
- Stopping her braining her on the sides of the cage when she rolls over.
How to build a safe pen for a head tilt rabbit
I would recommend buying an xpen if you don’t already have one. You can get them on Amazon here.
You’ll also need some flooring. We use a wooden board, but you can use a sheet of plastic. If you’re on solid, wipe-clean flooring, you don’t need to bother with this, but we didn’t want pee-soaked carpets.
You’ll also need a sheet of plastic that covers the area of the x-pen. Our pen is rectangular (about 0.75m x 1.5m) so we have a sheet of plastic that size. This is important for keeping the cage clean.
We were advised to pad the edges of the cage with blankets/towels, but Daisy kept rolling on top of them, and getting wrapped up.
I wouldn’t advise leaving your rabbit unattended with anything they could get tangled in. A rabbit that’s doing a lot of rolling could easily get trapped and panic. We want to keep bunny as calm as they can be.
So, instead of padding with towels, we used pipe insulation. It’s cheap, and it’s easy to zip-tie to the sides of the pen.
Make sure there’s some shade in the pen – rabbit’s with head tilt can be sensitive to light. We experimented with boxes, but ended up clothes-pegging a towel over part of the pen.
How to keep your head tilt bunny (& your home) clean
You will need:
- A sheet of plastic that covers the floor of the pen – if you look for carpet protector on Amazon, it’s that sort of thing you’re after
- A few towels/blankets that are about half as big again as the plastic sheet
- Puppy pee pads
We tried all kinds of things to find a way to keep Daisy reasonably clean and dry. The issue we kept having was that she’d end up rolling so much that she’d move any pee pads or towels, and occasionally get tangled up in them.
This was ok whilst we were in lockdown, but what about when we returned to work? We couldn’t leave her knowing she might get tangled up.
My boyfriend came with with a great solution. He found a piece of flexible corrugated plastic and cut it to fit the bottom of the x-pen.
We then wrapped the plastic in puppy pads (it took a couple for us) and then wrapped the whole thing in a towel or blanket.
We change the pads and towel every other day, and even if she rolls, the towel doesn’t shift.
You’ll need to take your rabbit out in order to clean the pen, and it isn’t easy to pick up a rabbit with head tilt, since they thrash about even more than a normal rabbit.
The way I do it is this: find a box that’s just a bit bigger than your rabbit and put the box in the pen. That way, you only have to pick your rabbit up for a second and put them into the box that’s only inches away.
Don’t pick your bunny out of the pen and carry them to the box. One well-timed roll and you could drop your rabbit. I also worry that Daisy will twist whilst I’m holding her and damage her back.
Pick up the bunny-filled box, and put it out of the way.
Be careful the rabbit doesn’t roll out – those rolls start getting pretty powerful after a few weeks, especially if your bunny is mad.
When you return the rabbit to the pen, again, put the bunny and the box back in, and then lift the bunny out. You need the time that you’re holding your bunny to be as short as possible.
How long does it take for a rabbit to recover from head tilt?
It can vary a lot, depending on what caused the head tilt, how severe it was, and the nature of your rabbit.
The important thing is that your rabbit isn’t in any pain, or struggling to eat. If that’s a factor, you need to be consulting with your vet.
Daisy’s road to recovery has been slow, but she’s been happy and healthy throughout, so we’re happy to let her progress at her own pace.
When we first brought her home, a lot of our research suggested that the rolling phase would only last a couple of weeks, but that wasn’t our experience.
It…takes as long as it takes.
Whilst it’s not been exactly easy, it hasn’t been difficult to deal with. I change Daisy’s towel and pads every other day and it takes about five minutes. In the early days we were constantly being bombarded with projectile poops since she was rolling so much, but that’s subsided now.
I’m not sure why there’s so little information on this. I can only think that it’s because the majority of rabbits that have as severe an attack as Daisy did are euthanised.
I can understand why – Daisy had to be hospitalised for 36 hours at a cost of £345. The vet told us she probably wouldn’t make it. You can hardly blame someone for opting to euthanise straight away. £345 is a lot to pay for a rabbit that might die anyway.
Luckily, we’d done the research and refused to give up on Daisy whilst she was still eating and drinking (largely unaided and very enthusiastically.
Final thoughts on caring for a rabbit with head tilt
This isn’t a ‘this is what you must do’ type post. I’m just sharing what we did to make life a bit easier for both us and Daisy. If you have any genius solutions that you think would help someone with a head tilt bunny, please leave a comment below.
Your rabbit’s head tilt may never fully go. I don’t know how long it’ll be before we can re-train Daisy to use a litter box (currently she’d probs just roll in it and flick litter everywhere), but I don’t want to rush her.
She gets a bit steadier every day, and she’s still eating like a horse.
She may never improve past where she is now, but that’s ok.
She has fun digging in her blanket and chewing on sticks, and she does a little skip that I think is a little binky. If she’s happy, so am I.
4 thoughts on “How to care for a rabbit with head tilt”
This, along with other ideas, has been very useful. Our 10 year old was fine one day and rolling around and panicking the next. Went to vet, who suggested antibiotics(ear infection) and panicur (parasite). For over a week she perked up, ate quite well, hardly rolled at all and seemed to be improving. Then another major upset & back to square one, and looked like she would have to be euthanized. Brought her back home , expecting short time, but she has rallied, eating well, drinking ok, a bit wobbly but can right herself now without help, and cleaning herself as much as she can. Hoping it will continue but prepared if not.
It’s so scary isn’t it?! We were so sure Daisy wouldn’t make it – she was so poorly and the vet basically told us stop consider euthanasia. She didn’t stop rolling for weeks, and even now, months later, she’ll do the occasional flip. Apart from that though (and the head tilt) she’s fine! However ill she seems, if she’s eating and drinking (even if you have to hold water to her mouth) she’s fighting.
Thank you for all of this information on head tilt. I have run a rabbit rescue/sanctuary for 20 years so I have pretty much seen it all. Only 2 of my rabbits had head tilt but they were small bunnies who could roll themselves back over to be upright, and their head tilt was not a severe 90 degree angle. However, my Willow, a beautiful New Zealand White, 12 pounds, developed head tilt resulting from a stroke. She has seen 2 vets and an animal acupuncturist. The vets tried a variety of different medicines but nothing is changed or improved after 2 months. I now see my Willow in distress, not able to eat, or groom herself, or do anything but lay on her side. It’s heartbreaking and I wonder if I am doing the right thing by allowing this to continue. Almost every post I have read says not to give up, and I’m not giving up, but I do not want Willow suffering. If anyone has any suggestions, I would appreciate it.
If she’s in distress and not eating, I don’t think it’s fair to let that go on. I do get the whole ‘don’t give up’ thing around head tilt, but I think that’s because it can look so distressing and a lot of vets recommend euthanasia when the rabbit can recover.
We decided that if Daisy stopped eating, we’d have her euthanised, because her quality of life would be severely compromised.
If you think she’s suffering, you know what to do. It’s not about giving up, it’s about making bunny comfortable. Please don’t feel bad about making that decision – it’s the humane thing to do.