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Rabbits are much more delicate than pets like cats or dogs, BUT they don’t just randomly keel over. Listed below are some of the common reasons that rabbit’s lives can be cut short. By making yourself aware of some of these reasons, you can help your rabbit live a long and happy life.
A few years ago, a six-year-old rabbit was considered old – now it’s pretty common for them to live for well over a decade. The increase in the number of people keeping rabbits in the house is definitely the main contributing factor to this, but also an increased awareness in what can cause sudden death in rabbits.
Rabbits can easily die of fright
Think twice before introducing your rabbit to other pets, particularly large, exuberant dogs and unfriendly cats.
Cats and dogs are predators, and will smell like danger to rabbits. Years of being bred domestically have made rabbits less fearful of other animals, but there are still plenty of very timid rabbits that could potentially have a heart attack if they’re surprised by a cat or dog, even if they have no intention of harming the rabbit.
Fireworks, cars backfiring, and other loud sudden noises can also severely frighten rabbits, so make sure your rabbit has somewhere safe to retreat to in such instances.
You don’t need to do anything fancy to make your rabbit a little hideaway. A cardboard box (I fill mine with packing paper so they can dig and rearrange to their heart’s content) will suffice, preferably with the flaps still attached so you can flip them down and make it a bit darker.
Signs that your rabbit is terrified are:
- Rapid breathing
- Sitting hunched over
Try to identify and remove the stressor and calm your rabbit down. How to calm your rabbit depends on their temperament. Holly likes to be left alone and sit in (or on top of) her box, whereas Daisy likes to have her forehead stroked.
In general, if your rabbit is usually a snuggler, they’ll appreciate your presence when they’re scared. IF they’re more aloof, keep a distance. A few nice treats won’t go amiss either, especially if the stressor is something that happens quite often.
Digestive issues like GI stasis can cause sudden death in rabbits
Undiagnosed GI stasis is a pretty big cause of sudden death in rabbits, because often caregivers don’t realise anything is wrong until it’s too late.
I have a whole article about GI stasis here, but it’s basically when a rabbit’s digestive system is upset for some reason (often a buildup of gas) and the rabbit doesn’t feel like eating, leading to a total shutdown of the digestive system.
The most important thing to look out for is your rabbit losing interest in eating. If one of mine stops eating, I get them to the vet asap, and monitor them before the appointment. Herbs like coriander/cilantro and basil are good things to try to tempt them with, because they don’t cause bloat or other problems, and have a strong smell that bunnies struggle to resist.
Another great thing to try is adding a bit of warm water to their regular pellets. Sometimes rabbits stop eating because they’re in dental pain, and the soft pellets will be easier for them to eat. Using warm water just makes them smell more appealing!
Rabbits can die if they get wet
Yeah, random, I know, but true.
You don’t need to bathe bunnies. They do a pretty good job at keeping themselves clean, and if you have a bonded pair, they should groom eat other (usually one more than the other, but that’s a normal dominance thing).
However, a lot of bunnies fall foul of poopy stink butt, so you may feel like a bath is the way to go.
Don’t get your rabbits wet. Not only can it give them a fright to the point that they might have a heart attack and die, but they can die of hypothermia if you don’t dry them fast enough.
I have an article on bathing bunnies here, which details how to give your bunny a butt bath if they require it. Make sure you don’t use soap (even pet soap) because rabbits have VERY sensitive skin. It’s why they’re used in cosmetic testing, sadly enough.
Rabbits can die if they swallow something dangerous
Rabbits will chew ANYTHING so you need to make sure they don’t have access to anything that could be harmful.
I give my rabbits hazel twigs to chew on, though some people are reticent to do that in case they ingest splinters. It’s really up to you. My rabbits are more likely to shred the bark and spit it out (it makes vacuuming a nightmare) so I’m happy to give them to them.
My rabbits have one stuffed animal toy (she’s actually a bit crusty from being groomed so much), but in general I stick to giving them boxes to shred and baby toys, like stacking cups and those plastic keys they can throw. Other pet toys are more likely to have potentially dangerous parts (like bells and squeakers) but baby toys won’t have anything that could be a choking hazard for a baby (and therefore a rabbit).
Rabbits are very prone to certain cancers
The big one is uterine cancer in female rabbits, which is why it’s so important to get them spayed.
The older animals get (including humans) the more likely they are to get cancer. Cells start doing strange things when they grow, and it’s just…something that happens.
Remember that a wild rabbit is unlikely to live past the age of two, and yet we see rabbits living well into their teens as house rabbits.
You might think that the amount of rabbits (and people) getting cancer has increased in the last few years, but it’s a direct result of them living longer. It’s not a health thing, necessarily, it’s a fairly inevitable part of getting old.
How (or whether) you treat cancer in rabbits will depend a lot on your finances and your vet. It can be hard treat since rabbits are still classed as exotic animals in many parts of the world and vets won’t perform certain procedures on them.
Also, the older the rabbit, the harder a time they’ll have under anaesthetic.
My 10 year old rabbit had a tumour removed from behind her eye and recovered beautifully, so even though surgery isn’t ideal for an elderly bun, it’s not necessarily a death sentence.
Rabbits can die from aborted pregnancies
Again: Spay. Your Rabbits.
A lot of small mammals will spontaneously abort unborn babies, especially in times of famine or drought (if you’ve ever read the book Snuff, by Terry Pratchett, it’s explained really well, and isn’t as depressing as it might seem).
It makes sense – the mother can reabsorb the nutrients and stay healthy long enough to give birth in the future – if she carried the babies to term, they might well starve to death.
(and yes, this is a VERY common reason for mothers to eat their young)
Buuut sometimes the baby isn’t reabsorbed properly and can cause sepsis and other problems.
Rabbits can die from flystrike
Flystrike is what happens when a fly lays their eggs in a rabbit’s fur and the maggots hatch and eat away at the rabbit’s flesh.
The best ways to reduce the chance of flystrike are:
- Keep your rabbit indoors, where there are fewer flies
- Make sure your rabbit is at a healthy weight
Overweight rabbits can struggle to keep their butt clean, and a dirty butt is a GREAT place for a fly to raise a family.
If your rabbit is overweight, don’t panic. Gradually reduce the number of pellets you’re giving them until you’re just giving them a teaspoonful a day (they work great as treats).
The rest of their diet should be hay and veggies (herbs and greens, nothing sugary like carrots or fruit).
You can increase pellets later (if you want). A rabbit that lives on predominantly hay, with a few pellets and veggies, is much less likely to struggle with their weight. Not only can excess weight lead to flystrike, but they might also suffer from issues like arthritis when they’re older.
Be warned though: rabbits do NOT like being on a pellet-restricted diet. Thet will be MAD.
Rabbits can die suddenly from diseases
Here in the UK, we vaccinate rabbits against Myxomatosis and RHVDs 1 and 2. It will vary in other countries, since some diseases (myxomatosis being one) was actually introduced into this country, rather than being natural. Ridiculous but true.
I don’t have confirmation, but I’m pretty sure a rabbit I had nearly 20 years ago died of RVHD. We came back from an outing (we’d been gone a couple of hours) and he was dead. He’d been 100% fine in the morning – ate his breakfast, ran around, no sign of any illness.
There wasn’t a mark on him, and no signs that he’d eaten something sharp, or choked or anything. The vets didn’t have access to a test, so they couldn’t test for it in a post-mortem, but that’s most likely what it was.
Rabbits can die if they’re mishandled
If you’ve ever picked up a rabbit that didn’t want to be held, you’ll know just how squirmy they can be. One wrong move and they can accidentally damage their neck or spine. If they bite or kick you, you can accidentally drop them in shock and hurt them that way.
It’s for that reason that it’s recommended that rabbits and kids shouldn’t be left unsupervised. I mean, sure there are some kids out there that seem to have an innate knowledge when it comes to being around animals, but a lot….don’t.
I don’t advise getting rabbits as a pet for kids. Many rabbits don’t like being cuddled, they don’t like loud noises, or generally anything that isn’t eating, sleeping, or being left to do their own thing.
Not many rabbits are that ‘fun’. You can’t walk them, or throw a ball for them like a dog (I mean, you could, but a lot of them would hate it). If you do something wrong, they might bite you (and it will hurt) or you could hurt them.
My rule of thumb is to leave rabbits on the ground. Even activities like nail clippings are done at ground level, just to reduce the risk to all the participants involved. If your rabbit chooses to jump on the couch, fine, but don’t force them up there.
Rabbits are pretty delicate animals, but they’re unlikely to just drop dead for no reason. Make sure that you do your research before getting one (and always get one from a rescue – baby rabbits grow up in literally weeks, so you may as well get an adult that’s already fixed).
Make sure that you understand that you’re getting an actual rabbit, rather than your idea of what a rabbit might be (they’re usually not as cuddly as cats or dogs by a long shot).