The sudden decline of a beloved pet rabbit can be heartbreaking. As their owner, you want to ensure they have the best quality of life possible, for however long they have left. This guide will equip you to detect the subtle signs that a rabbit is dying. Arming yourself with this knowledge empowers you to take action and get them the proper care during their final days. Although it is difficult, you can make a positive difference for your rabbit in its time of need. Read on to learn the 10 clearest signals that your rabbit’s health is failing, and what you can do to make their passing more peaceful. With attentive care, you can support them through this transition.
How To Know If Your Rabbit is Dying
As a rabbit owner, it can be difficult to know when your beloved pet is nearing the end of its life. Rabbits are prey animals by nature and they often hide signs of illness very well. However, there are some key things you can look out for that may indicate your rabbit is dying. Being aware of these signs can help you provide the best care for your rabbit in its final days and make the difficult decisions that need to be made. Always consult an exotic vet if you have any concerns about your rabbit's health. But watch for these common signs that a rabbit is dying:
Refusing To Eat Food
One of the clearest signs a rabbit is dying is a complete refusal to eat food and drink water. Rabbits need a constant supply of hay or fresh greens to keep their digestive system functioning properly. A healthy rabbit will eat often throughout the day. If your rabbit suddenly stops eating and drinking entirely for 12 hours or more, something is very wrong. The most common cause is gastrointestinal stasis, where the gut slows down or stops working altogether. This requires emergency vet care. But in elderly rabbits, inappetence is frequently a sign of systemic organ failure as death approaches. You can tempt them with favorite treats, syringe feed critical care food, or even force feed through a feeding tube. But if a rabbit is dying, declining food is a common symptom. Monitor appetite carefully in elderly or sick rabbits.
Unusual Level of Lethargy
Rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk and sleep a lot during the day. But a healthy rabbit will still be alert when approached and wake up easily. Lethargy in rabbits can indicate pain, illness or just old age as organs start failing. Monitor your rabbit's energy levels and watch for any sudden decreases. Things like failure to greet you when you come home or indifference to favorite toys or treats can be signs a rabbit is slowing down. Elderly rabbits may also sleep more deeply and be harder to wake. Combine with other symptoms, unusual lethargy can indicate dying. Try gently rousing your rabbit and seeing if it wakes up fully. Persistent drowsiness warrants an immediate vet visit.
Skin problems in rabbits can develop quickly and be indicative of larger health issues. Two conditions in particular can signal a rabbit is dying – urine scald and pressure sores. Urine scald happens when a rabbit cannot urinate properly and the urine burns its skin. It usually starts around the hind end and legs. Pressure sores develop on bony areas like hips or heels when a rabbit is too weak to move. Both conditions create red, inflamed and infected skin. Skin issues mean your rabbit cannot easily eat, drink or move around. If the sores smell, ooze pus or spread, take the rabbit to the vet. At end of life, skin breakdown can happen very fast. But it indicates significant suffering that may require euthanasia.
Another disturbing skin condition that can afflict dying rabbits is myiasis or flystrike. This is when blowflies are attracted to soiled fur and lay eggs which hatch into maggots. It happens when rabbits are too weak to clean themselves. The maggots quickly eat away skin and flesh, causing great harm. Myiasis is more common in summer but can happen year round. Check your rabbit's fur and skin daily. If you see fly eggs or active maggots, get emergency vet treatment. The rotten smell and maggots usually mean the rabbit is very close to death. Myiasis causes severe pain and euthanasia is typically recommended.
Change in Vital Signs
Tracking your rabbit's vital signs like temperature, breathing rate and heart rate can reveal illness and imminent death. Use a thermometer rectally to check rabbit temperature – normal is 101-103 F. Count breaths per minute when your rabbit is calm – normal is 30-60. And feel for a healthy heartbeat by gently palpating the chest or using a stethoscope. Check vitals 1-2 times daily in sick or elderly rabbits. As death nears, common changes include low body temperature, slow breathing rate and a weak or irregular heartbeat. If your rabbit's vitals seem off from normal baselines, contact your vet. Sudden changes in vitals are an emergency.
Labored, shallow or otherwise impaired breathing is a common symptom as rabbits succumb to respiratory disease or organ failure. Listen for loud raspy breathing and watch for movements like stretching the neck to breathe easier. Wet sounds indicate fluid congestion. Breathing issues affect oxygen levels and cause severe stress. Dying rabbits may breathe rapidly then slowly, or seem to periodically gasp for air. If your rabbit shows any difficulty breathing, rush to the vet. Getting oxygen therapy may buy some time. But breathing issues progress quickly at end of life. Prioritize keeping your rabbit calm and reducing stress.
Change in Urine or Feces
Rabbits produce lots of poops and pee daily. So any change indicates an urgent health problem. Diarrhea, constipation, small poops and straining to pass stool all show the gut is compromised. Lack of stool for 12+ hours is an emergency. For urine, look for odd colors like red or orange. Clumping litter or straining to pee also mean trouble. Both urine and poop issues prevent proper hydration and nutrition. In dying rabbits, loss of bowel and bladder control is common as muscles weaken. Hospice care may involve managing fecal impaction, urine scald and keeping the rabbit clean if it can no longer eliminate waste properly. Get vet advice on supportive care.
Rabbits make some sounds, but an unwell rabbit may vocalize in unusual ways. Grinding teeth indicates pain. Sudden loud shrieking or growling could mean distress. Gurgling or rattling breathing noises point to respiratory congestion. And rabbit purring when ill or handled means your pet is very unsettled. Make note of any odd sounds your rabbit makes. Excessive teeth grinding, screaming when touched and continuous purring are reasons for an urgent vet visit. Stay attuned to subtle differences in your rabbit's typical vocalizations. Any change in sounds in a sick or elderly rabbit is a reason for concern.
Excessive drooling or wetness around the mouth is not normal in rabbits. A little drool can happen when teeth overgrow. But profuse drooling indicates serious health problems. Common causes are oral abscesses, pain and neurological issues. Stroke, encephalitozoon cuniculi infection and other brain conditions can lead to paralysis and loss of swallowing ability. Drool and wetness on paws is a sign your rabbit cannot swallow properly. This condition is painful and distressing. In end of life cases, drooling can also result from organ failure and circulatory collapse. Any unexplained drooling warrants prompt vet inspection to determine the cause and treatment options.
A dying rabbit may start shivering for multiple reasons as health falters. Shivering can indicate pain, so watch for this after injuries or surgery. But later in disease progression, shivering signals the body is having trouble maintaining temperature. Infections, cancer and other conditions cause body temperature fluctuations. Dying rabbits also lose the ability to regulate temperature as blood circulation and organs decline. If the room is warm and your rabbit is still shivering, it is a dire sign of systemic problems. Try wrapping your rabbit in a blanket to ease shivering at end of life. Shivering means the body is under severe stress.
In the final hours, rabbits may experience involuntary muscle spasms or seizures as the brain shuts down. Motion may be slight, like ear or lip twitching. Or spasms can involve the whole body, causing limbs to flail. Do not to restrain the rabbit, just protect it from injury. Keep the space safe and comfort your pet. Seizures indicate brain function is failing as death nears. Stroke is also possible. There are no treatments beyond making the rabbit comfortable. If twitching or seizures last more than a few hours, discuss euthanasia options with your vet. Prolonged involuntary spasms are extremely stressful.
Saying goodbye to a beloved companion rabbit can be truly hard. But understanding the signs that a rabbit is dying allows you to monitor health issues and make the kindest choices for your pet in its final days. Consult with an exotics vet and provide attentive end-of-life care to keep your rabbit as comfortable as possible. With vigilance and compassion, you can support your rabbit through its passing.