Whether experienced or novice, most rabbit owners know how to spot basic problems with their pet, but few are really aware of what to look for and where, especially if they have just purchased the rabbit. This is also true for people who keep many rabbits such as rescue centres or breeders, especially when a new inmate arrives, and it is vital that a thorough but basic health check is carried out before the rabbit is allowed onto the premises, even if it is to be quarantined for a couple of weeks first. The following was written with this in mind, and gives a guide as to what one should look for when examining a newly arrived rabbit. Try to get as much information about the rabbit first from the previous owner, such as age, background history, diet etc. as this will be a big help to settle the rabbit in to the new environment quickly and efficiently. Treatment regimes are not included here, nor a full list of possible symptoms of illnesses, as this information is available elsewhere on the website, together with advice on neutering, vaccinating and general care.
Before taking the rabbit out of its carrying box, cage or run, spend a minute or so just looking at it, watching for anything unusual such as head tilt (possibly indicating E. cuniculi or inner ear problems), laboured breathing, sneezing etc. (possibly indicating snuffles, but not to be confused with fast breathing of a stressed animal). Also be on the alert for signs of myxomatosis, such as swelling around the eyes, nose, ears and genitals. Eye infections and dental problems can look similar to the early stages of myxomatosis but either way the rabbit must immediately be placed in isolation until veterinary opinion can be sought.
Lift the rabbit up and check the fur for external parasites such as fleas, mites and lice and give treatment as appropriate.
Check the sex of the rabbit – this must always be done regardless of what you have been told, as it is very common for people to get the sexing wrong (see the sexing section of the Rabbit Care article). At the same time, check for any sign of sexually transmitted disease with symptoms such as swelling and redness (not to be confused with the red-purple vulva of a female rabbit in breeding condition) with crusting and dry scaliness around the genitals and possibly also around the nose and mouth. Although sexually transmitted diseases often get better by themselves with the aid of antibiotics, the rabbit will remain a carrier for the rest of its life, making this disease highly contagious. Also be aware that males that have been neutered for longer than a few months will have no testicles nor penis, and this can be confused with a female if you are not familiar with sexing rabbits. If the rabbit is an entire male, check for any testicular swelling as this could indicate testicular tumour.
Check for soiling of the perineal region (around the genital and tail area) as this could indicate urine leakage or diarrhoea. Either of these conditions results in a very high risk of fly strike and appropriate action must be taken quickly. Soiling is often due to inadequate diet (such as too much dried food, unsuitable vegetables, or sometimes dental disease) and is therefore straightforward to resolve if the diet is corrected or any teeth issues are corrected. However, significant diarrhoea may indicate a serious illness and vet treatment would be required (see article on gut stasis and mucoid enteritis). Urine leakage can have several causes, the commonest being E. cuniculi, but also bladder infection, bladder sludge or stones, or tumours can also be to blame.
Check the front teeth for malocclusion (overgrown or misaligned teeth) and gum inflammation. Dribbling around the mouth may indicate possible dental disease with spurs on the back molars, but also be aware that stress and fear can also make a rabbit dribble slightly so if in any doubt have a full dental check done. Very pale gums and membranes may indicate dehydration or shock. Feel along the jaw line for any swelling which would indicate abscess or osteomyelitis.
EYES AND NOSE
Check for discharge from the eyes or nose. Rabbits use their front paws as a tissue so you will find the fur on the inside of the front paws will be clumped if they have a nasal discharge. This would indicate a respiratory infection such as snuffles, which is highly contagious and almost impossible to cure, although it can be kept stable with treatment. Discharge from the eyes may indicate eye infection or problems with the roots of the teeth pressing on the little tube that leads the tears away from the eye down inside the nose and away. This results in tears running onto the fur around the eye, causing soreness and infection if not treated. This condition can often not be cured, but again can be kept at bay with treatment (another rabbit is often a solution as they keep the area clean with licking, but read the article on bonding before considering this).
Palpate the abdomen of a female to establish if there is a pregnancy, but this should only be done by an experienced rabbit keeper otherwise damage could well result. Check the teats and glands of females also for any sign of swelling or redness or crusting.
Check the pads of the front and back paws for soreness and ulceration, common in over weight rabbits and rexes, and clip back any overgrown claws.
Assess the condition of the rabbit to establish if it is too fat or too thin. Give a general check over for lumps and swellings, and watch when the rabbit moves around to make sure all leg movement is normal. An average sized rabbit usually weighs between 2 – 2.5kg, but it is more important to look for excess bulges over the shoulders, abdomen and dewlap.
Examine the ears thoroughly for injury, INFECTION, swelling and internal ear mites (crusts are visible deep inside the ear, with redness of the delicate skin).
MOVEMENT AND APPETITE
Once the rabbit has been placed in its pen, observe that it is eating and drinking and is hopping around normally (some rabbits literally walk if they are very scared, so watch for several minutes before making any judgement). If the rabbit is used to a water bowl, make sure it knows how to use a bottle if you intend to take the bowl option away. Try and find out what food the rabbit was used to, and whether it was used to fresh vegetables and grass as it is important not to make any sudden change to the diet.