WET TAIL in Rabbits – Urine Scalding

There can be several causes for a rabbit becoming wet around its tail area.  The symptoms are noticed when the rabbit’s urine flows down one or both hind legs instead of being expelled backwards cleanly past the tail, causing it to be either very damp or soaking wet, depending on the severity of the condition.  It often starts in a very basic way with the owner noticing that the rabbit seems to be wet around the tail area, and then over time (sometimes days, sometimes weeks) it gets progressively worse to the point where it is very painful and distressing to the rabbit concerned.  The photo below shows Marmite when he first came into to the centre.  His skin was very sore, red and wet, and every time he needed to pass urine he would give a pitiful little crying noise due to the pain of the urine hitting his raw skin.  Thankfully after a lot of work, Marmite was completely cured and was successfully matched with a neutered female and adopted as part of a bonded pair.

sore leg, urine scalding web size

The scalding itself is a result of the fur and skin being frequently made wet, with the fur falling out due to bacterial and fungal infection of the surrounding skin making the area red and sore.  The condition is a very serious one and treatment must be started straight away, otherwise not only will the rabbit be in distress but it will also have high risk of fly strike.  I have included some of the common causes below.

  • Obesity – if a rabbit is overweight it can develop bulges and folds of skin in various parts of the body including the lower abdomen, which can result in the urine becoming trapped and running down a leg.  For information about correct diet to cure this problem, have a look at the feeding part of the rabbit care section.
  • Arthritis – this is fairly common in older rabbits and can result in the inability to raise up the back end properly which means the rabbit is unable to urinate clear of the hind legs.  This can often be cured by asking the vet for pain relief/anti-inflammatory treatment for the rabbit, and a low dose of Metacam once daily can alleviate the pain and discomfort, allowing the rabbit to once again adopt the correct posture for urination.  In some cases, gentle massage of the hind legs with or without gentle heat can have a really positive effect on the mobility of a rabbit with arthritis, and sometimes this treatment can enable the rabbit to resume the proper position for correct urination, clear of legs and tail.
  • E. cuniculi – this topic is covered more extensively in the rabbit care section of the website.  Many rabbits that are infected with the parasite E. cuniculi develop hind leg weakness which affects their movement and results in an inability to adopt the correct posture for urination, resulting in urine scalding of the hind legs.  The parasite can also affect the nerve control of the bladder, which means that the urine trickles out almost constantly and the rabbit has no control over it.  Although treatment with Panacur is now routine for E. cuniculi, it is not guaranteed that this will undo all the damage already done and in many cases the rabbit will not make a recovery if too severely affected.
  • Injury – this can affect urination in two ways, one as a result of pain in the hind quarters resulting in an inability to adopt the correct position for urination, and the other is due to mechanical damage resulting in the genital area becoming off centre in relation to the abdomen and the flow of urine therefore being directed sideways onto a hind leg.  Pain can be managed with a degree of success, as outline above (arthritis), but sadly mechanical damage is rarely treatable and more often than not the rabbit would need to be put to sleep unless the vet feels confident that an operation to correct the position would be possible and feasible.
  • Post-castration complication – It is not common, but in a very small minority of neutered males, the exit of the urethra (where the urine comes out of the body) becomes very constricted and tight, resulting in the rabbit trying to empty its bladder through a pin-prick hole instead of the relatively wide tube-like structure that should be present in males neutered for more than 6 months (the penis regresses back to a tube in most neutered males as the adult development is dependent on the presence of testosterone, and when that is withdrawn with castration sexual development regresses again to the immature form).  This constriction of the exit often results in urine dribbling out instead of being able to be expelled with force, and it is this that causes the urine to trickle onto the legs and tail as the rabbit is unable to clear its bladder properly.  In addition, the genital area often becomes swollen, sore, red and infected, making the problem even worse.  Gentle stretching of the opening by a vet can cure the problem, so long as the direction of the urine flow is straight once the procedure has been carried out, otherwise the rabbit will continue to wet one or both legs.  Treatment with antibiotics is usually required also to alleviate any infection, and sometimes anti-fungal topical cream needs to be applied too if a fungal infection is suspected.
  • Infection – it is worth trying a course of antibiotics just in case the problem is caused by a bladder or urinary tract infection.  If the skin looks red and sore it may be worth trying an anti-fungal cream applied thinly and gently to the area.  This can be bought in a chemist, but if you think the rabbit may be in danger of licking it off you may be best to use something like Daktarin oral gel.  Only use this for a few days as that should be enough to be sure that a fungal infection is treated, and if the symptoms persist you must seek veterinary advice.
  • Crystals in the bladder or urethra – this can cause enough of a blockage to cause urine scalding, as the bladder cannot empty properly and the urine dribbles out slowly, all over the tail and legs.

Have no illusions about this issue, urine scalding is very serious indeed and treatment must be sought immediately or the appropriate action taken if the vet does not think treatment would be successful.  Doing nothing is not an option, nor is simply repeatedly washing the rabbit as this will make it very sore and distressed and will not solve the problem.  The only justification in washing is if the urine leakage is very infrequent, but even then you must find out the cause of the problem and take steps to resolve it rather than just try and treat the symptoms.