Anyone who has taken a rabbit in as one of the family will understand that these cute little beings make amazing companions who can steal the hardest of hearts. Unfortunately, rabbits are also very delicate animals that often leave us too soon and worse still sometimes without warning. As anyone who has taken a trip to the emergency vet will testify, dealing with a sick pet can be an upsetting experience but as someone who has experienced this on several occasions, I often wonder how rabbits feel when staring death in the face? Do they also get upset, and can rabbits cry?
Can rabbits cry? Yes, rabbits can cry, however physical tears are likely to be a result of an undiagnosed medical condition. If under extreme stress or suffering from pain or injury rabbits can be heard to make a whimpering sound similar to humans who are upset or crying. Rabbits do have tear ducts however wetness around the eyes can usually be attributed to the abnormal overflow of tears (Epiphora) as the result of an eye injury or disease.
Pain, Illness, and Discomfort
Unlike other small mammals with a larger vocabulary (e.g. prairie dogs) rabbits are mostly silent and they communicate with each other through subtle gestures and movements us humans will never fully understand. In the wild rabbits are at the bottom of the food chain, for this reason, they will often hide the symptoms of an illness or injury from predators as a predator will often target the weakest member of a group.
However, domestic rabbits may show signs of discomfort to us owners by producing an audible whimpering sound if they are experiencing chronic pain or discomfort and although this obviously sad and upsetting for us bunny owner, it does at least give us an indication that our rabbit needs our help.
Personally, we recently experienced this situation with one of our own resident rabbits, Princess. Princess is a male Netherland dwarf and was used to regular handling, however, one day it became apparent that Princess wasn’t well. Princess became averse to handling and would sometimes even attempt to bite when we approached. When we did manage to catch Princess for handling I began to notice Princess was making a whimpering sound and seemed to be in some distress.
I immediately took Princess for a check-up and upon examination by the Vet, it was noticed that Princess would tense up when he was petted on one side of his neck. After further tests, the vet confirmed that Princess was suffering from a neurological disorder which was causing him some discomfort whenever he was handled. After Princess was prescribed some painkillers.
This experience reminded us that rabbits are delicate animals and its not always very easy to see when they are in need of some help. Remember, every rabbit is an individual and they won’t all display pain or upset, in the same way, some may whimper, others may grind their teeth and others may hide their symptoms completely.
Below is a list of regular checks/things you can look out for. A general health check at least twice a year is also recommended (you can tie this in with vaccinations).
Basic rabbit health checks/things to look out for:
- Loss of appetite
- Cold ears
- Loud Tooth Grinding
- Lack of droppings
- hunched up posture
- Wetness or discharge from eyes or nose or mouth
- Difficulty breathing
- Skin, ears, and fur in good condition (no matting, dandruff or wounds)
- Uncleanliness around the bottom and/or tail
- Unwillingness to move or lameness (unsteady on feet)
- Nails overgrown or sores hocks
- Abnormal growth of front teeth (incisors)
- Abnormal weight Loss (may indicate disease)
Rabbits are sensitive animals and capable of getting upset and a chronic medical issue can be one cause of stress for a rabbit that may lead to whimpering, but what about stress from other factors?
In the wild, a rabbit cornered or caught by a predator may whimper or even scream in fear of its life. While domestic rabbits are far less likely to experience these kinds of life or death situations, they may feel stressed enough to whimper in some everyday situations if they perceive they are at threat.
Causes of Stress in a Home Environment Can Include:
- Threat from other pets, e.g. large dogs
- Loud noises
- Small children who may attempt to grab them
Always provide house rabbits with a safe place they can retreat to should they feel under threat.
Stress in Hutch Rabbits
Despite the security of a hutch, outdoor rabbits can also feel stress which may in some cases lead to them whimpering. Some of the factors that may cause a rabbit distress or discomfort can include:
- Extremes of hot and cold
- Wet or damp living conditions
- Lack of enrichment
- Lack of exercise
- Predators peering in through the hutch
While most of these potential risks will not themselves lead to a rabbit whimpering or crying, some may lead to serious medical issues if they go unnoticed or ignored.
Do Rabbits Cry When They are Lonely?
There’s currently no evidence to prove that rabbits cry or whimper when they are lonely however what is known is that rabbits are social animals who do best with a companion. A lack of interaction will make a rabbit unhappy and depression will negatively impact its enjoyment of life. If you have no choice other than to keep a single rabbit, remember to make the bunny feel part of the family.
Whimpering and Labored Breathing
Whimpering accompanied by difficulty breathing or wheezing is a cause for concern that should be discussed with a vet. Rabbits are obligate nasal breathers meaning that they need to breathe through the nose rather than the mouth. General difficulty with breathing could be as the result of a nasal or respiratory infection such as stertor which can be identified by an accompanying low pitched tone or stridor which can be identified by a high pitched tone. Both conditions will need a course of antibiotics from the vet to sort out.
My Rabbit has Tears in its Eyes, What is Going On?
If your rabbit appears to be crying tears or has gunk similar to what we call ‘sleep’ in its eyes or moisture underneath the eyes, it could be that the rabbit is suffering from Snuffles. Snuffles is one of the most common diseases that can strike a domestic rabbit and is a contagious respiratory disease that can affect eyes ears and other organs. It is caused by infection of nasal tracts with the bacteria Pasteurella Multocida.
When an infection does occur symptoms including, sneezing, discharge, and a loud snorting or ‘snuffling’ sound can be seen, the disease can also cause conjunctivitis when the rabbit licks and uses its paws to clean its face and eyes. Some strains of the bacteria commonly found in a rabbits nasal tract will not cause infections unless the rabbit is stressed or has a suppressed immune system.
Stress is a natural response to a life-threatening situation like being wet, cold and uncomfortable. Having a weakened immune response caused by stress can leave a rabbit more susceptible to this disease. Always ensure you aren’t exposing your pet to any of these issues. Keep a hutch or living space clean and dry at all times and if you do suspect your rabbit has snuffles, consult a vet as soon as possible.
What to Do If a Rabbit is Crying or Whimpering
Rabbits don’t cry tears because they are upset and whimpering will in most cases indicate a physical pain or environmental stress. If you are able to rule out any environmental factors their is a high probability that a rabbit will at least need a medical check to ensure that it is not suffering from something more serious. Never ignore a rabbits cries, rabbits deteriorate very quickly so time is of the essence.
Contrary to popular belief, rabbits are not easy animals to look after, they are prone to a whole host of medical issues and will often do their best to hide these issues from us. When you first take ownership of a rabbit, be sure to find a nearby veterinarian who you will be able to call on in the case of an emergency.
Rabbit crying or whimpering should always be taken very seriously due to how fast rabbits can go downhill, particularly with conditions such as G.I. Stasis. Always ensure rabbits are vaccinated against common illnesses and be aware of the common symptoms that indicate a problem so that you can be quick to react in an emergency.