Pets are a big responsibility but the amount of unconditional love animals give us humans is unmeasurable.
As a child, I had lots of pets but it wasn’t until I got a rabbit that I really embraced the responsibility. I put lots of time and effort into giving my rabbit ‘Popcorn’ the very best life that I could and as a result, we built up a strong bond, he was an amazing rabbit.
What I hadn’t realized about rabbits at the time was how delicate they were and how quickly they can deteriorate when they are sick.
Aside from sickness, humans who take on a pet (with the possible exception of tortoises) will likely have to deal with the loss of that pet at some point simply down to the animals shorter lifespan. Rabbits are classed as elderly after about 6 years of age and usually leave us within 10 years.
Unfortunately have a lifespan significantly shorter than this estimation, often due to the inadequate care they receive.
A report carried out in 2019 by the Royal Veterinary College found that the average lifespan from 6,349 rabbits that attended 107 veterinary clinics across the UK was just 4.3 years, with males living an average of 5.2 years and females living just 3.7 years.
As someone who has experienced both of these situations with my own pets, In this short post, I’d like to talk about my experiences of both rabbit illness and natural death, dealing with both of these situations and how I comforted my rabbits as they were dying.
7 Ways to comfort a dying rabbit
A sick rabbit should be taken immediately to a vet for diagnosis, however, when it comes to these pets, you should be prepared for the worst. Rabbits are delicate creatures and in some instances, what seems like it could be a minor ailment develops quickly into a life threatening situation.
I experienced this myself with my first rabbit ‘Popcorn’ who seemed fine when I left for work that same morning but over the course of few hours developed a dangerous condition known as Gastrointestinal Stasis.
As an inexperienced rabbit owner I knew nothing of the seriousness of this condition until after a visit to the vet confirmed that Popcorn needed an immediate operation, unfortunately, my beloved Popcorn didn’t make it.
While this incident was unfortunate, it did give me the ability to be able to recognise when a rabbit is sick, this can be more difficult than you might think as rabbits instinctively hide sickness to avoid looking like a vulnerable target for predators.
Years later when another rabbit I owned (Nerys) suffered a similar illness, I knew that time was precious. I had also learned the best ways to make a rabbits final hours more comfortable.
1. Move the rabbit away from disturbances
Rabbits are nervous animals given their prey status they are naturally sensitive to noise and very aware of danger. The last thing that a dying rabbit needs is to be disturbed by TV’s, noisy children or barking from the family dog.
Take the animal to the quietest room in the house or sit outside in the yard where the rabbit can feel the warmth of the sun during its final hours.
Also, elderly rabbits will definitely appreciate a peaceful end to their lives as they wait to cross the rainbow bridge. You can help by making their last weeks/months/years as peaceful as possible by keeping them away from noisy areas and perceived threats.
2. Reassure the rabbit through talking
While this may seem a little strange to some, the sound of an owners voice can be a calming influence on a suffering animal including our pet rabbits. Rabbits are intelligent and will get some comfort from knowing they are in safe and familiar hands.
3. Ensure water is readily available or use a dropper to keep the rabbit hydrated
A dying rabbit will often lose its appetite completely but the passing away process may last for hours (any longer than 2-3 hours and you should be looking to a vet for help to end the animals suffering).
Keeping the rabbit hydrated is part and parcel of ensuring it’s final hours are not too uncomfortable (despite the circumstances).
Water will also help the rabbit to regulate its body temperature. Make sure a water bowl is near them at all times. If they are unable to drink on their own a dropper should be used to give the rabbit small amounts of water.
4. Allow them their favorite treats
Some rabbits may still maintain an interest in food despite serious issues. One such experience I personally had was when my rabbit ‘Baby’ had lost all function in her back legs and could no longer walk but still maintained a healthy appetite.
This meant that a good quality of life and, in particular, her ability to maintain cleanliness was impaired. After many weeks of butt baths, which were no doubt stressing her out I made the difficult decision to euthanize.
‘Baby’ was a happy rabbit and despite her leg problems she still maintained a healthy appetite until the end. We sat together in the car waiting for her appointment, I said my goodbyes and made sure I had some of her favorite treats at hand, this happened to be raisins. Naturally, I gave her as many as she liked before the vet put her peacefully to sleep.
5. Warm them up/cool them down
Dying rabbits will often shake and shiver and although this does not necessarily indicate that the rabbit is cold, however, feeling the rabbits ears is a good gauge of temperature since the ears have large blood vessels in them.
Just as we might curl up in bed when we are sick, you can help by wrapping the rabbit in a towel or put them on a blanket to keep them warm.
Heat pads or hot water bottles can also be used underneath blankets and towels provided they are not in direct contact with the animals skin.
Alternatively, dependent on the cause of the suffering, a dying rabbit may be experiencing a high fever. In this case the last thing it needs is to be wrapped in a blanket or a towel. Place the rabbit somewhere quiet and cool.
Tiled flooring is good as tiles stay cool and provide a cool place for rabbits to stretch out. Providing frozen water bottles for the rabbit to lie next to is also a much talked about option but cold packs or bags of frozen vegetables placed under the belly and around the sides of the rabbit will work just as well.
If the rabbit seems extremely warm, rubbing its ears with an ice cube can also help, but be sure not to cause frostbite by holding the cube there too long
6. Use prescribed pain relief
A dying rabbit may be in a lot of discomfort or even pain. If treatment isn’t an option the likelihood is that a vet will advise immediate euthanasia. However, there may be some occasions where a vet can provide something to relieve the pain, one common pain relief for rabbits is Metacam.
7. Avoid invasive procedures
Some rabbit owners talk of taking a rabbit’s temperature as a step to providing comfort to a dying rabbit but as the normal means of taking a rabbits temperature is to insert a thermometer anally, this could be distressing. Also, the rabbit colon and rectum are very delicate and easily damaged.
As such, we think this invasive procedure should be avoided unless carried out by a vet that is trying to potentially save the rabbits life.
How to Look After an Elderly Rabbit
A rabbit that is in the last hours of its life through illness or injury is an example of a situation where you will naturally want to make an animal as comfortable as you can as quickly as possible.
Another possibility is that you have an elderly rabbit who has started to experience health issues associated with age, for example arthritis (or in the case of my rabbit baby, the loss of limb function).
Along with the steps described above, here are some other things you can do to help a rabbit nearing the end of its life through old age.
Consider bringing outdoor rabbits indoors
Having kept house rabbits for a decade it was a difficult decision to have to put them outside to face the elements but my wife didn’t want them running around the house when my daughter came along, not least due to the fact that we had recently decorated in readiness for our baby.
As my eldest rabbit baby reached the grande old age of 9 years old, she started to really suffer with a number of different issues, not only did she begin to develop cataracts but she was also suffering with arthritis which was no doubt made even more painful given the given the cold weather.
I managed to convince my wife to let me bring her back indoors to live out the rest of her days. This enabled me to monitor her condition, administer medication, and control the temperatures she was exposed to more easily.
Bringing her inside also prevented her from being exposed to flies which was obviously a good thing given that flystrike is one of the most common causes of death in pet rabbits according to the study carried out by the Royal Veterinary College. Having Baby inside also allowed me to carry out butt baths as and when she needed them.
Provide help with cleaning
Although they are clean animals, elderly rabbits may have an inability or neglect to clean themselves due to decreased mobility, flexibility and/or medical conditions such as obesity. My female baby would often lay down in her toilet area/urine until I moved her. This is a problem as urine can soak through the fur and burn the skin.
For me, the importance of daily spot cleaning, including removing old soiled hay along with carrying out an intense clean of the rabbits living quarters at least once a week cannot be stressed enough, especially for older rabbits who need a helping paw.
Losing a pet is naturally a distressing experience but providing the animal with the best care you can up until the end means you can grieve knowing that you have done everything possible to make the final moments as painless as possible. Rest assured that your pet will have loved you all the more for the kindness you have shown it.
Is My Bunny Dying? What You Need to Know pethelpful.com
5 Signs and Symptoms of a Dying Rabbit animalwised.com
How to Comfort a Dying Rabbit albertwisnerlibrary.org
Do rabbits suffer when they die?
All animals including rabbits will suffer some degree of pain or sickness before they die. Depending on the circumstances leading up to the near-death situation (if shock is not a factor) a rabbit may suffer for hours or days unless a human intervenes to put it out of its misery.
Why do rabbits die suddenly?
Sudden death in rabbits is usually a result of shock, seizure, or neurological disorder, however, these occurrences are very rare. A study carried out by the Royal Veterinary College found that the most common cause of death in rabbits are flystrike (10.9% of pet rabbits), anorexia (4.9%), collapse (4.9%), and gut stasis (4.3%).
Do rabbits die easily?
Rabbits do die easily compared to many other pets including cats and dogs. Rabbits are skittish prey animals with a delicate skeletal structure and they are prone to many health conditions and injuries that can become life-threatening very quickly. Rabbits can disguise external signs of disease so that they are less likely to be targeted by predators which makes it difficult for owners to spot illness before it’s too late.
Can a rabbit in shock be saved?
Shock is a serious issue that can cause death, however rabbits can recover from it provided they are kept warm, provided with plenty of fluids, and taken immediately to a vet for treatment.
What can kill a rabbit suddenly?
Rabbits suffer from many conditions that can kill them quickly including neurological disorders such as epilepsy. Other situations that can cause sudden death in rabbits are poisoning e.g. accidentally eating poisonous plants, hyperthermia, hypothermia and the shock from an injury.