Stiff and sore? Your rabbit might have arthritis…
Osteoarthritis, often referred to just as arthritis, is a painful disease caused by wear and tear of a joint. It makes movement difficult and sore.
Affected rabbits are usually in their middle and senior years. Most rabbits over six years old will have some arthritis, although it can affect rabbits much earlier. Interestingly, giant breeds tend to develop arthritis younger than smaller breeds.
Most commonly arthritis affects the hips, elbows and knees but it can involve any joint.
Rabbits often hide pain, and usually do not limp or cry out with arthritis. This means arthritis in rabbits is frequently missed. Getting annual check-ups with your vet is the best way to make sure your rabbit’s joints are monitored, so you can pick up arthritis as soon as it develops.
If your rabbit has arthritis you can make them more comfortable by employing simple strategies, and planning the best treatment for your rabbit with your vet.
More about rabbit arthritis
Healthy cartilage acts to smooth movement, and without it joints become stiff and inflamed. It is roughening and loss of the cartilage within a joint which leads to arthritis. Daily wear and tear leads to loss of cartilage, which is why arthritis is so common. Most rabbits, if not all, will develop some amount of arthritis throughout their life.
Rabbits are more likely to develop severe arthritis if:
- They are overweight
- They have suffered injury to a joint
- They are genetic predisposed to joint problems
There is no cure for arthritis. However, you can make your rabbit more comfortable and slow down the progression of arthritis by using simple strategies, supplements and medications.
The earlier you start supporting your rabbit and their arthritis, the more successful you are likely to be. This means that you will have to manage your rabbit’s arthritis for the rest of their life.
Even with help you may find that your rabbit still has bad days or periods. These are sometimes associated with cold, damp weather, or excessive exercise. These are likely to increase in severity and frequency as your rabbit ages.
Often the first indication your rabbit is suffering from arthritis is that they seem to be slowing down. In rabbits, this is often seen as sleeping or resting more. Don’t think of this as just a ‘normal’ old age change – just like us, arthritis affects movement because it is painful.
It is important to see your local Vets4Pets vet if you suspect your rabbit has arthritis.
Specific signs include:
- Stiffness when moving, especially after lying down
- Getting dirty or scruffy, especially around the back end
- Getting wet underneath, as the cannot get into the normal position to urinate
- Reduced appetite
- Difficulty or reluctance in jumping up/down
- Difficulty getting into and out of the litter tray
- Sleeping and resting more
- A change in behaviour, especially grumpiness or uncharacteristic aggression towards people and/or other animals
Your vet may be able to diagnose your rabbit with arthritis after a full physical examination, and asking you questions about their behaviour at home.
They will bend and stretch your rabbit’s legs to see how much movement they have, and will watch the way they move.
If your vet needs more information, they may do an x-ray of your rabbit’s joints to assess them and look for arthritic changes. This helps rule out other problems too.
Lots of different treatments are used for osteoarthritis in rabbits. This is because each case is different, and because using multiple treatments together often has a better outcome than using a single treatment alone. Many of these involve changes you can make at home, with support from your Vets4Pets team.
All rabbits with arthritis benefit from being a healthy weight. Vets4Pets clinics will be able to support you with dieting your rabbit, with weigh-ins and advice on food and exercise appropriate for your rabbit.
While it can be difficult to exercise your rabbit, encouraging low-impact movement by engaging with them can be helpful.
Help at Home
There are lots of simple changes you can make at home to help your arthritic rabbit:
- Ensure warm, comfy sleeping areas are easily accessible
- Make sure floors and ramps aren't slippery
- Keep your rabbit warm. This is especially important if your rabbit lives outside. You could consider bringing them in overnight, especially during winter
- Use open topped, low-edged litter trays if your rabbit is house trained, and put them where they are easily accessible
- Increase ease of access to raised areas and hutches by using ramps
- Brush your rabbit every day, especially around their back end, to keep them clean. This will reduce the risk of flystrike, which can be deadly
Some rabbits with arthritis do not need any medication at all, and are simply managed with changes to diet, exercise and home routine.
In more painful cases, rabbits may need extra help to be comfortable. These may be needed as soon as your rabbit is diagnosed with arthritis, or can be added in at a later stage as your rabbit’s arthritis worsens.
Anti-inflammatory drugs combat inflammation in the joints, relieving pain. These can be given long-term or in bursts as needed, but should never be given at a higher dose than recommended by your vet.
There are no pain killers licenced for rabbits, but there are products that work well and are routinely used long-term. Your vet will want to monitor your rabbit regularly to make sure the medication is working and your rabbit isn’t showing any signs of side effects from the medication.
Lifestyle changes and medication are the most common treatments for arthritis, however there are other treatments available to consider that might be suitable for your rabbit.
Often best in combination with conventional treatment, acupuncture is thought to stimulate the body’s repair mechanisms. Acupuncture can only be done by an appropriately qualified veterinary professional.