I have commonly met owners who’ve told me that rabbits don’t feel pain. As rabbits don’t show easily obvious signs of pain these owners completely believed this. They believed that like people or other vocal species, rabbits in pain and act totally different which often isn’t the case. The truth is, the signs of pain in rabbits are similar, just more subtle, than in other species.
Not only did I constantly hear this from owners but I also noticed a lack of recognition of pain amongst my colleagues in rabbits. As a result of many vets not being able to recognise pain in rabbits I suspected they underestimated the amount of pain relief rabbits needed after injuries or operations.
One day after being frustrated with these thoughts and after meeting another owner stating the same to me, a lightbulb shone in my head. My brain woke up and said,
“If they don’t recognise it and there’s few studies demonstrating pain in rabbits then why not study it yourself”
A few enquiries to different universities later and, to make a long story short, my Masters Degree dissertation developed. I spent several months reading about the recognition of pain in rabbits (amongst other species). This was spent many many hours filming, watching and analysing video clips of rabbits who may or may not have been in pain from potentially being castrated; I say potentially, some clips were filmed before rabbits were castrated!
So, you could say detecting pain is an interest of mine, especially with my favourite rotation at vet school being Anaesthesia which included Analgesia (the posh word for painkillers!). Some people think it’s a bit of a weird interest and that I maybe have a morbid fascination with pain.
The reality, if we are in pain we take a couple of paracetamol tablets or see a doctor for stronger painkillers. If animals are in pain they can’t do this (well, ignoring research studies where Chickens have both normal feed and feed laced with painkillers in their pens. Then chickens who’re in pain will likely eat the feed with painkillers in… yes I’m a geek!).
How do Rabbits Show Pain?
Hiding or laying more
- This is seen in most species
- Rabbits in pain tend to hide or sleep more.
- You may not see them at all or as much.
- This is to protect themselves both from predators (our pets believe there may still be one) and make sure their injuries don’t get worse.
- Rabbits in pain move around less as they avoid doing anything that hurts.
- This may not be as obvious as them stopping moving completely; many are still active at times.
- However, if you scare them or go to pick them up (something which most rabbits hate) painful rabbits will usually still dart away.
Eat and Drink Less
- Studies have consistently shown that rabbits in pain eat and drink less.
- To see if your rabbit is in pain you can just compare how much they eat and drink compared to what they usually have.
- If you have two rabbits it may be impossible to tell as if one rabbit eats less due to pain the other may just enjoy the extra food it has left to eat so you don’t notice.
- It’s not always the case, some rabbits don’t change their eating patterns at all.
- Also, if your rabbit stops eating there may be a reason other than pain such as stress or feeling ill.
- Not eating can, in itself, make a rabbit very unwell. A rabbit’s digestive system is designed for them to eat almost constantly. If they stop eating or eat very little this can actually stop their guts from working. This can be life-threatening so if your rabbit stops eating for whatever reason get it checked out ASAP; sometimes even just leaving them a few hours to get checked may be fatal.
- An advantage to checking their food and water is that you don’t have to disturb your rabbit. This is definitely a bonus as they don’t want to be messed with when ill or in pain.
- If your rabbit has a sore leg they may limp.
- Not all rabbits that are in pain will limp, even if their legs hurt, and not all rabbits limping are in pain. Limping rabbits may have something affecting their brain or an old injury which cause them to limp despite not causing pain.
- However, if your rabbit starts limping and they weren’t before it is likely they are in pain. Just don’t rule out pain because they’re not limping.
- Rabbits in pain, when stood, may writhe a bit. This is often seen with belly ache where they are twisting and stretching their bodies to relieve the pain.
- This is not always obvious as it often is done very quickly, each time lasting only a second or two.
They may sleep more
- Being in pain is tiring.
- Often they sleep more due to having less energy left
- This means they may be in their bed more.
- Rabbits may also lie with their eyes shut when in pain, even if they’re awake.
- They may become more aggressive
- Rabbits often don’t want to be played with or lifted by people even when they’re not in pain.
- When they’re in pain this is even more likely as they don’t want people making that pain worse.
- To try to make sure they’re not in more pain, rabbits do all they can to stop people handling them and stop playing with other rabbits.
- This may mean your rabbit becomes more aggressive and may even scratch or bite especially if someone is touching a sore area.
- High Breathing or Heart Rate
- Most owners don’t constantly check their rabbit’s heart or breathing rates. But, when a rabbit is in pain, you may notice their chest rising and falling as they breathe quicker.
- Them breathing quicker or their heart beating faster is both a sign of pain and stress so it can be difficult to use this as a method of detecting pain.
- This is especially so for rabbits who become stressed when around people or if people decide to lift them to check their heart rate. In these cases, their heart or breathing rates would rise when lifted even with no pain.
- A vet may notice high heart or breathing rates when examining your rabbit BUT it may be hard to tell if this is due to pain or simply stress.
- Changes in Grooming Habits
- If your rabbit is in pain it will tend to clean itself less.
- However, if they’re in pain in an area of the body they can get to they may lick it more.
- Sometimes if a rabbit has surgery and they are in pain they may remove their stitches from nibbling at the area.
- As a rule, rabbits do not cry out when they are in pain.
- However, there are exceptions to every rule. In this case, rarely and when in severe pain, a rabbit may scream out.
- It is unlikely that they will scream but it is heard in some cases.
- Sometimes rabbits can be heard making slight whimpering noises but again this is uncommon and is very quiet.
- Grinding Teeth
- This may be seen with tooth pain and, uncommonly, with gut pain.
- Sometimes very ill or stressed rabbit’s abdomens bloat up. This may also be caused by certain foods. Bloating is a result of your rabbit’s digestion slowing or even stopping.
- This is incredibly painful and can, sometimes, cause them to grind their teeth, especially if you’re feeling over their belly. Bloat also causes rabbits to writhe.
- Weight Loss
- Rabbits in pain over several days or longer may lose weight.
- Your rabbit will both eat less and use up more energy from stress and having higher heart and breathing rates.
- If your rabbit appears to have lost weight then it may be due to pain but there are many other causes too.
- Change in Facial Expression
- Pain causes us to screw our eyes shut and open our mouth.
- Many mammals do similar with pain and rabbits aren’t an exception. Some of the signs they show are subtle but all of them together may be due to pain.
- Eyes Closed; rabbits in pain, even when awake, may have their eyes closed or only partially open.
- Tense Whiskers; their whiskers may become tense and instead of pointing outwards from their face and moving quite a lot, they may be held very close to the face, together and be held downwards
- Nose Changes; Rabbits normally have a U shape to their nostrils when relaxed. When in pain, however, this alters as the bottom part of their nose is tensed causing it to become smaller and leaving their nostrils to form a V shape. This is very subtle though
- Ears Closed; Rabbits normally have nice open dome-shaped ears which are help upright. When in pain this completely changes. Their ears may be held back, sometimes lie along their backs. Their ears also close leaving the opening very narrow.
- Cheeks may flatten. This is very hard to spot. Rabbits cheeks are usually very rounded and easy to see. However, when they’re in pain these become tense and no longer stick out but, instead, flatten and may even curve inwards.
What Should I do If My Rabbit Is in Pain?
The first step is recognising pain. Once you’ve noticed your rabbit may be in pain you should take them to your vet. As rabbits stop eating when they are in pain and them notIf your rabbit stops eating you must take them to a vet straight away as not doing so could, along with the pain, make them severely unwell.
Vet checks may be scary for both you and your rabbit but they are the only way to find out exactly what is wrong and treat it. As rabbits don’t like being handled they may find it even more stressful than other pets but if they’re in pain then getting them checked is definitely the best thing.
If your vet finds out what is wrong with your rabbit and they need medications, don’t worry the majority of thse for rabbits are liquids. These medications can be squirted straight into their mouths and your rabbit may like the taste of some of them. The quicker you find the cause of their pain and start their treatment, the better and the less stressed and ill they’ll become overall.
The main signs of pain in rabbits are changes in their facial expression, an increase in their heart and rates, them eating less, wanting to be left alone, sometimes becoming aggressive, and being quiet.
If they’re in pain take them to the vet to find and treat the problem.
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Photo courtesy of Sarah Tait (Twitter.com/ SarahTait123)