Fourteen Signs of Pain in Rabbits

Nose shape indicates pain in rabbits

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!).

Given the choice, chickens select food with pain killers in.

How do Rabbits Show Pain?

  1. Hiding or laying more
    1. This is seen in most species
    2. Rabbits in pain tend to hide or sleep more.
    3. You may not see them at all or as much.
    4. 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.
  2. Less Active
    1. Rabbits in pain move around less as they avoid doing anything that hurts.
    2. This may not be as obvious as them stopping moving completely; many are still active at times.
    3. However, if you scare them or go to pick them up (something which most rabbits hate) painful rabbits will usually still dart away.

      Rabbits in pain eat and drink less
      Like many animals, rabbits eat and drink less when in pain
  3.  Eat and Drink Less
    1. Studies have consistently shown that rabbits in pain eat and drink less.
    2. To see if your rabbit is in pain you can just compare how much they eat and drink compared to what they usually have.
    3. 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.
    4. It’s not always the case, some rabbits don’t change their eating patterns at all.
    5. Also, if your rabbit stops eating there may be a reason other than pain such as stress or feeling ill.
    6. 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.
    7. 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.
  4. Limping
    1. If your rabbit has a sore leg they may limp.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
  5. Stand differently
    1. Rabbits with bellyache may stand with their backs arched up similar to what a dog or cat may do.
  6. Move Differently
    1. 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.
    2. This is not always obvious as it often is done very quickly, each time lasting only a second or two.
  7. They may sleep more
    1. Being in pain is tiring.
    2. Often they sleep more due to having less energy left
    3. This means they may be in their bed more.
    4. Rabbits may also lie with their eyes shut when in pain, even if they’re awake.
  8. They may become more aggressive
    Rabbits in pain may be aggressive
    When it pain often rabbits stay away from each other or become aggressive
    1. Rabbits often don’t want to be played with or lifted by people even when they’re not in pain.
    2. When they’re in pain this is even more likely as they don’t want people making that pain worse.
    3. 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.
    4. This may mean your rabbit becomes more aggressive and may even scratch or bite especially if someone is touching a sore area.
  9. High Breathing or Heart Rate
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
  10. Changes in Grooming Habits
      1. If your rabbit is in pain it will tend to clean itself less.
      2. However, if they’re in pain in an area of the body they can get to they may lick it more.
      3. Sometimes if a rabbit has surgery and they are in pain they may remove their stitches from nibbling at the area.
  11. Screaming
    Pain in rabbits can be seen by them lying down
    Rabbits may lie down more when in pain
    1. As a rule, rabbits do not cry out when they are in pain.
    2. However, there are exceptions to every rule.  In this case, rarely and when in severe pain, a rabbit may scream out.
    3. It is unlikely that they will scream but it is heard in some cases.
    4. Sometimes rabbits can be heard making slight whimpering noises but again this is uncommon and is very quiet.
  12. Grinding Teeth
    1. This may be seen with tooth pain and, uncommonly, with gut pain.
    2. 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.
    3. 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.
  13. Weight Loss
    1. Rabbits in pain over several days or longer may lose weight.
    2. Your rabbit will both eat less and use up more energy from stress and having higher heart and breathing rates.
    3. If your rabbit appears to have lost weight then it may be due to pain but there are many other causes too.
  14. Change in Facial Expression
    This rabbit is just resting rather than in pain. His ears are back but his nose is a U shape
    1. Pain causes us to screw our eyes shut and open our mouth.
    2. 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.
    3. Eyes Closed; rabbits in pain, even when awake, may have their eyes closed or only partially open.
    4. 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
    5. 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
    6. 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.
    7. 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.

 

Quick Recap

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.

 

If you enjoyed this blog or found it informative I would be grateful if you could share it.  Also, if you found this useful feel free to subscribe by leaving your email address in the box in the sidebar; you will be sent updates when I release new blogs.

Please feel free to leave a comment with any questions or discussion points.  Also feel free to get in touch with me to find out more about this topic.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Tait (Twitter.com/ SarahTait123)

Author: Kim Halford

I'm a qualified vet and animal behaviour and welfare advisor. I am dedicated to improving the welfare of animals. I also want to work with organisations to improve the education of animal welfare and behaviour as well as improve the bond between animal and owner.

6 thoughts on “Fourteen Signs of Pain in Rabbits”

  1. Hi, I found the information you provided very interesting and I definitely have noticed the facial differences you described. My French Lop rabbit has lost weight over a three month period but a significant amount in the last couple of weeks, although still displayed normal behaviour with a good appetite and normal fecal function. Therefore last Friday I took her to the vets. I had been giving her Pancur worming treatment for 5 days. She said to continue this and also prescribed her antibiotics, Bio Lapis and Critical care feeding sachets. She was also still eating pellets and had eaten kale too. All seemed to be going ok until yesterday when she clearly had stomach pain. I gently massaged her tummy which was soft but bloated, she did not object to this. I also kept her warm and gave her Infacol infant gas solution. This morning had had produced a fair number of poos that do have a different odour than her regular poos. She has not been eating since yesterday or drinking although I did syringe feed her some Bio Lapis. I plan to take her to the vet today as she is very lethargic and laying out with her tummy flat to the floor. Should I syringe feed her food now or could this cause a greater problem? I appreciate any advice you may give, thanks very much.

    1. Hi,

      Sorry to hear the problems you’ve been having with your rabbit. I can’t say for definite without examining her but it does sound like she’s got reduced movement in her gut at the moment and possibly gut stasis where it’s not moving which is not good for a rabbit. However it definitely sounds like you have the right things. I’d syringe feed her ASAP. One of the most important things with rabbits is keeping their guts going so trying this with syringe feeding is definitely a good idea. Take it slowly with the syringe feeding though with small amounts often and until you’re sure she’s going to swallow it just tiny bits in her mouth at once, what you don’t want to do is inadvertently end up with her accidentally breathing it in so if she’s refusing to swallow then take extra care with that. I’d definitely say she needs to see a vet today to get to the bottom of the reason for this as well as see why she’s not wanting to eat and, of course, make her feel more comfortable.

      I hope that helps? Sorry I can’t tell you what the underlying cause is .

  2. Dwarf rabbits are also not recommended if you plan on keeping your rabbit outside.  Remember that many rabbit experts recommend keeping your bunny indoor-only.  Dwarf rabbits are especially sensitive to extreme outdoor conditions. The most important thing to keep in mind when considering a dwarf rabbit is dental problems.  Tiny rabbits with babylike faces are prone to dental malocclusion. Without proper veterinary care, dwarf rabbits can face a lifetime of malnutrition and pain due to misaligned and overgrown teeth. If you are not prepared to deal with a dwarf rabbit’s health needs, you can consider other non-dwarf breeds that are small to medium in size (between 4 ½ and 7 pounds when fully grown). These smaller breeds include the Dutch rabbit, the Silver rabbit, the standard Chinchilla rabbit, and the English Angora if you like your bunnies fluffy!

    1. Thanks for your comment phranci.

      I agree. I personally believe all rabbits should be indoors in the winter/ cold days and especially nights when it’s the coldest in temperate countries; Australia may be different in some areas where it gets less cold in the Winter. Smaller rabbits, the same as with guinea pigs, have more skin compared to their internal organs and so more relative area for them to lose body heat to their surroundings meaning they get cold easier and remain cold for longer so it is even more important for them. It must be remembered though that even in the warmer months if they get wet or if it’s windy they may also become very cold.

      In terms of their teeth, it depends on their breed. The most common reason for them to have dental abnormalities is not eating enough good quality hay which is given as long stems. However, yes different breeds and sometimes indiviidual rabbits have issues with dental abnormalitities no matter how good their diet is. One of these is the Netherland Dwarf which due to their relatively flat faces often there’s less space for their teeth. Once rabbits start with teeth problems they can cause immense amounts of pain and lead to them stopping eating some (but not all) of the time which can then lead on to other problems such as gut stasis where their guts slow right down or even stop which can be fatal.

  3. Great resource. Shared! thank you.
    I presume this is the study referenced by the UK RWA in a recent edition of their magazine, showing facial expressions for varying degrees of pain. I understand the importance but was concerned that a rabbit might be left in extreme and increasing pain so that you could follow the progress though from mild to severe before relieving the pain, although that doesn’t sound like something you’d willingly do.

    1. Hi, no my study hasn’t been published at the moment but it may be in the future. However it would, more than likely, be the same team though and may have been based upon the same footage I collected.

      To put your mind at rest, the head of the team is very much against allowing the rabbits to remain in, or go near reaching severe pain. They were all monitored throughout and if any rabbits were looking to be in severe pain this is recognised by members of the team and independent vets. If this is the case the animals are given strong pain medications immediately to mitigate their suffering, are withdrawn from the study (by the way the ones I was working with had 2m x 2m pens so plenty of space etc) to allow them to continue on analgesia. In my study non reached that level. The rabbits I worked with were all castrated and even ones on lower amounts of pain medications still had more than many vets would use out in practice and those with higher amounts of pain relief would’ve actually had more relief than what I’ve seen provided for dogs undergoing castration in top vet school hospitals, ie they definitely should’ve felt no pain.

      I am aware of other groups carrying out pain research who may or may not have as stringent checks and rules with regards to pain control, especially when doing a study on the signs of pain but I am unable to comment further on this as I’ve not seen their protocols in practice.

      And you’re right, I definitely wouldn’t work with a team who I thought would just watch animals suffer.

      Thanks for your comment, it’s the sort of thing I’ve been dubious of in the past (and still am when I’m reading certain research studies) and I hope I’ve put your mind at rest.

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