spinal injury in rabbits

Can a Rabbit Survive a Broken Back?

Rabbits are delicate creatures with lightweight skeletons. Unfortunately, this means their spines are inflexible and can break or fracture much easier than other animals. That can be the result of a fall, twisting their body suddenly, or even being held wrong. Since rabbits are so delicate, that leads many owners to become concerned about the worst-case scenario. If your rabbit breaks its spine, you want to believe that it’ll be able to survive.

A rabbit can survive breaking its back, but this depends on what part of the spinal cord is broken or fractured. The severity of the break will dramatically impact the bunny’s survival rate. With small breaks, a rabbit can make a full recovery in a few weeks. However, if it’s more severe, the rabbit may need to be euthanized to save it further pain.

A broken back can result in paralysis or nerve damage. This means that a bunny may be unable to feed or clean itself, requiring long-term intervention by its owner. With partial paralysis, walking carts or physical therapy can help the rabbit to live a fulfilling life. However, with full paralysis, most vets recommend putting the rabbit down.

Rabbit Broken Back Recovery

To rabbits, a broken back can be lethal. However, this is rarely because of the initial break. Instead, broken spines usually take away a rabbit’s ability to move. When they can no longer feed themselves, clean themselves, defecate, or urinate, this will eventually result in death.

Do Rabbits Break Their Own Backs?

Like any animal, a broken back can prove deadly to rabbits. However, rabbits may be more prone to broken bones than other pets due to their bone structure.

According to Vetstream, a rabbit’s skeleton is only 7-8% of its bodyweight. This means it’s extremely light and, in some ways, brittle. Because of its delicate bone structure, it’s possible for a rabbit to break its own spine by accident. It doesn’t even need to suffer a fall or direct impact to its spine. A startled rabbit can snap bones without meaning to.

Additionally, rabbits do not have much flexibility in their vertebrae. They cannot handle considerable stress on their back. If strained in an unnatural direction, a rabbit will experience pain and discomfort. If this persists, the rabbit’s spine won’t bend – it will snap.

rabbit broken back recovery

How Do Rabbits Break Their Back?

A rabbit can break its spine in many ways. This could be the result of:

Improper Handing

When cuddling, picking up, or moving the bunny, it may twist, jump, or move its back in an unnatural position. As mentioned, rabbit spines cannot handle the strain. This could cause a fracture or a break.

It’s crucial for owners to hold their bunnies carefully. The ideal position must keep the rabbit from moving recklessly. Hold the rabbit so its front or back legs can’t move. This grip doesn’t need to be extremely tight, but firm. This will keep it safely tucked against you and free of injury, according to Exotic Pet Medicine.

Surprise

Rabbits are easily startled. They may hear a loud noise or be shocked by a sudden movement. As a result, they’ll jerk, twist their head too quickly, or jolt away. Despite the movement being small, this can cause their backs to fracture or break.

During Surgery

Even at the vet, your rabbit can be injured. This usually happens when a vet is trying to put a rabbit under anesthesia. It may try to resist the mask. If the rabbit isn’t held or properly restrained, this can lead to thrashing and, eventually, a broken back.

Falling

Rabbits are well known for jumping and hopping. However, this usually isn’t from great heights. If you place your rabbit on a table, sofa, or chair, keep a close eye on it. If it jumps from too high a surface, its back can fracture or break from the force of the landing.

Illness

Illness can lead to your rabbit experiencing back issues. For example, traumatic spinal disease is common. It causes their spine to weaken and, therefore, become more prone to breaks. Your rabbit could also:

  • Have an infection of the central nervous system (CNS)
  • Have lesions on the CNS
  • Have a metabolic disease

Your vet can test your rabbit’s spinal reflexes, take X-rays, or order an MRI to diagnose any of these issues.

Lack of Exercise

The spine is protected by layers of muscle and tissue. If these layers become weakened through a lack of exercise, the back will be left vulnerable. Rabbits that aren’t properly exercised are at greater risk. This can include:

  • Older rabbits that lack their former energy
  • Rabbits confined to a small space
  • Rabbits that are not given enrichment or otherwise encouraged to play

However, a lack of exercise doesn’t just affect muscle tone. A lack of daily exercise lowers bone density. This makes bones more brittle and easier to break.

If your rabbit twists in a certain way or jerks unexpectedly, it may experience fractures. These breaks tend to be more severe without routine exercise.

Rabbit Anatomy

A rabbit’s anatomy differs from most mammals in one primary way. It doesn’t have a cauda equina. This is a little pack of nerves near the tapered base of the spinal cord. It controls bladder and bowel function, as well as the movement of the groin and legs.

Without it, any damage to the vertebrae is far more likely to cause paralysis. In lesser cases, it may cause partial paralysis to the upper and lower parts of the body.

Since rabbits don’t have this, damage to their vertebrae and spinal cord is severe. They may lose the ability to move their front and back legs. Likewise, their bladder and bowels may stop working entirely.

Symptoms of a Broken Back in Rabbits

How do you know if your rabbit has broken its back? In some cases, it may be clearly obvious. In others, it may be subtle, so look for these symptoms. A rabbit may display all of these symptoms, or only some of them:

Paralysis

Loss of movement is a major symptom of a broken back. Your injured rabbit will be unable move certain parts of its body, such as its:

  • Front legs
  • Back legs
  • Hips
  • Head

In severe cases, it may be unable to move whatsoever. In this state, your rabbit may appear sleeping or, at first glance, deceased. However, upon closer inspection, the rabbit should be breathing. It may also have its eyes open, make sounds of pain, or appear to make small twitching motions. This is the rabbit trying to move.

In other cases, a rabbit may hold entirely still, out of fear or a full inability to move. It may be silent as well.

Be sure to approach the rabbit calmly, slowly, and quietly. Startling the bunny may cause it undue stress or motivate it to try and move, furthering the damage to its body.

No Reaction to Stimulus

The nervous system is intrinsically tied to the spine. If your rabbit experiences a fracture or break, it may lose feeling in a portion of its body. You can check this by touching or prodding parts of its body. If no reaction is forthcoming, you can escalate the test by lightly pinching the area. If your rabbit shows no reaction, it may be unable to feel the contact.

This will be particularly noticeable when touching a rabbit’s feet. Even docile and well-socialized bunnies may be averse to having their feet prodded. This can signal that paralysis has set in.

Loss of Bladder Control

An injured spinal cord may cause your rabbit to lose control of its bladder and/or bowels. This may be a result of damage to its nervous system.

Additionally, a broken back may be highly painful to your rabbit. Passing waste requires it to use muscles that could further this pain. It may refuse or be unable to relieve itself. Your rabbit may:

When paired with other symptoms, it’s an early sign that your rabbit is experiencing back issues.

Swelling

When a rabbit’s back is broken or fractured, its spinal cord will swell. You might notice that its back is bigger than usual. There may be a protrusion poking through the fur on its back. Don’t press on this, as you may cause further damage. Put the rabbit in an enclosed space until you can get help.

Your rabbit may experience paralysis along with the swelling. The paralysis may disappear as the swelling goes down, but that’s not always the case.

Dragging Legs

Your rabbit may drag its legs after breaking its back. This could be the front legs or the back legs. In both cases, it’s the result of nerve damage and partial paralysis. When the rabbit finds itself unable to walk, it will try to cope by dragging the noncompliant legs behind it.

Guardedness

Because rabbits are prey animals, they naturally hide pain or disabilities when injured. If your rabbit appears guarded, tries to hide, or braces itself when you approach, it’s worth investigating.

Even with a broken back, a rabbit will try to protect itself as best it can. If the bunny won’t come out from under the sofa or from inside its carrier, that might be the reason.

Noise

Rabbits are generally quiet. However, when in extreme distress or pain, they may create noise. At the moment their back breaks, they may scream or squeak. If the pain is severe, the rabbit may continue to make small squeaking noises. When trying to drag its legs or otherwise move, your bunny could make sharp, quick screams.

What To Do If a Rabbit Breaks Its Back

If you suspect your rabbit has damaged its back, never try to fix the issue yourself. Mishandling the rabbit could worsen the injury, create permanent damage, or even result in the death of your bunny. Instead:

Approach Calmly

A rabbit that’s in pain will be startled even more easily. If it’s fully paralyzed, the bunny will be in a highly distressed state.

Approach it in a slow, calm fashion. Speak in gentle, warm tones to put your rabbit at ease. Avoid yelling, making quick movements, or showing obvious concern, as your rabbit may respond badly.

Limit The Rabbit’s Movement

If your rabbit is still moving, you need to make it stop. This involves gently transporting the bunny to a carrier, cage, or other enclosure. If allowed to move, your rabbit may further the damage to its spine.

However, in this distressed state, the rabbit might resist your help. If in pain, it may even bite and attempt to scratch you. These movements could break the rabbit’s spine further.

Try to use a blanket, towel, or even a piece of clothing to gently wrap up the bunny. Put the fabric on the rabbit lightly, and then tighten it as you go, so as not to startle the pet.

Prepare The Rabbit for Travel

Your rabbit must go to the vet immediately. However, it can be dangerous to move any creature with a broken spine. This is especially true if full paralysis has set in. If your rabbit is unable to move, then try to use something flat and firm to slide under the pet.

This could be a book, piece of cardboard, or a cutting board. In any case, it will serve as a stretcher. Picking up the rabbit by hand could make its spine tweak, causing more damage. That’s especially true for large or heavy rabbits, which may be difficult to pick up in an even motion.

The Vet Visit

Once there, a veterinarian will handle and evaluate what’s wrong with your bunny. According to the Laboratory Animal Medicine, you should provide a detailed description of your bunny’s recent activities. These can include:

  • What has your rabbit been doing in the past couple of days?
  • Did the rabbit take a fall?
  • Did the rabbit act particularly anxious (and easy to scare)?
  • Did someone new pick the rabbit up?

Any health history should be offered as well. With that information, your vet can begin inspecting your rabbit’s condition. This will involve a physical exam, where the vet will look for signs of pain, physical protrusions, reactivity, and other details. In some cases, your rabbit may require an X-ray and/or MRI. In this process, your vet will determine if your rabbit has a:

  • Fracture
  • Break
  • Damage to its central nervous system

Once a diagnosis is reached, you can decide on a treatment plan.

How To Treat a Rabbit’s Broken Back

Rabbits can be treated for a broken back. However, the range of options depends on the severity of the break.

Inpatient Care

Your rabbit may need inpatient care at the vet while it heals. This is especially true if your rabbit is unable to move and lacks control of its bladder or bowel movements.

The rabbit will typically stay there until it’s stable enough to come home. This could range from a couple of days to a week or more.

Limit Activity

If you don’t choose inpatient care, you need to limit the amount of activity your bunny performs. To heal, the rabbit’s back must remain stable.

Too much activity will cause it to re-break or develop complications. Rabbits should be confined to a small cage or carrier. They must be kept as still as possible until they are fully healed. This can take several weeks, up to a couple of months.

Proper Positioning

Rabbits with broken backs have to maintain correct posture when healing. This will be a normal, upright resting position with their feet underneath them.

Make sure there’s a bed of hay under your rabbit. This provides cushioning, will help absorb any urine or waste, and help to stabilize the bunny. Pack some hay against the rabbit’s sides, so it works like a makeshift cast.

Supervise your rabbit once it’s in place. You should move it occasionally to prevent bed sores.

Help with Bladder and Bowels

As mentioned, a broken back could result in bladder and bowel issues with your rabbit. Any loose stool or urine around the bunny must be cleaned. To do so:

  1. Carefully pick up your rabbit. Hold its legs and keep its back straight.
  2. Place it on a flat but stable surface, so the rabbit isn’t motivated to squirm. If you can have another person help you in the following steps, feel free to keep holding the rabbit.
  3. Clean off anything sticking to the bunny’s fur.
  4. Place the bunny in a small enclosure, so it’s safe and still.
  5. Clean out the rabbit’s enclosure and the bedding around it. Replace with fresh hay. You don’t want the bunny to get an infection.
  6. Return the rabbit to its cage.
  7. Pack the hay around it to brace its position once again.

Control of its bladder or bowels should return in a couple of weeks. If it doesn’t, this could indicate permanent damage.

can a rabbit recover from paralysis?

Hand Feeding

You don’t want your rabbit to move. So, you need to hand-feed the bunny until it’s properly healed:

  • From fresh greens to pellets to hay, you should place these in your hand.
  • Offer them to your rabbit. Give the bunny a chance to smell the food.
  • After a few seconds, the rabbit should begin munching on it. This can be tedious, but it’s important to the rabbit’s healing process.
  • A rabbit that’s unused to hand-feeding may resist or take longer to eat.
  • If your rabbit won’t eat over the course of the day, contact your vet.

In some cases, hand-feeding may not be an option. If so, make sure the rabbit’s food and water is close enough to reach without moving.

Medication

A broken back can be extremely painful. So, the vet will likely prescribe your rabbit painkillers. This ensures the bunny isn’t suffering while its back is on the mend.

The stress of the injury can disrupt a rabbit’s digestive system. Being forced to hold still for long periods can also harm its ability to process food. Pain medication could wreak havoc on its stomach lining. Your vet may prescribe gastrointestinal medication to protect the rabbit’s gut and prevent ulcers as it heals.

Therapy

Physical therapy can help your rabbit recover the use of its limbs. However, very few owners choose this option. Your vet may not even suggest it due to the high cost of a specialist.

Carts

Your rabbit may not recover full use of its limbs or full range of motion. Likewise, the rabbit may experience long-term paralysis or partial paralysis. In these cases, wheeled carts are an option. These carts have been specifically designed to help your rabbit move around.

Can a Rabbit’s Broken Back Be Treated?

In some cases, a rabbit’s back will be too damaged. Your vet may inform you that your bunny cannot be treated. In this case, it’s important to consider euthanasia. In other cases, a rabbit can be treated, but will never truly recover. You should consider:

  • Will the bunny’s remaining life be satisfying or fulfilling?
  • Will the bunny be able to receive care (cleaning, hand-feeding, etc.)?
  • Are you able to commit the time to provide this care?
  • Will the bunny be in pain or discomfort throughout its life?
  • Will you be able to care for the bunny’s ongoing medical bills and other injury-related expenses?

If the answer to most (or all) of these question is no, then you may need to consider euthanasia.

Rabbit Broken Neck Prevention

Of course, accidents can always happen. However, with the right steps, your bunny will be safer from tragedy. There are many steps you can take before your rabbit’s back is ever broken.

Proper Handling

The most important step is handling your rabbit correctly. Based on the advice of Veterinary Partner, never pick up your rabbit:

  • By the ears
  • From the scruff of its neck
  • By only supporting its front or back limbs

In each of these holds, your rabbit can easily jump away, resulting in a bad fall. Likewise, it can twist and break its back. To hold it properly, you should:

  • Securely hold its front and hind legs underneath it.
  • Hold it close to your chest to prevent squirming.
  • Avoid carrying it long distances. This increases its chances to jump.
  • Instead, sit down on the ground when holding your bunny. If it jumps, it has a lesser distance to fall.

Exercise

Exercise can strengthen your bunny’s muscles and improve its bone density. If it takes a fall or twists suddenly, its spine is better fortified. To encourage exercise:

  • Try to ensure your rabbit has room to run, bounce, and play.
  • Provide enrichment with toys.
  • Take it on walks in a harness.
  • Create an outdoor, enclosed ‘run.’

Limiting Heights

Rabbits don’t climb trees or play on cliffs in the wild. Don’t let your rabbit sit on the table, counter top, tall sofa, or chair. It may like jumping – but it can’t handle the fall. Instead, keep your bunny close to the ground.

If you need to carry your rabbit, be sure it’s held securely. After that, limit the distance you need to walk with the bunny. One jump from too high can cause its spinal cord to break. If you want to cuddle your bunny, do so while sitting on the ground to prevent accidents.

Rabbits can survive broken backs. However, their quality of life may never be the same. Recovery may take several months. In some cases, euthanasia may be your only option.

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