If your rabbit is getting old, or if it has been sick, you might be concerned that your rabbit is nearing death. As you’ve taken care of and gotten to know your rabbit, you will have learned what its normal behavior is like. Changes in that behavior are a sign of a change in health, and even death.
A pet rabbit will live for between 6 and 12 years. Signs that a rabbit is near death include refusing to eat, an unusual level of lethargy, difficulty breathing, or a sudden change in vital signs. A rabbit should have a body temperature between 100 degrees Fahrenheit and 104 degrees Fahrenheit, as well as a heart rate between 180 and 250 beats per minute. Skin conditions such as myiasis, or “flystrike,” are also signs that your rabbit’s life is in danger. Many rabbits experience involuntary muscle spasms as they near the final minutes of life.
As much as we love our rabbits, death is a natural part of life. It is vital that you understand the common signs that let you know your rabbit is dying. This will help you know when to take your rabbit to the vet for care, and this knowledge will also prepare you for the worst when it comes. We will now look at the factors that will warn you that your rabbit is dying.
How To Know If Your Rabbit is Dying
You can give your pet rabbit a long and healthy life. In captivity, rabbits can live anywhere between 6 and 12 years if kept indoors.
Smaller rabbits live longer than bigger rabbits. The world record for the oldest living rabbit not surprisingly belongs to a 16-year-old miniature (dwarf) grey rabbit named Hazel.
As your rabbit nears the end of its life, its body will change in ways you can notice and respond to. Any of these symptoms alone is likely a sign of illness, but not necessarily the imminent death of your rabbit.
However, if more than one of these symptoms is present, it may be near the end of your rabbit’s life. Understanding the signs that your rabbit is dying will help you decide how to handle the end of your pet rabbit’s life.
Refusing To Eat Food
The most easily noticeable sign is if it will not eat its food. A rabbit needs to eat plenty of hay, grass, and green vegetables to meet its nutritional needs. If your rabbit is not eating at all, something may be wrong.
According to the University of Edinburgh, you can expect a fully adult rabbit to eat less than a younger rabbit. A growing rabbit needs more energy and can eat up to twice as much food as an adult.
If your grown-up rabbit isn’t eating quite as much as it did when it was a baby, this is not necessarily a need for concern. A healthy animal is driven to take in the nutrients it needs to survive, and there’s no need to force your rabbit to eat more than it wants if it is getting the food it needs.
However, if your rabbit no longer has any appetite, this can be a sign of illness or being near death. Many illnesses, both physical and mental, can suppress a rabbit’s appetite. Lack of appetite could also be a sign of old age. If you are concerned that your rabbit is eating so little that it is not getting the nutrients it needs, take it to a veterinarian for a check-up.
Unusual Level of Lethargy
Rabbits are typically physically active animals. Of course, the activity level can vary between individual rabbits. The longer you’ve owned your rabbit, the more familiar you will be with what is a normal amount of hopping and running around for your pet. You will also know how typically playful your rabbit normally is.
If your rabbit becomes unusually inactive, apathetic about playtime and unwilling to perform much physical activity at all, this could be a sign that your rabbit is dying.
Sudden lethargy may also be a sign of stress. To find out how serious this lethargy is, take your rabbit to a more comfortable environment, free from stressors such as excessive heat and noise. If your rabbit calms down and gets up to play again, then their stillness was due to stress.
If the rabbit still does not seem to want to move at all, then it may be ill or near death. You may wrap it in a blanket and try to give it small amounts of water to drink through a syringe. If your rabbit refuses to drink, do not force it. You want to avoid making your rabbit choke in its weakened state.
Rabbits are very good at keeping themselves clean. However, a rabbit that is not feeling well will pay less attention to grooming itself. While a healthy rabbit will have soft, clean fur and skin, a rabbit that is getting sick may have excessively greasy or matted fur. This lack of fur care can be an early sign of a skin condition.
According to an article in Veterinary Clinics of North America: Exotic Animal Practice, rabbits are vulnerable to a variety of skin diseases. These include parasitic diseases, infectious diseases, and skin tumors. Some of these conditions can lead to death.
Symptoms of these skin conditions include bald patches in your rabbit’s fur, dandruff, and also scaling or flaking of the skin.
One potentially fatal skin condition for rabbits is myiasis, also commonly called “flystrike.” This condition comes from flies laying eggs in a rabbit’s fur. This tends to happen if the rabbit’s fur is dirty with urine or feces, when a rabbit is wet, or when the rabbit is letting out more pheromones from its scent glands.
The fly eggs hatch, releasing maggots. The maggots can then eat down into the rabbit’s skin. This can cause death for your rabbit as quickly as 24 hours. As such, a buildup of moisture, feces, or urine on your rabbit’s skin can be a sign it will die. Visible maggots on your rabbit’s skin are the most imminent sign of death.
If you notice eggs or maggots on your rabbit’s skin, take it to a veterinarian immediately. Some maggots may have already entered your rabbit’s skin, so simply picking off the visible maggots will not be enough.
Myiasis can be cured with antibiotics. However, if this condition is not caught early enough, then the rabbit may still die.
Change in Vital Signs
As a rabbit nears death, its vital signs will move out of normal ranges. An animal’s vital signs include its temperature and heart rate. Here are the normal vital signs for a healthy rabbit:
- Temperature: 100-104 degrees Fahrenheit
- Heart Rate: Between 180 and 250 beats per minute
- Breathing Rate: Between 30 and 60 breaths per minute
- Capillary Refill Time: 2 seconds or less
You can test the rabbit’s body temperature with a thermometer. Its heart and breathing rate can be observed with careful counting and a timer.
To test capillary refill time, open the rabbit’s mouth gently press against the gums around its teeth. As you add pressure, the color will lighten. After you remove the pressure, how long it takes for the gums to come back to their normal color is the capillary refill time.
If these vital signs are out of the ordinary, especially if this was a sudden change from one day to another, it is time to take your rabbit to a vet.
Healthy rabbits do not breathe very noisily. This is because rabbits breathe only through their noses, rather than their mouths.
This means that a stuffy nose is an unhealthy sign. If your rabbit sounds like it has a cold, that can be a sign of illness, including illnesses that leave it close to death. Signs of difficulty breathing include the following:
- Mouth breathing
- Shortness of breath
- Flared nostrils
- Runny nose
Rabbits will also breathe harder when they are stressed. Causes of stress for a rabbit can include hearing loud noises, experiencing overcrowding, the presence of predators, being chased, and being handled roughly.
Try to remove any sources of stress and see if your rabbit’s breathing returns to normal. If not, there may be a more serious underlying cause.
A rabbit which is near death will have noisy, agitated breathing. Its breaths may come in fits and starts. This is often referred to as a “death rattle” for its unsettling sound and its association with the end of the rabbit’s life.
Change in Urine or Feces
Keep an eye on how often your rabbit urinates and defecates, and what the waste looks like afterwards. A change in urine or feces can be a warning sign for a dying rabbit. With feces, watch out for changes in texture, color, or smell. With urine, traces of blood is a sign that something is wrong.
If your rabbit is not defecating at all, this may be gastrointestinal stasis. GI stasis is a common sign of illness or poor health. It usually happens when a rabbit stops eating, and the digestive system as a whole slows down.
This may be a sign that your rabbit is not getting sufficient nutrients from its diet and is related to the symptom of refusing to eat. A rabbit needs a moving digestive system in order to survive. If your rabbit has not defecated or urinated in over 6 hours, you should contact a veterinarian to find out if treatment is necessary.
Diarrhea, or excessively loose feces, is a typical part of a rabbit’s declining health as it nears the end of its life. This is also a sign of dehydration. It is common for a rabbit to uncontrollably release its bowels in the minutes before it dies.
If your rabbit is making unusual noises, this can be a sign that it is not well. A rabbit that feels uncomfortable may grind its teeth audibly. When it is in pain, especially if it is frightened, a rabbit screams. As a rabbit nears the end of its life, especially if an illness is a part of its death, then it may let out involuntary groaning or squeaking sounds.
Other sounds to keep an ear out for are the sounds associated with difficulty breathing. This include sneezing, snuffling, gasping, and wheezing.
While dying, a rabbit will often begin to drool. It can let out a lot more saliva than you would expect from such a small animal, especially if the rabbit has not been drinking much water. The rabbit’s fur will absorb some of the drool, but it may still make a mess.
Your rabbit may also have a swollen face or mouth as the apparent cause of the drooling. If you look inside the rabbit’s mouth and its gums are pale white, yellow, or blue, this may be a sign of additional illness.
If your rabbit is shivering even though the room is nicely warm, this can be a sign of shock. A rabbit will also shake as it nears death if it is frightened. This fear may be because of an external stressor, but it may also be a response to the rabbit’s own symptoms. A rabbit’s dying symptoms can be just as unsettling for the rabbit as they are to you.
You can put a light blanket over the rabbit to give it some comfort. However, do not tuck the blanket around the rabbit. Allow it room to move around if it needs to.
A rabbit near death often experiences involuntary spasms in which its body jerks uncontrollably. This may look like a fit.
During one of these fits, the rabbit may hit itself against any nearby objects or walls. For the comfort of the rabbit, it is best to clear a large space out on the floor and set down a blanket for the rabbit to lie on.
Your rabbit may also demonstrate a loss of control over its limbs, or a sudden lack of coordination. It will not be able to walk straight, and may bump into things. Often when a rabbit reaches this stage, it will hide away under whatever cover it can find. This is a good instinct for a sick prey animal in the wild, though it may make it difficult for you to find and comfort your pet.
Taking care of your rabbit extends all the way through its life, until its final moments. By making yourself familiar with your rabbit’s normal behavior and checking for these signs, you will know when your rabbit is dying and be able to give it the comfort it needs right up to the end.