TIP – The main thing to do with an elderly bunny is monitor them for any signs that they are struggling. This could be anything from not getting around as well to changing eating habits. If any signs show, then take your bunny to a vet & discuss the problems & what care is needed.
The point at which a rabbit is classed as being in the old age category seems to differ from person to person. There is no official age conversion chart that I know of for rabbits relating their age to humans. You may have seen the charts for cats & dogs. Also, opinions seem to differ too on the lifespan of rabbits. Some people say 6-8yrs old & some say up to 10-12yrs old. Just to complicate the matter even further, the breed of the rabbit is also thrown into the equation. Some people think the smaller breeds live a lot longer than the larger & giant breeds. There doesn’t seem to be any hard facts on the matter.
What I do know from my experience is that it does seem to come down to the individual rabbit. I have had small, medium & large breeds live up to the age of 10+ but I have also had the same breeds only live up to 6yrs or less.
Factors That Appear To Affect Lifespan
- Neutering. Neutered rabbits appear to live longer as ill health is significantly reduced.
- Living conditions. Good living conditions that stimulate the mind & give plenty of exercise keep the rabbit strong & healthy.
- Diet. A good diet keeps the rabbit fit & healthy.
- Overall healthcare. A rabbit who is well cared for will have illness nipped in the bud so it is not allowed to carry on & become a chronic illness or develop secondary illnesses. It’s mind too will be kept stimulated reinforcing good health.
- Genetics. Good genetics means the rabbit should not have had dental disease, leg deformation or any other significant genetic defect that will affect the rabbit more & more as it gets to later life.
Below are photos of my Californian rabbit called Penny, whose breed is classed as large. She lived until she was 10.5 yrs old. They hopefully show the different stages of her life.
Symptoms of Old Age
- Stiffness. Joints aren’t as supple as they used to be generally caused by arthritis. This can bring problems like urine burn & a soiled back end as they are unable to lift themselves clear when toileting.
- Coat condition. Can deteriorate due to lack of cleaning & the rabbit not absorbing enough nutrients from their food.
- Weight gain. Lack of movement causes less calories to be burned so weight is gained.
- Weight loss. Muscle wastage can occur or could be that the organs are not functioning at 100% causing full nutrients from the food not to be absorbed.
- Sleep more. I think they just get tired easier.
- Nails. Often become thicker & sometimes calloused. Might need increased clipping. If the rabbit is not moving around like they used to the nails will not be worn down as quick.
- Dental disease. The teeth can shift position causing uneven wear & the roots may then press on the tear ducts causing kinks.
- Blindness. Cataracts can start to form on the eyes which will eventually lead to blindness. Read Bobtail’s story.
- Hearing. Some hearing loss may be experienced.
If your rabbit is displaying any of the symptoms you must take it to a vet & have the vet confirm exactly what is causing the symptoms. Sometimes it can be an illness not just your rabbits old age so you mustn’t make assumptions. If a symptom of old age is the issue then here are some treatments:
- Arthritis can be managed with an anti inflammatory, usually Metacam. The dosage & frequency will be advised by your vet.
- For a poor coat condition you will need to take over the grooming. Depending on the type of coat & it’s current condition will depend on how often you need to comb the coat & what type of comb or brush you use.
- If your rabbit is soiling it’s back end then it may require baths to keep the fur clean. Keeping the fur short should help reduce the amount of mess. You could also apply Vaseline as a barrier, although these are only temporary measures. Your rabbit cannot continually have urine burn. Usually if it is caused by muscle problems the rabbit is on an anti inflammatory & that should stop the rabbit urinating on themselves. The anti inflammatory should enable your rabbit to lift itself clear when toileting. If not you must speak to your vet about the actual cause & if you can’t sort it, a frank discussion on the future of your rabbit is required.
- Close monitoring is required for any dental disease symptoms & also their nails becoming too long. If dental disease symptoms are found take to a vet, & if the nails are getting long either clip yourself or take to a vet.
- Rabbits can have a cataract operation but when I last checked in 2015 the cost was £3000 per eye & there is no guarantee that it will work. Other than that there is nothing you can do except monitor your rabbit & watch carefully how they are getting around. If they start bumping into things then you must keep their area exactly the same. Constantly bumping into things can distress the rabbit & cause injury.
- The hearing loss is usually quite a gradual thing. Make sure your bunny has seen you approaching then you don’t suddenly appear & give them a shock. Shocks can be fatal.
My Ways I Help An Aging Bunny
- Make their home easier to navigate. When the time comes & my bunny struggles with the ramp, I remove it completely. The ramp leads to their bed box & water dish. The bed box is placed at ground level along with the water dish.
Depending on your own rabbit’s bed box you may want to invest in a dog bed as they have a section cut away already allowing easier access or you may be able to adjust their current bed box to suit your rabbits needs. You may want to consider disabled type ramps if a hop into somewhere is difficult.
- Any boredom breakers or toys they struggle with I remove. This could be a tunnel, or maybe a toy that they can get caught up in. The tunnels I find they struggle with the most are the concertinaed ones. They tend to catch their feet or nails on the ridges making it difficult for them to get through. This can cause injury. The moveable tunnels also tend to roll about more when an older bunny is going through. It seems to be because of the slow speed. This can then knock the bunny over who then struggles to right themselves.
- Flatten down their hay. I have done this ever since an old bunny of mine with stiff back legs got tangled in his hay. It speeded up his decline as he further injured his legs.
- Give thicker bedding & if needed line their living quarters with softer material. I usually use straw & once again flatten it down. I use straw rather than hay as straw is straighter & there is less chance of the rabbit becoming tangled. Depending on your housing depends what you will use. Sometimes old blankets or sheets can be used but be prepared for a lot of washing & you must make sure your bunny isn’t eating them. Thicker bedding helps ease pressure on any stiff legs. See Samson in his straw bedded pen.
- In winter I consider if the old bunny needs extra heating. If so I give them a hot water bottle.
- Lots of monitoring & weight checks. This is so I can tell if there is any deterioration happening. Allows me to provide any extra help they may need usually after a discussion with my vet.
Please read below the brief stories of where I provided extra help.
- Make the outside pen easier to navigate around. I remove anything that the older bunny would struggle with. Similar items to the indoor pen, tunnels etc. I also built a mound of soil up to the mouth of the entrance back into their indoor pens. This stopped the older bunny catching their legs on the lip of the pipe they have to go through to get back inside. I also lined the pipe with a rubber car mat so the older rabbit has a good grip going in & out of the pipe. Click here to see Bobtail’s pipe with car mat.
- As a matter of course I regularly worm my older bunnies. My intention is to prevent E. Cuniculi. I find any bunny with a weaker immune system at greater risk. These are sick & older bunnies.
Brief stories of what extra help I provided for some of my elderly bunnies.
Trigger had started with arthritis in his legs & spine. This meant he had difficulty bending down so far to the water dish. The brick brought the dish up to a manageable level. His partner Bubbles also used to help aid him when he wanted a snooze.
Bubbles’ illnesses started at the age of 10 years. It was a complicated illness & we struggled to get a diagnosis. One of the things I gave her to help was a mineral lick. It was thought she might not be getting enough minerals through her food. This was due to her body not the diet. It couldn’t do her any harm & was worth a try. Whether it helped or not in the end I will never know as her blood results remained the same & her problems persisted. In the future I think I would always provide a mineral lick as a supplement to any rabbit that isn’t fully absorbing the nutrients. It is a stress free item to administer, cheap & worth a shot. However, that said if the blood results don’t show a deficiency in calcium etc I would not give it. The reason is because you might unintentionally give them too much calcium or other mineral which may cause other health issues. For instance, too much calcium causes calcium stones.
Kitty was another bunny who had a lot of complex problems as she aged. Kitty was a German Lop which is a large breed of rabbit. Her problems started at the age of 6 years. As you can see from her picture, one of her issues was arthritis in her legs hence the thick bed of straw in her pen. Another problem was her producing soft faeces. This was caused by a combination of her other health problems & her medication. I had tried the usual Protexin & Fibreplex with a reasonable amount of success but they only helped for a limit period of time. In the end I came across a product called Pro Fibre. Pro Fibre is a palatable probiotic pellet to encourage normal digestive function. I simply substituted as much of her normal food as required & mixed the pellets which she ate with no problems. For quite some time these pellets helped keep Kitty solid although I did have to make many adjustments to quantity along the way to compensate for her deterioration.
I have had quite a lot of experience with older bunnies & I find each one is not the same. Some cope with the health problems better than others & that depends mainly on the character of the rabbit & the amount of problems they have. Below are a selection of stories aiming to cover the main old age problems.
Penny’s story: Main problem arthritis.
My first story is Penny. She was a Californian which is classed as a large breed. I adopted her at approximately 8 months old in 2001 & she died aged 10.5yrs. Her background meant she hadn’t had the best start in life. She was found wandering the streets of a town & taken home by a couple who kept her in a fish tank. Her diet consisted of toast & lager. She eventually started to outgrow the fish tank & was looking for a new home. I heard about her so I adopted.
I moved her over on to the correct diet for a rabbit. This was quite a challenge as she was very reluctant to drink water, must have got used to the lager! She was also quite a handful & definitely not afraid to give you a good kick or bite if she felt it was needed. This was due to a lack of handling & socialization. The only illnesses that Penny had before she became an old bunny was the start of Uterine cancer, so was spayed immediately & it was caught at a very early stage. The other health issue was calcium stones, which she had an operation to remove. Apart from that she was always fit & healthy.
2010 was when the old age problems started. She was about 9.5yrs old at this point. Penny’s symptoms were:
- Stiffness especially the back legs.
- Weight loss.
- Nails were thicker.
- Her chocolate colouring now had white flecks running through.
- Soiling her back end.
- Muscle wastage.
All these symptoms did not present themselves immediately or at the same time.
The first symptoms that she was turning into an old lady were the thickening of her nails & the flecks of white appearing in her chocolate coloured fur. The next symptom to occur was the stiffness in her back legs. At first it was very slight & after a vet visit it was determined she had a little muscle wastage & mild arthritis but was not in pain. So all that was required from me was careful monitoring.
Once we started to hit the colder months of 2010 the stiffness in her back legs grew worse, especially her left leg, & she started to struggle. This also led to her soiling her back end. The trip to the vet that ensued revealed her muscle wastage had increased & her arthritis had grown worse. She was also now experiencing pain. This is when we started the anti inflammatory, Metacam. She initially was started on 10 units per day & then we would see if we could reduce it. It is not usually advised for Metacam to be used long term as it contains steroids & they can damage the organs. However, that said I was told no one really knows the amount of damage as there are no reports on it. When the 2 weeks were finished we reduced to 5 units per day but it was soon quite obvious we needed to go back up to the 10 again. For the next few months Penny was in a maintenance routine which consisted of:
- Daily Metacam of 10 units. 5 in the morning & 5 in the evening.
- Baths as & when needed. Penny never had urine burn she used to have faeces sticking to her.
- Regular grooming & nail clipping.
- I made adjustments to her housing so she could get around better. For instance I took away the ramp in to her bed & put the bed box on the floor for easier access.
- Thicker bedding so she had a softer bed to lie on & flattened down so she didn’t get any hay wrapped round her legs.
- When the warmer months came I applied Rearguard as she was at high risk of Flystrike.
- Regularly kept in touch with my vet on her progress so we always had a clear picture of how she was doing. Sometimes I find when you are caring for an older bunny you make little adjustments here & there for them & don’t realise just how much you are doing. This in turn makes you think they are coping well but when an outsider looks in & sees the situation fresh it can mean you have actually got to the stage of letting them go. Obviously, I find my vet the best person to be the outsider looking in.
As the months progressed Penny was on a slow decline. She was bright, interested in everything & eating & drinking well. Part of her deterioration included sometimes not hopping she would just walk instead. They do this when it is difficult or painful to hop. It was clear to me that her body was giving up but not her mind. Even though she was eating well she had started to lose more weight & that was an indication to me her organs were failing. I was considering at this point if it was time to let her go. When I gave Penny her Metacam for that day instead of taking it from the syringe as she had started to do she refused to take it. She nudged my hand & I knew she was telling me enough. The following day after my vet confirmed we’d got to the end I had her put to sleep.
Bobtail’s story: Main problems blindness & gut upsets.
Bobtail was an Agouti crossbreed & he was a small to medium size rabbit. He had been used for breeding but his owners no longer wanted to carry on breeding. I adopted him in 2007.
In 2013 Bobtail aged 8 years contracted an unknown virus & it took him several months to recover. At the end of his recovery he had turned into a very old bunny. The virus had taken a lot out of him. His old age symptoms were:
- Weight loss.
- Muscle wastage.
- Easily tired.
- Nails were thicker.
- Frequent bouts of soft faeces.
- Gut upsets.
All these symptoms did not occur immediately or at the same time. The first symptoms were the weight loss & muscle wastage. Some of the weight loss can be attributed to the unknown virus as it affected his eating. When he recovered from the virus he never regained the weight & it was speculated that the virus could have done some organ damage. The next symptom to present itself was in late 2013 when it was diagnosed he had a cataract on his left eye. By the middle of 2014 he was completely blind as the cataracts had covered both eyes. He was also having frequent bouts of soft faeces. I put him on a maintenance plan which consisted of:
- Regular weight checks & careful monitoring of his weight.
- As & when needed veg was stopped & Protexin given to combat the soft faeces issue.
- His accommodation was kept the same everyday. So any food always put in the same place, his water dish & all furniture kept in the same place. All moveable toys/boredom breakers had to be removed. Like his cardboard box.
- His bed box was placed on the floor & the ramp taken away for easy access & safety.
- Metacam & Infacol were administered as & when needed to help with the gut upsets.
One of the most challenging things for Bobtail was definitely the loss of sight. When he went completely blind he lost his confidence. His partner Polly was an absolute brilliant nurse & carer. Between us both we gave Bobtail his confidence back so he could go on to enjoy his life again.
The effect blindness had on Bobtail
- Totally lost his confidence. Was very nervous & unsure when moving about his pen.
- Was more on edge with noises & smells.
- Did not like to be handled.
How Polly & I helped him overcome his blindness
- Polly constantly reassured Bobtail that she was there. She would always go to him, give him a few licks on his head especially if there were noises that seemed worrying. He eventually would follow Polly about his pen & he slowly learned where everything was. I always made sure I talked when entering the shed & always constantly talked to Bobtail if I was approaching him. As said before I kept everything in his pen the same & anything moveable I removed as it caused him distress to have something moved from where he had found it before. It set him back with his confidence too.
- If he became anxious Polly was there immediately & I kept a close on eye on him so if he looked worried over something I talked to him constantly for reassurance.
- When I handled him I did not just go into his pen & pick him up. I made sure he knew I was there & that I had got into his pen. I would then talk to him, let him sniff me & then give him a few strokes. Only when I had done this did I pick him up. I always took him to the same place to medicate him & do any other maintenance on him. I did this everytime & eventually he learned the sequence of events. This made him relax & he was almost back to the old Bobtail whenever I had to handle him.
- Going from his inside pen to his outside pen was a very big challenge. To get from the pen inside to the pen outside he had to go through a pipe. At first he would not go anywhere near the pipe. Eventually he began to sniff the outside air & with encouragement from Polly he finally went to the entrance of the pipe but would go no further.
Once he had got confident in going to the entrance of the pipe I would gently, whilst talking to him, put him in the pipe. Polly would then come in the other end & reassure him. We did this everyday for a week & then he finally decided to go through the pipe but he would not go out the other end even with Polly’s encouragement. I decided to leave him for a while as he was happy to sit in the pipe having a warm breeze blow over him.
It was just over a week later he took the steps out of the pipe into his outdoor pen. At first he did not wander far from the pipe & Polly was always near giving him reassurance. Getting him to go back through the pipe on his own took several sessions of guiding him with my hands & eventually he learned how to get back. I also built the earth up on approach to the pipe so he did not have a big step & would recognize he was heading to the pipe. Later on that summer he did venture further & further into his pen, all the time Polly reassuring him & me giving any guidance back to the pipe. In the end he managed to go in & out of his outdoor pen absolutely fine.
Towards the end of 2014 Bobtail developed what I called his ‘funny do’s’. His symptoms were:
- Not eating.
- Looked uncomfortable.
- Sometimes shivering.
- Sometimes his eyes flicked from side to side.
- Sometimes his head going from side to side.
- Hot water bottle.
Usually within a couple of hours he would be back to normal. These episodes continued regularly until the day he died. The episodes were discussed with my vet & after a thorough examination Bobtail was looking good for his age. The head going from side to side was definitely something to do with his brain. I had the option of having x-rays & scans but I knew he was not up to an anaesthetic. Any results we gained might help with a diagnosis but it was unlikely there would be any treatment for him. So I felt it wasn’t fair to put him through all the tests & I would manage him for now. He was very well in himself, bright & eating & drinking well.
Eventually Bobtail deteriorated. He had more weight loss even though he was eating fine, this indicated his organs were failing. He was still bright as a button & going about his life as normal. It was mid 2015 & he’d been to the vets & was looking pretty good but it was nearing the time for a decision as his organ failure was getting worse. The following day the decision was taken out of my hands & Bobtail died at home with Polly by his side.
Samson’s story: Main problems arthritis & kidney failure.
Samson was a Continental Giant which as the name suggests is a giant breed of rabbit. I adopted him in 2011 when he was about 18 months old. He hadn’t had the best start in life & the effects stayed with him throughout his life. When I got him home he was very institutionalized. So he just sat in a corner of his pen, not moving much & having a distant glazed look to his eyes. As time progressed he came out of this & his true character was shown. It was suspected that his institutionalized behaviour was because he had been kept in a hutch that was far too small for him & had very little interaction from anyone. It was suggested that this confined space, as he was growing, meant his legs had not grown correctly & were now deformed. However it could have also been a genetic problem. His front legs were bow legged & this was because his feet turned inwards. One thing that was genetic was the opening of his eye was too large so he was prone to having weeping eyes.
His old age symptoms started in 2015 when he was approaching 6 years old. His symptoms were:
- Weight Loss.
- Difficulty getting around with some loss of balance.
- Nails were thicker & twisted.
- Loss of appetite.
- Soiling his back end.
- Soft faeces.
All these symptoms did not appear at the same time. His first symptom to appear was loss of appetite & a reluctance to move about. This was particularly concerning as Samson loved his food. At the vets it was found that he was experiencing some pain connected to his legs & his knees felt knobbly. This was the start of arthritis. He initially was put on 20 units per day of Metacam an anti inflammatory. Once we’d got the pain under control it was to be reduced to see how low we could go. It is not usually advised for Metacam to be used long term as it contains steroids & they can damage the organs. However, that said I was told no one really knows the amount of damage as there are no reports on it. The Metacam improved Samson’s ability to move around & he gained his normal appetite. When I tried to reduce the Metacam he started to struggle so it was decided to keep him on the 20 units per day, 10 in the morning & 10 in the evening. The dosage was split so Samson didn’t have any periods of low amounts of Metacam in his body.
Samson’s maintenance plan consisted of:
- Regular weight checks.
- Careful monitoring of his appetite, movement, faeces & general wellbeing.
- Altered his pen so it made things easier for him to navigate & lined his pen with straw for a thicker bed of soft material to walk on. This eased the pressure on his legs.
Samson did well on the Metacam & when the warmer months came I was able to take him off it completely. Over the summer months I wanted to give him something to try to help slow down the joint disease. After some research I put him on Oxbow Grass Treats, they contain Glucosamine, Yucca & Tumeric. I have no evidence to say whether the Oxbow Grass Treats helped or not but thought it was worth a try.
As the colder months began Samson started to struggle again & he had started to soil his back end with urine & faeces.
The vet confirmed the arthritis was getting worse. He could now feel a lot more stiffness in his joints & there had been more weight loss. Also his front feet due to the arthritis were turning in more & more thus making it harder for Samson to walk & have his nails clipped. The nails were twisting in with his feet & you could not hold the foot out straight. So he was put back on his 20 units of Metacam. We did try to reduce again but it was clear he definitely needed the 20 units. Early in the New Year Samson started to pass soft faeces & also became a lot more fussy over his food. He continued to have weight loss & my efforts of getting him back to solid faeces were not working. I had tried Protexin, Fibreplex & Pro fibre. After a vet examination it was decided to take a blood sample & see if something else was going on. When the results came back it showed he had severe kidney disease & they were failing. There was nothing more to be done & he was put to sleep.