Rear end paralysis in rabbits is not uncommon. Injuries to the back or legs as well as congenital or age-related diseases can all impact mobility. There are several neurological diseases and conditions that can cause either full or partial paralysis (called paresis), but this article will just focus on the most common reasons.
Rear end paralysis does not necessarily mean a death sentence for the bunny. Often, with appropriate treatment and care, a paralyzed rabbit can still maintain a good quality of life for several years.
Injuries to the back and legs result in immediate disruption to normal movement. What signs are present depends on the location of the injury, but they may include the following:
In the case of age-related diseases or Encephalitozoon cuniculi (E. cuniculi), symptoms usually appear gradually. Rabbits may not lose control of their bladder or bowel functions, but it may be harder for them to get into the proper position to urinate or reach their cecotropes. That may result in urine scald, puddles on the floor and/or poopy butt.
They may not be able to jump into their litter box anymore or be unsteady when they stand. They may drag their feet when they move. They may struggle to stand up after lying down. They may even lose their balance and fall over. Often times, if these rabbits are still able to hop, their hind end may slant to one side.
These signs may be observed for several weeks before the bunny is finally down on his side. Rabbits will not recover from E. cuniculi or these degenerative conditions, but medication and supportive treatment can greatly slow down the process and extend quality of life.
Sudden paralysis may be caused by trauma to the legs, pelvis or spine. This may include being dropped or jumping down from a couch, bed, the owner's arms or any other considerable height. Improper handling which causes the bunny to panic, twist and kick, may also injure the back.
If the bunny shares his home with dogs and cats, physical trauma may occur with chasing or playful roughhousing. It's important to always supervise interactions between your rabbit and other pets and recognize the body language of each animal, especially if you have an exuberant puppy.
There may also be a general weakness associated with an infection (bacterial or parasitic) or other illness. Certain diseases like cancer can also affect the bones, making them brittle and susceptible to fractures and breaks. Often the first sign you will see from the rabbit is lameness or an unwillingness to move. The vet can determine the full extent of the problem through diagnostics.
Certain birth defects, such as splay leg, can also affect mobility. The impact of these defects varies. Sometimes these defects can be corrected through physical therapy or surgery, while in other instances, the disability is minor and the bunny can adapt to the inconvenience quickly.
Just like in humans and other mammals, age-related issues such as arthritis and spondylosis are very common in rabbits. Arthritis is the inflammation of one or more joints. Sometimes you can feel the swelling in the knees, elbows, shoulders, ankles and wrists.
Spondylosis in the spine occurs when bone spurs in the vertebrae cross over to the next vertebrae and eventually fuse together. The progression of the disease is slow with varying degrees of discomfort for the bunny. However, the end result is reduced flexibility. The rabbit will have a harder time running, jumping into the litter box, grooming and reaching his cecotropes. It may also discourage bending down to eat or drink.
Sometimes the intervertebral discs, which are the cushions found between the vertebrae, deteriorate with age. These discs act like shock absorbers, so if they tear, bulge or wear thin, pressure is placed on the spinal cord, causing pain and affecting function. What sort of functions are compromised depends on the location of the weakened disc.
E. cuniculi is a microsporum parasite that is currently classified as a type of fungus. It is very common in domestic rabbits. Some of the clinical signs seen include cataracts, various renal issues, head tilt, seizures and rear end paralysis.
Depending on which source you read, 50%-80% of all domestic rabbits have been exposed. However, this does not mean every single one of these exposed rabbits will become sick. In fact, only a small percentage ever show symptoms. Symptoms usually appear when the bunny's immune system becomes compromised either due to illness, stress and/or age.
Although E. cuniculi is common among rabbits, there is surprisingly little information about how to definitively diagnose and treat a suspected E. cuniculi infection. Many vets may preemptively treat for E. cuniculi because diagnostic tests are not always informative and a 28-day course of fenbendazole (brand name: Panacur®) can be safely used on most rabbits. Fenbendazole will not cure the bunny from E. cuniculi, but it can better manage symptoms.
Further discussion of this disease will be discussed in later articles on this website.
Diagnosing rear end paralysis will require a thorough physical examination by the vet and include x-ray and blood work. Depending on the situation, the vet may also request CT (computerized tomography) or MRI (Magnetic resonance imaging) scans to get a more detailed look.
If the rear end paralysis is due to an injury, the vet will usually prescribe pain medication and confinement to give the body a chance to heal and stabilize on its' own. Confinement may entail a smaller pen or even a cage (depending on how small the bunny is). This would be the equivalent of bed rest for humans. The bunny may need to have his bladder expressed several times a day. This is a process in which you physically push on the bladder to empty it. If the vet believes this will be necessary, you will be shown how to do this properly. Syringe feeding and sub-q fluids (injecting prescribed fluids just underneath the skin) may also be needed. Again, if you are not familiar with the process, the vet will show you how it's done.
Confinement, syringe feeding, expressing the bladder and administering fluids is usually temporary. However, pain medication may be something the rabbit may need daily for an extended period. The most common one prescribed is meloxicam (usually sold under the brand name of Metacam®), which is in a class of drugs called NSAIDs (like Advil or Aleve available for humans). Depending on the issue, the vet may also prescribed gabapentin (used to reduce nerve pain). Tramadol, butorphanol and buprenorphine are opioids that can be used if the rabbit is in moderate to severe pain, or if meloxicam is not advised because of kidney issues. One common side effect of using opioids is drowsiness. If the rabbit becomes too sleepy to eat, he will need additional syringe feeding and the dose will need to be adjusted.
If arthritis and spondylosis are the issue, the vet will typically prescribe meloxicam and/or gabapentin, unless contraindicated. Since E. cuniculi is difficult to diagnose, your vet may also recommend a 28-day course of fenbendazole (Panacur). If E. cuniculi is the primary cause of the rear end paralysis, you may notice some improvement in your bunny. However, keep in mind that there is no cure for E. cuniculi. The medication can only ease symptoms.
Surgery is not usually performed, unless the cause is something that can be fixed surgically, such as a broken leg, a damaged intervertebral disc, amputation or removing a tumor.
If you are looking for homeopathic alternatives, discuss with your vet your wishes. Your vet may refer you to a homeopathic vet or adjust your bunny's medication before recommending a certain oil or tablet. Never administer homeopathic medicines without consulting with your veterinarian first.
Regardless if your bunny is suffering from an injury, arthritis or E. cuniculi, physical therapy may be of help to your pet. Vets specializing in orthopedics and physical therapy can often palpate structural changes and determine the level of pain the rabbit is experiencing in certain areas, such as neck, shoulders, lower back, knees and hips. Acupuncture, massage, cold laser therapy, targeted physical therapy exercises and underwater treadmill (should your bunny tolerate it) are all options that may greatly improve quality of life.
Most animal rehabilitation clinics primarily handle dogs. However, dogs and rabbits can suffer from the same spinal ailments, such a compressions, arthritis, spondylosis and weakness. If the animal rehabilitation clinic is willing to work with your rabbit-savvy vet, physical therapy can really help your bunny.
Caring for a bunny with rear end paralysis requires a long-term commitment from the owner or caregiver. Keep your vet updated on your bunny's condition, so any potential health dangers such as pressure sores, can be addressed promptly.
Adjustments in the living area will need to be made. It's important to realize that setting up a pen for a rear end paralysis bunny is a work in progress. Every rear end paralysis rabbit is unique and his needs may change over time, so do not worry about "getting it right" at first.
Some points to consider:
Generally, you will always be monitoring your bunny's comfort and making sure he can reach his food and water. Since mobility is limited, you may need to feed smaller handfuls of food more often and watch that your bunny doesn't kick away any bowls of pellets or toss veggie stems out of reach.
Another important caregiver's task will involve keeping a rear end paralysis bunny clean and dry. Urine scald, poopy butt and pressure sores can inflame, irritate and ultimately break down the skin, inviting an infection. If your bunny spends a majority of his time on his side, you need to make sure the eye facing down does not dry out or get scratched.
Be aware of any sign of a respiratory issue, such as a runny nose or a rattle when breathing. An immobile rabbit will be at a higher risk of developing a bacterial infection and may need to be on an antibiotic like enrofloxacin.
With proper bedding, a bunny might only need to be checked twice a day. Changing up your bunny's position - having a "day bed" or spot on the couch as you both watch some TV can help avoid pressure sores as you shift your bunny's position. Pressure sores happen when a patient (animal or human) stays in one position for an extended time, limiting blood circulation and eventually breaking down skin.
Light massage of the hind legs and tickling the feet can keep nerves and muscles active and slow down muscle atrophy.
This little girl has no idea that she is partially disabled! When she came to us her back end was paralyzed due to a fracture on her spine and a compressed disc. She still has to have her bladder manually express several times a day because she can’t urinate on her own, and her right leg is far more of an issue than her left. She’s an amazing little girl. Goes to show what what a lot of TLC and fabulous veterinary care can do.￼￼￼ Zooh Corner Rabbit Rescue sanctuary rabbit, Snow Cone Jones, is feeling quite a bit better. She is still on meds, and I will soon start to slowly taper them off again. Fingers crossed. We also need to observe her when she is playing because she gets so crazy, and we don’t want her to re-injure herself. Right now she’s getting shorter observed periods of playtime, not left alone.￼ How adorable is she?￼Posted by Cat Logsdon on Thursday, December 10, 2020
Rear end paralysis may happen for a number of reasons. It doesn't necessarily mean the affected bunny is doomed. The quality of life may not change much either, as long the bunny remains comfortable, clean and dry. A change in mobility does not affect a bunny's bond with his other bunny friends, nor does it need to negatively affect his bond with you. If you feel overwhelmed and confused, speak to your vet. You can also contact your local (or online) rabbit rescue. They are run by experienced rabbit owners who have seen pretty much everything. They are there to answer questions and can suggest other resources for you to check out. Facebook also has a number of rabbit groups in which you can ask questions. It can feel overwhelming at first, but once you have a routine established, it feels less daunting.
Brown, S. 2011. Hind Limb Weakness in the Rabbit. House Rabbit Society.