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Arthritis in rabbits

Arthritis is a well-known, documented condition affecting humans, cats and dogs; however rabbits can often be affected, especially as they get older, and sometimes this can go un-noticed.

Your questions answered

What is arthritis?

Arthritis is a general term given to the inflammation of a joint or joints, and any joint within the body can be affected. Arthritis isn't a single disease, but rather a group of abnormalities that can have different causes, all of which lead to inflammation of the joints. Arthritis is a progressive condition and can cause significant pain and discomfort.

What causes arthritis?

Arthritis can occur naturally as your rabbit ages; however rabbits are particularly susceptible to arthritis if the joints are put under extra strain, ie large breeds of rabbit, fat/obese rabbits or those with missing limbs. These extra stresses cause the joints to wear more quickly than they would do under normal circumstances. Arthritis due to injury of the joint earlier in life is also common. These conditions are commonly referred to as osteoarthritis.

Other causes include bacterial infections causing septic arthritis. This can be caused by penetrating injuries where bacteria are introduced to the joint capsule leading to inflammation. This type of arthritis can occur at any age and in any breed of rabbit. If a rabbit contracts an infection, as a results of trauma, dental disease or upper respiratory tract infection, there might be an increased risk of bacteria migrating to the joint, causing septic arthritis.

Rheumatoid arthritis is another type of arthritis caused by an over-reaction of the immune system; the immune system mistakes the body's own protein for bacteria and attacks it leading to inflammation within the joints. Rheumatoid arthritis does not seem to occur spontaneously in domestic rabbits.

What symptoms may my rabbit show?

As your rabbit ages, you may notice your rabbit slowing down and isn't as active as it used to be. This can be a normal sign of aging, and may creep up very slowly, making recognising and diagnosing arthritis quite difficult on clinical signs alone.

You may notice that your rabbit has difficulty getting in and out of the litter tray, getting up or hopping around. Your rabbit may struggle to move around, present an abnormal gait or have difficulty grooming, leading to an unkempt coat or a mucky bottom. Your rabbit may not be able to scratch its ears, so excess amounts of earwax may accumulate. Urine scalding may develop in some cases. Sometimes subtle behavioural changes, such as being quieter than usual or aggressive when handled, are also an indication of discomfort or pain. Less commonly, reduced appetite may also be seen. If you notice any of these signs, you should consider taking your rabbit to the vet as they may all indicate the onset of arthritis.

How is arthritis diagnosed?

Your vet will give your rabbit a full clinical examination. Radiographs will then confirm or rule out the presence of arthritis. On x-ray, arthritis joints will show a 'haze' or 'fuzziness' around the joint, which is diagnostic of the condition. Other more sophisticated diagnostic imaging techniques, including ultrasound, computed tomography (CT), magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and arthroscopy, can also be used for a more accurate diagnosis. All these techniques can prove very useful to visualize the degree of bone and joint destruction.

Your rabbit will probably require sedation or general anaesthesia in order to achieve good enough images to be diagnostic.

Your vet may also do a blood test, urine test, or take a sample of joint fluid (joint aspirate) to test in the lab to rule out any underlying problems.

Can my rabbit be treated?

It is possible to treat arthritis in rabbits in order to try and ease some of the discomfort and difficulties that the rabbit may be experiencing, but it is not currently possible to cure the problem completely.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) are commonly used in rabbits to reduce inflammation around the joints and to ease the discomfort that is usually present with the condition. Your vet may want to check your rabbit's liver and kidney function to safely prescribe these medications, especially if long-term treatment is required.

Septic arthritis can be resolved if it caught and treated early enough.

There has been controversy regarding supplementation of joint problems in both humans and animals; however there are some rabbit foods that now contain added glucosamine, which is thought to benefit animals with arthritis and help with joint mobility.

Gentle massage over the muscle of the affected area can help decrease the degree of muscle tightness. Gently flexing and extending the affected joint for a few minutes several times daily may help as well, but always remember that physical therapy may be detrimental in cases of trauma. Always follow your vet's recommendation in these cases and be careful and gentle when handling your rabbit.

Acupuncture has also been reported to help in some cases by reducing the amount of pain medication used, and providing relief for many patients.

What measures can I take to help my rabbit?

Ensure that you do not allow your rabbit to become overweight, and encourage them to exercise regularly to build up muscle mass.

If you think your rabbit may be developing arthritis (symptoms can be attributed to other conditions), then take your rabbit to see your vet as soon as possible.

If your rabbit is diagnosed with arthritis then keeping the hair clipped around the perineum and applying a barrier cream will help with any urine scalding, deep and soft bedding to prevent pressure sores is also recommended.

Keep your rabbit on a soft absorbent bedding to prevent soiling and further complications.

Your rabbits litter tray will need to have a low entrance if it is having difficulty hopping in and out, and if your rabbit has a ramp in their hutch/run or stairs, then you may need to make other arrangements as they may struggle to use these.

Some rabbits may not be able to reach their caecothrophes, so it is a good idea to collect them and place them in, or near to, their food area as most rabbits will eat them on their own.

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