Spinal Column Disorder in Rabbits

Catherine Gose, CVT

Catherine Gose, CVT

. Reviewed by Melissa Witherell, DVM
Updated May 22, 2023
Brown rabbit

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What is Spinal Column Disorder in Rabbits?

Spinal column disorder is a general term that can include any injury or disease of the spine.

In rabbits, these conditions are often referred to as “hind limb weakness” or “hind limb paralysis.” Spinal issues are fairly common in rabbits. They have delicate spines and very powerful hind legs, and often cause injury to themselves when they kick or twist.

Symptoms of Spinal Column Disorder in Rabbits

Early Signs

  • Change in gait—shuffling instead of hopping

  • Decreased range of motion in the neck and/or back

  • Reluctance to be handled or held

  • Decreased appetite

  • Depression

  • Lethargy

  • Inability to groom

  • Not able to eat

  • Signs of pain that may include teeth grinding, grunting, or a hunched position

Advanced Signs

  • Urinary and/or fecal incontinence

  • Urine scalding

  • Fecal matts

  • Bed sores, skin ulcers, or foot infection from lack of movement and grooming

  • Anorexia (loss of appetite) due to pain

  • Ataxia (loss of control of bodily movements)

  • Paralysis of the hind limbs (dragging of hind limbs)

Causes of Spinal Column Disorders in Rabbits

Trauma: The most common cause of a spinal problem in rabbits is trauma from an injury. This can happen from an animal attack, road accidents, or kicking if startled or improperly handled. Injuries may include a broken back or fractured vertebrae, swelling or inflammation that puts pressure on the spinal nerves, or an abscess that forms from an infected wound.

Abscess: When bacteria is introduced into the body from a wound near the spine, an abscess may form. This is a pocket of infection that can potentially cause pressure on the spine or introduce bacteria into the spinal column. Abscesses can look like a lump under the skin and can sometimes rupture through the skin causing a draining wound.

Tumor: Lymphoma is the most common cancer seen in rabbits. Tumors can develop anywhere in the body at any age.

Degenerative disease: Degenerative conditions of the spine typically begin to show in rabbits over 4 years old and are more common in the larger breeds. Rabbits can also have a genetic predisposition to some conditions.

  • Arthritis happens when the cartilage between the vertebrae deteriorates, allowing the bones to rub together.  

  • Spondylosis occurs when bony “spur like” protrusions grow out from the vertebrae. Over time these spurs can grow together and form an inflexible bridge between the spinal bones.

  • Intervertebral Disc Disease (IVDD) can cause the cushion-like discs between the vertebrae to bulge or rupture, putting pressure on the spinal nerves.

Obesity: Excess body weight can cause a rabbit's bones to alter and deteriorate. This results in decreased bone density which allows for higher risk of vertebral fractures.

Toxins: Exposure to pesticides, insecticides, certain plants, human medications, antifreeze, or paint containing lead or zinc can affect the central nervous system and cause spinal column disorder symptoms.  

Stroke: A cerebrovascular accident (CVA) can occur when blood flow to the brain is disrupted, usually by a blood clot or aneurysm.

Parasitic infection: Encephalitozoon Cuniculi is a single cell organism that affects a rabbit's kidneys, brain, and spinal cord. It is most commonly passed from a mother to her babies through the placenta. Spores can also be passed through an infected animal’s urine and then inhaled or ingested by a rabbit, causing neurological symptoms.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Spinal Column Disorder in Rabbits

When a rabbit shows signs of a spinal issue, the biggest challenge for any veterinarian is determining the cause. The patient history is valuable in determining a diagnosis and treatment plan. Be prepared to describe your rabbit’s cage, home environment, diet, and daily routine. Be sure to explain any recent changes in behavior, appetite, or bathroom habits.

A thorough physical exam can provide a great deal of information. Your veterinarian will check for normal reflexes, feel your rabbit's feet to make sure they aren't cold from lack of circulation, and gently palpate the spine to find possible areas of pain. Depending on the exam findings, a veterinarian may recommend some of the following diagnostic tests:

  • MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) is the best diagnostic tool available. An MRI provides the clearest and most detailed images of the spinal cord, bones, and surrounding soft tissue all at once. Your rabbit will need to go to a specialty facility that has MRI capabilities for small animals as the equipment is not available at a regular veterinarian's office.

  • CT scans provide detailed 3D images of the boney structures in the spinal column.

  • X-rays are readily available at your veterinarian's office and are typically less costly than an MRI. While not as detailed, x-rays can still show fractures, vertebral luxation, tumors, or narrowed disc spaces. In addition, a myelogram can be performed. Rabbits need to be sedated and then a radio opaque dye is injected into the spinal fluid. A series of x-rays are then taken to highlight any disruptions of the dye flowing through the spine.

  • Blood work can be helpful to determine underlying disease and possible exposure to toxins. It can also show how debilitated or dehydrated your rabbit is and highlight the need for fluid replacement therapy or nutritional support.

  • Other labs tests may be necessary to achieve a definitive diagnosis. A biopsy of a suspected tumor or a culture of an infected wound will help guide you and your veterinarian in making a treatment plan for your rabbit.

Treatment of Spinal Column Disorder in Rabbits

Prompt diagnosis and treatment can have a profound impact on your rabbit’s recovery, so bring him to a veterinarian as soon as the first signs of a possible spinal problem appear. In general, a rabbit experiencing a spinal issue or injury needs strict cage rest for a minimum of 6-8 weeks. It is vital to your rabbit's recovery to keep stress and handling to a minimum. Place you rabbit’s recovery cage in a quiet, secure location away from activity and loud noises.

Various medications are available to treat rabbits experiencing a spinal column disorder. NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as Carprofen or Meloxicam can reduce pain and swelling. In addition, morphine-based opioids can ease bone pain and are often used for surgical pain management.

An antibiotic may be prescribed in case of infection or abscess. If your rabbit is not eating or drinking enough, there are medications to stimulate his appetite. Fluid therapy may be administered as well if your rabbit is severely debilitated or dehydrated.

Recovery and Management of Spinal column Disorder in Rabbits

Rabbits should recover in a cage or hutch with a solid floor instead of a wire bottom. This allows for better padding and comfort. Provide a thick layer of soft absorbent bedding such as Carefresh small animal bedding.

In cases of partial or full paralysis, change your rabbit’s position in the cage frequently to avoid bed sores. You will need to keep your rabbit clean until he is able to groom himself again. Spot bathing the hind end and feet followed by drying thoroughly will help prevent urine scalding and skin infections if your rabbit is incontinent.

If your rabbit can't comfortably reach his usual water bottle or food container, he may need shallow dishes to eat and drink from. Additionally, you may have to place your rabbit’s cecotropes (nutrient-packed droppings that are essential for rabbit health) near his food so he can ingest them easily to maintain proper digestion.

Pain will often cause rabbits to stop eating, so monitor food intake and stool output closely. Ideally rabbits will graze throughout the day and should not go more than 12 hours without eating. Anorexia leads to GI stasis which is a very serious complication in a recovering rabbit.

Preventing Spinal Column Disorders in Rabbits

Preventing obesity with a proper diet and plenty of hay is very important. Additionally, pet rabbits should have at least one hour of exercise time outside the cage daily. Routine exercise promotes healthy bone density and keeps the muscles strong to reduce the risk of injury. Always practice proper and safe handling as struggling, kicking, or twisting can result in a spinal injury.

Rabbit Spinal Column Disorder FAQs

Why is my rabbit having trouble with his back legs?

A rabbit that is having trouble with his back legs may have an injury or disease that is affecting his spine. When sensation from the spinal nerves is disrupted, lameness or paralysis can occur.

Featured Image: iStock.com/Alice Wanwarameth

Catherine Gose, CVT


Catherine Gose, CVT

Veterinarian Technician

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