By Laurie Hess, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian Practice)
Like human infants, rabbits are very oral creatures; they like to put everything in their mouths to check things out. Unfortunately, also like babies, they put inappropriate, and sometimes dangerous, things in their mouths that can potentially injure or even kill them. That is why rabbit owners are advised to “bunny-proof” their houses even before they bring a rabbit home.
One of the very inappropriate objects that rabbits sometimes chew on is electric cords. A few times a year, I receive emergency calls at my veterinary hospital from rabbit owners whose pets have just gnawed on a cord.
If the cord isn’t live (plugged in and carrying current), the main risk to the rabbit is whether it has ingested any of the plastic or electrical wire (which may contain toxic metals like zinc) that can cause lacerations in the mouth and potentially gastrointestinal upset or even obstruction. If, on the other hand, the cord was plugged in, the rabbit could suffer anything from a mild burn in its mouth to heart damage, fluid in the lungs, and death.
If you witness your rabbit chewing on a live cord, do not reach out to pull the cord out of its mouth, or you risk electrocution as well. Keep calm and turn off the main electrical breaker. If you need to extract the cord from the rabbit’s mouth immediately, wear a rubber glove or oven mitt to unplug the cord from the outlet to protect yourself from getting shocked. Once the rabbit is free of the cord, have it examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.
Signs Your Bunny May Show After an Electric Cord Bite
The extent of injury that a rabbit experiences after biting an electric cord depends on the type and intensity of the electrical current and the length of time the rabbit is exposed to it. If a rabbit bites a live electrical cord, it may have burns (redness, swelling, ulceration) inside of and around its mouth, lips, gums, and tongue. The fur around its mouth may appear singed. Teeth may even appear discolored or cracked.
Since the electric current runs from the point of contact in the mouth throughout the body to critical organs such as the heart and lungs, cardiac and respiratory signs can ensue. Significantly affected rabbits may have trouble breathing (even with an open mouth), demonstrate excessive salivation and difficulty swallowing, and exhibit wheezing or crackling sounds as they breathe. Some rabbits may appear restless and agitated, having difficulty getting comfortable and refusing to sit or lie down. More significantly affected rabbits may have such trouble breathing that they collapse and lie on their sides.
Some effects associated with electric cord bite, such as fluid accumulation in the lungs (pulmonary edema), may not appear for up to two days after contact with the cord. All rabbits showing any signs of trauma — even mild burns in the mouth — after chewing on an electric cord should be checked out by a veterinarian.
What to Expect at the Vet’s Office
As soon as you arrive at the vet’s office, your vet will likely ask questions such as when the electric cord bite occurred, whether the cord was live with electrical current, how long the pet was exposed to the current, whether the animal appears to have ingested any of the cord, and how the pet has been acting since the bite happened.
If your rabbit is having trouble breathing or has pink frothy fluid around its mouth — a sign indicative of pulmonary edema, or excess fluid in the lungs — it will likely be given oxygen to help it breathe even before your vet examines it.
If your pet appears relatively stable when you arrive, the veterinarian will perform a full physical examination on your bunny, checking inside of and around its mouth for burns and listening to its heart and lungs for arrhythmias or crackling sounds suggestive of pulmonary edema. If the vet hears anything abnormal, he or she may then decide to take x-rays of the chest and/or an electrocardiogram (a printout showing how the heart beats) to further assess heart and lung function. He or she also may draw blood to test major organs such as the kidneys and liver.
Pulmonary edema can take several hours to develop after electrocution, so pets showing any cardiac or respiratory difficulty will likely be admitted to the hospital for monitoring and may need further evaluation with an echocardiogram (three-dimensional ultrasound examination of the heart).
Treatments Your Rabbit May Receive for Electric Cord Bite Injury
The extent of your rabbit’s injuries will determine the types of treatment the vet administers and how long the animal needs to be hospitalized.
Rabbits with extreme difficulty breathing and fluid in their lungs will be placed in an oxygen cage and given diuretics to help drain the fluid and ease breathing. To treat signs of shock and collapse, the rabbit may be given intravenous fluids containing essential electrolytes, many of which leak out through oozing burns. Antibiotics will likely be administered to try to prevent infection of burned, ulcerated tissue, and a pain reliever and/or anti-inflammatory agent will be given to lessen painful discomfort.
If the rabbit’s eyes have been burned or ulcerated, a topical ointment or eye drop may be administered. As proper nutrition is critical to helping burned tissues heal, if the rabbit’s mouth is too uncomfortable for the pet to eat on its own, it will likely be syringe fed a slurry of liquid food via syringe several times per day.
Questions to Ask Your Vet
Once your veterinarian assesses your bunny’s injuries, you will want him or her to review the physical examination findings and the planned course of treatment. Questions to ask include what types of medications will be administered, which tests will be done, how long the vet expects the rabbit to stay in the hospital, how much the vet estimates care will cost, what the long-term prognosis is, and what, if any, potential future complications the bunny may develop.
Your vet may not be able to give you definitive answers to all of these questions until he or she sees how your pet responds to initial treatment, but you should be able to have an ongoing dialogue with your vet over the first 24-48 hours your bunny is admitted to the hospital to see how the treatment, prognosis, and estimated cost of care evolve.
What to Expect at Home, After the Vet
Once your rabbit is stable enough to be released from the hospital, you may be asked to continue medical treatment at home. Depending on the extent of your pet’s injuries, you may have to continue to administer oral and/or topical antibiotics, pain relievers, and anti-inflammatory drugs.
If the bunny isn’t eating well on its own, you may have to syringe feed several times a day until the appetite returns and any oral injuries have healed. Rabbits with heart damage or pulmonary edema may go home on cardiac medications or diuretics with instructions to rest them in their cages at home.
Most veterinarians will want to recheck a bunny within a week or two after an electric cord bite to ensure no further complications have arisen. Rabbits with severe burns will need to be examined again after their burns start to heal to ensure that infection hasn’t developed and that no additional treatment (such as skin graft or wound debridement surgery) is necessary.
Complications to Look for After Treatment for Cord Bite Injury
When your rabbit comes home from the hospital, you should carefully monitor its appetite (especially if it is receiving antibiotics that can throw off the delicate balance of bacteria in its intestinal tract) to ensure it is getting the critical nutrients it needs to heal. If your rabbit isn’t eating well, you should alert your vet, who may then prescribe supplemental syringe feeding.
In addition, you should monitor burns or wounds for the development of any discharge or foul smell indicative of the presence of infection; if these signs occur, you should contact your veterinarian immediately.
Rabbits recovering from electric cord bite should gradually regain their energy and appetite. If your rabbit appears more lethargic or weak after returning from the hospital, it should be rechecked by your vet as soon as possible.
How to Prevent Electric Cord Bite Injuries
The best way to prevent rabbits from chewing on electric cords is to make the cords inaccessible. Cords should be taped up, out of the rabbit’s reach. Those cords that cannot be made completely unreachable may be covered with inexpensive cord covers (often called spiral cable wrap) available at electronic stores. Most bunnies cannot chew through this wrap, but a few persistent ones have; thus, it’s safer to remove cords from bunnies’ reach rather than rely on cord covers, if possible.
Finally, providing your rabbit with lots of nutritious hay on which to chew and wooden toys on which to gnaw may satisfy their oral needs and make them less likely to chew on electric cords. And above all, rabbits should never be left unsupervised in rooms that haven’t been “bunny-proofed,” or their curiosity could prove deadly.