Water consumption is one of the many things that must be carefully monitored by pet rabbit owners. If a rabbit stops drinking water, dehydration can occur within hours. From there, things go south quickly. Dehydration symptoms can mimic a spinal injury and confuse rabbit owners.
Oates, an eight-week old Lop, had just been adopted by her forever human family. Since changes in environment often causes stress in rabbits, they knew to monitor closely. They checked her before they went to bed and all was well.
The next morning, they awoke to a horrifying scene. Oates was very listless. She could move, but she was pulling herself along using only her front paws – hind legs dragging behind her. Her teeth were grinding which indicated she was in pain. She looked like she had somehow sustained a serious spinal fracture overnight.
Advisable for kits in a new home (and to establish good litter box training habits), Oates had been in a safe primary enclosure during the night. The owners were saddened and also perplexed. I was called to help out until emergency veterinary appointment was available.
We quickly examined everything in Oates’ enclosure – including her food and water containers. Because of my professional background, I had a great deal of training in disaster medical procedures. I understood very well what to do in the case of spinal injuries. Of course, rabbits are not humans, but the same precautions must be taken because additional movement can make things worse.
I began going through my rabbit emergency checklist. The first thing I examined was the skin on the back of her neck – the scruff area. This is a skin test, of sorts. I lightly pulled her neck skin up just far enough that it would not hurt her. It did not quickly snap back into place. The skin snapping right back into place would indicate no dehydration. In her case, it took several seconds to slowly get back where it belonged. Oates was definitely dehydrated.
Dehydration might have been one of many problems she had, but getting water into her system was an immediate priority. Dehydration is painful and causes loss of motor functions. The body will become listless and difficult to move. We knew that if much more time went by without hydration, she might not even make it to the veterinary clinic.
I began syringe-feeding. Within minutes, she began to stabilize. Over the next hour, she started regaining control over her back legs and even hopped a few times. Once it was clear she could freely move without pain, I examined her spine and legs. She was given some Critical Care and then taken outside into the yard where she began playing and foraging in the (pesticide-free) grass.
It wasn’t long before Oates was totally back to normal. Of course, her owners kept the emergency appointment and had her thoroughly examined. She was given a clean bill of health.
Had Oates’ owners not been monitoring Oates, she might not be alive today. Dehydration was already triggering a series of cascading health effects, so rapid intervention made all the difference.
This real-life story is a good example of why rapid intervention is necessary. It is also helpful to know that dehydration can be easy to identify (using the neck-skin test). The problem is, rabbit owners see these scary symptoms or know something is off, but fail to check for dehydration first. Experienced veterinarians will immediately check for dehydration. They have seen it many times before and know that a lack of fluids can cause a rapid onset of serious and extraordinary symptoms.
Because of the fragile nature of a rabbit’s digestive system and the fact that they stop eating and drinking when sick or in pain, rabbit owners need to learn how to safely syringe-feed. Never syringe-feed a rabbit on its back! For a video on safe syringe-feeding, PLEASE CLICK HERE. If you do not have a syringe, a sterilized eye dropper or other such tool can be used to get fluids and food into your rabbit until you can see a veterinarian.
CHECK FOR DEHYDRATION
As mentioned prior, the skin test is usually a good indicator of dehydration. Gently pull up the skin on the back of your rabbit’s neck (scruff area). If the skin goes back rather quickly (appears normal), he is probably not experiencing dehydration. If the skin does not snap right back into place or it is very tight, he is likely dehydrated. Skin that slowly goes back into place after you pull it away from the neck occurs because of a lack of fluids.
Some sources might say that dehydration only occurs in conjunction with diarrhea. This is not true. A rabbit that simply refuses his water (for whatever reason) will become dehydrated even before you notice any other symptoms. True to their prey-animal nature, rabbits try to hide everything until they are in a state of emergency. That said, if your rabbit has been experiencing diarrhea or is sick, dehydration occurs even more rapidly.
Rabbits that are dehydrated will most likely not be interested in food. The more advanced the dehydration, the more listless the animal will become. Dehydration must be addressed immediately.
This article is solely about dehydration and how the symptoms can mimic a spinal injury. However, pet rabbits do experience actual life-threatening spinal injuries, neck breaks, et cetera. In cases where there has been no injury, there still could be an underlying reason why the dehydration occurred in the first place. That reason may not be obvious to a rabbit owner, but the vet will know what to check for just in case. It is always best to err on the side of caution and get a veterinary appointment.
For helpful tips when your rabbit is dehydrated and for tips that help with water consumption, PLEASE CLICK HERE.
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