Celia Haddon - Cat Expert

Understanding animals through their behaviour


Elderly rabbit enjoying the sunlight. c. Celia Haddon


How old is old? Giant breeds have a lifespan of 4-7 years: medium breeds 9 or 10 years: small breeds up to 12 years. Some breeds seem more prone to arthritis than others. Arthritis is common in elderly rabbits. The most common signs are stiffness, limp, or immobility. X-rays will show up any particular difficulties and vets can prescribe painkillers.

Hutches with high sloping ramps may be difficult for them to manage. If you want your rabbit on the sofa, you will have to try to rig up a gently sloping ramp of some kind. Polished or slippery floors will be painful for them so consider adding some mats with double sided carpet tape to stick them down. Vetbed sell a non-slip vedbed. Being picked up may hurt an arthritic rabbit so use a cat carrier. Litter trays should have low sides or cut an entrance into the tray on one side. A plastic dog bed which has an entrance would make a good litter tray. Elderly bunnies will benefit from being weighed regularly to make sure the weight isn’t creeping on. Being overweight will exacerbate any arthritic pain.

Sore hocks, sometimes called bumblefoot but properly called ulcerative pododermatitis, is more common in elderly rabbits. This starts with some hair loss, swelling and redness on the weight-bearing part of a rabbit’s feet. If left untreated, this progresses to broken skin, ulcers, scabbing and infection into the bone itself. Rex rabbits, with softer fur, fat rabbits, rabbits without the chance to exercise and large breeds are more predisposed to this. Damp and soiled bedding are a contributary factor. Sore hocks also develop in rabbits kept on wire flooring, which may have been the case for rescue rabbits earlier in their life (De Jong et al., 2008) though just adding a plastic pad on the wire will prevent it (De Jong et al., 2009). A rabbit with sore hocks should have vetbed rather than straw bedding. If the rabbit spends any time on a wire surface, such as a crate, wiring should be covered by fleece or vetbed.

Elderly rabbits may stop using the litter tray, either because arthritis makes it difficult for them to jump in, or because a urinary problem is causing pain. Urine scald, when urine dribbles out on to the surrounding fur causing soreness and inflamation, can be a symptom of urinary disease and you should take your rabbit to a vet. To relieve the soreness itself, clip away the soiled fur, and give daily gentle cleaning and drying. Underlying causes for this condition must always been investigated, however (Meredith 2009).

Teeth problems – read the article on Teeth.


De Jong I.C., Reimert H. & Rommers J.M. (2008), ‘Effect of floor type on footpad injuries in does: a pilot study,’ 9th World Rabbit Congress, 1171-1175.

De Jong I.C., Reimert H. & Rommers J.M., (2009) ‘Effect of footrests on the incidence of ulcerative pododermatitis in
domestic rabbit does, Animal Welfare  18: 199-204

Meredith, A.L., (2009), ‘Gastrointestinal disorders of the rabbit,’  Proceedings of the European Veterinary Conference 2009, 2-12.

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