Posted: August 3, 2013, 4 a.m. EDT
Rabbits hide signs of illness, so by the time you notice your rabbit might be sick, he has probably been sick for awhile.
Q: My house bunny Jackson died very suddenly yesterday. We fed him hay and nuggets in the morning. He usually runs over to eat his nuggets as he loves them, but he just hopped slowly to them. This concerned us, but didn’t worry us enough to consider he might be dying. We went out between 10 and 1, so only three hours. When we returned home we went into the room we keep him in. He usually comes running out to see us. But he was lying flat on his side, stretched out and his head was right back almost touching his spine. My wife was very upset so I had to quickly wrap him in a towel. His body was very stiff. I picked him up to put him in the towel and it was like he was frozen in place. His body wasn’t noticeably cold so I don’t think he had been dead for long. I know it’s difficult only knowing this information, but do you know how he could have died? I’m really worried that we did something wrong or that he suffered. I just feel that it was so sudden, I don’t know if there is anything we could have done.
A: It is always distressing when your pet dies but probably even more so when death is so sudden, and you wonder if you could have done something to prevent it from happening.
If your rabbit was under the care of a veterinarian, you can contact the doctor and ask for a necropsy (animal autopsy). This is not always possible and even when it is, necropsies do not always provide us with the answers that we need to help ease the pain due to the loss of our pet, but sometimes there is comfort in knowing what happened.
Because rabbits are prey species, even though they have been domesticated for hundreds of years, they still may hide signs of disease until they are extremely sick. So it may be that your rabbit was actually very ill even though you did not recognize signs of disease. This means that by the time an owner notices that their rabbit looks sick, it is very late in the process of the disease. In such cases, what appears to be an acute death is actually a chronic illness that only became evident when there was not much that could be done to save the rabbit.
But there may be another explanation for what you observed. Extremely rarely, rabbits can have a blockage of the intestines, usually near where the stomach opens into the small intestine. This can be caused by ingestion of foreign material (like carpet fibers). The typical scenario is a rabbit that looks fine the night before and in the morning is not very interested in eating. Very soon afterward, the rabbit looks lethargic and may not even be able to ambulate well. Within the next 30 to 60 minutes, the body temperature plummets and the rabbit becomes almost nonresponsive. This is a surgical emergency that needs to be treated immediately by talented surgeons who have experience working with rabbits and, even in the best of hands, many of these rabbits do not live.
Although I cannot know for certain what happened to your rabbit, it does sound very much like one of these acute deaths due to a blockage. If that was the cause, you may want to take comfort in knowing that it happened quickly and your rabbit did not suffer and very few veterinarians would have been able to perform the surgery that was necessary.
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