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Rabbit’s Body Thumps Rhythmically When Asleep

What is going on when a young rabbit’s entire body seems to thump like a slow heartbeat as he sleeps?

Karen Rosenthal, DVM, MS
Posted: December 24, 2014, 7:20 p.m. EST

baby rabbit by hay
© Gina Cioli/I-5 Studio 
The heartbeat can sometimes be easily seen on the body of a young bunny because there is very little fat to "hide" it.

Q: I'm worried that my rabbit is sick. He's a 2-month-old, albino bunny. Yesterday and today, my rabbit's body/heart was thumping rhythmically and strongly. The first time it happened, I had tranced him on his back but his eyes were wide open and his body started thumping/popping/flinching. I don't know how to describe it perfectly. It's not thumping with the foot. His whole body is thumping/beating like a heart, but in a slow, deep, strong way, not quick and light like rabbits' normal heartbeat. It freaked me out and I quickly woke him up and it stopped. I did some research and found out trancing isn't good for rabbits, so I stopped doing it. However, today, he was sleeping on his belly on the ground and the rhythmic thumping started again. I woke him up but this time, it didn't stop until I shook him a little. Is this a sign of sickness? Please help me!

A: What you are describing is very unusual if it is the body that is thumping. But if you are observing his heart as he lies on his side, that is less alarming. Because he is a young rabbit, there is very little tissue (meaning fat) between the heart, the side of his chest, and the skin. It is possible that you can easily see his heart beating, especially if he has short hair. This would be very normal. As he gets older and has some normal, albeit, small amounts of fatty tissue build up in his chest cavity, you may not see this any longer. 

If it is his heart, the normal heart rate in a rabbit is usually between 150 to 300 beats per minute. Smaller rabbits tend to have heart rates on the higher end of that scale. If you can count the beats per minute and they are in that range, this may be a very normal process you are observing. But it should not be a loud thumping nor should it be so strong that his body moves. 

If this is his heart and it is causing such large vibrations that his entire body is moving, then his heart could be working too hard. When hearts work too hard, it is usually because there is an inherent structural problem in the heart that needs to be overcome or because there is an obstruction to flow, possibly in the lungs or another area in the body. 

Your veterinarian is well-equipped to answer those questions for you. In most cases, if there is something abnormal causing the heart to work harder than it should, your veterinarian will hear extra sounds (murmurs) while the heart is beating. The murmurs represent abnormal blood flow that occurs if there is a problem with the heart or elsewhere in the cardiovascular system. Your veterinarian may also be able to tell you more about a potential problem using diagnostic imaging, such as chest radiographs and a heart ultrasound. 

Some heart problems are benign and will resolve on their own as your rabbit ages. Some heart problems do not resolve but do not cause medical issues and rabbits can live a long and good quality of life. Other heart issues do need some intervention. Treatments depend on the disease itself, as sometimes medications alone can be used and other times, surgery is indicated. 

With your baby rabbit, the only way to know for certain is to visit your veterinarian’s office and start with a complete physical examination to better understand what is happening to your rabbit. 

Like this article? Please share it, and check out:
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Posted: December 24, 2014, 7:20 p.m. EST

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