A discussion about pet rabbit health and welfare – part two, Luisa Dormer

In the last blog post, we reviewed the most common and/or significant health and welfare challenges facing pet rabbits according to recent research. Gastrointestinal/abdominal disorders were the third most prevalent group of disorders affecting domestic rabbits under primary veterinary care in England according to one study by O’Neill et al (2019). Whilst this group of disorders is likely to encompass a range of different disorders and clinical presentations, one example could be intestinal obstruction.

Guidelines on imaging features consistent with intestinal obstruction in rabbits are currently lacking, but the development of species-specific guidelines may aid treatment choice and therefore improve prognosis in affected rabbits. Radiographic features concomitant with small intestinal obstruction in pet rabbits included increased gastric size, gastric contents consisting primarily of liquid with a gas cap, small intestinal dilatation and gas within the large intestine and caecum in a study by Debenham et al. (2019). The study reviewed the medical records and radiographs of 63 rabbits diagnosed with intestinal obstruction at a single referral exotics service between 2008 and 2018. For comparison, the medical records of 50 rabbits that presented with disease not relating to the gastrointestinal tract – but where abdominal radiographs had been taken – were also reviewed. These results may be useful in diagnosing small intestinal obstruction in rabbits to guide appropriate treatment choice, but the results should be interpreted with caution owing to the small sample size and potential sampling bias.

Inadequate housing and improper handling were identified as key welfare issues facing pet rabbits in the UK in a study by Rioja-Lang et al. (2019), both of which can result in bone fractures in pet rabbits. Furthermore, trauma was the 7th most prevalent disorder (at group level) of domestic rabbits in the O’Neill et al. (2019) study.

A recent paper by Garcia-Pertierra et al. (2020) aimed to describe the presentation, treatment and outcome of long-bone fractures in pet rabbits. Electronic medical records of pet rabbits diagnosed with long-bone fractures at a single institution between 2006-2018 were retrospectively analysed. Interestingly, the cause of the fracture was unknown in 70% of cases – either because the owner reported not seeing what happened, or because it wasn’t recorded in the medical history. This highlights two limitations of this study; firstly, missing information is an inherent limitation of a retrospective study. Secondly, in some cases owners may not have been willing to disclose what happened to their rabbit for fear of appearing negligent, thus introducing recall bias.

In terms of treatment, the majority of rabbits achieved a functional recovery, with the majority of fractures being treated surgically. Despite the long-term success of the surgery, it should be noted that the postoperative complication rate was high.

Written by Luisa Dormer, Scientific Editor at BSAVA.