Rabbits have a way of becoming more than just pets.
Particularly since rabbits are often pets for children, they become members of the family.
They give families, especially children, company, love, and happy memories.
But rabbits inevitably die. How you care for your rabbit in its decline also leaves memories for the whole family.
These memories will be happier, and the good times you had with your rabbit will be more memorable if you take the time to provide comfort for your rabbit as it is dying.
How to Comfort a Dying Rabbits?
Five ways you can keep your rabbit comfortable at end of life are:
- Keeping your rabbit at an optimal temperature, neither too cold nor too hot.
- Providing your rabbit with a quiet, calm, and clean place to spend its days and nights.
- Making sure your rabbit receives food as well as water to prevent gastric stasis and constipation, as well as dehydration.
- Providing your rabbit pain medication if your vet prescribes it.
- Giving your rabbit lots of kind, gentle, patient attention.
Now we’ll take a closer look at these five ways you can give comfort to your dying rabbit.
Keep Your Rabbit and its Hutch at an Optimal Temperature
We all know that rabbits are warm-blooded animals, but when they are seriously ill, they may have trouble keeping their bodies at an optimal temperature.
Like most other small animals, rabbits naturally run a temperature a little higher than humans.
Healthy rabbits have a core body temperature of 100 °F to 103 °F (38.3 °C to 39.4 °C).
Rabbits that have serious illnesses may be inclined to fevers or chills, or sometimes both in succession.
When your rabbit’s body temperature falls below 100 °F (37 °C), it can go into shock. For rabbits, body temperatures below 100 °F constitute hypothermia.
At these temperatures, which would be a mild fever in a human, a rabbit can go into shock from the cold.
The secret to treating hypothermia in a sick rabbit is to create conditions in which your pet can raise its body temperature but doesn’t have to.
Here’s how you do that:
- Place a hot water bottle in your rabbit’s enclosure, but not on top of your pet. Place it where your rabbit can lie on it if your rabbit wants to.
- Turn on the heat in the room where you are keeping your rabbit (did we mention that dying rabbits shouldn’t be kept in outdoor cages?), but set the thermostat at 70 °F (21 °C). Your rabbit’s fur will keep it warm at this temperature. It is important not to heat the room warmer than 70 °F (21 °C) so it won’t become overheated and dehydrated if its metabolism speeds up again.
- Place a blanket loosely on top of your rabbit. They need to be able to get out from under it if they start feeling hot.
It’s not hard to tell when a rabbit is feeling cold. Just like humans, they will shake. This is their body’s attempt to generate heat.
When your rabbit stops shaking, you know that warming is urgently needed.
What do you do if your rabbit has a fever?
Don’t guess whether your pet has a fever. Use a digital thermometer, the same digital thermometer you would use on any other member of your family.
It’s not necessary to touch your rabbit to take their temperature.
Any reading over 106 °F (41 °C) is a high fever that needs to be treated immediately.
To bring down your rabbit’s temperature:
- Cool your rabbit’s ear with a damp cloth you have soaked in cold water or with a damp cloth containing an ice cube. As you can tell by looking, rabbit ears have lots of blood vessels. They quickly carry cooler blood to the rest of your rabbit’s body. Don’t apply ice directly to or place ice in your rabbit’s ear. Frostbite can result.
- Place an ice pack or blue ice wrapped in a dry washcloth in your rabbit’s enclosure where your rabbit can lie on it as desired. You could also place the ice pack or blue ice under their bedding.
- Place a fan near your rabbit to create air circulation. Turn off the fan if your rabbit begins to have chills.
- Turn the thermostat for your air conditioning down as low as 55 °F (12 °C). When your AC has reached this temperature and shuts off, or when your rabbit’s fever has broken, turn the thermostat back up to normal temperature. You don’t want your dying rabbit to stay in a cold room indefinitely. Don’t just turn down the AC and leave your rabbit alone for hours during the day or overnight.
Rectal thermometers are more accurate than digital thermometers, but as Canadians may know, there are provincial laws that regard them as potentially abusive of animals and forbid our recommending that you use them.
They are harder to use than digital thermometers, anyway, and with a digital thermometer, it’s easy to take your rabbit’s temperature periodically throughout the day.
Provide Your Rabbit with a Calm, Clean, and Quiet Place to Sleep
Sick rabbits need sleep to recover.
Dying rabbits need sleep to live as long as they can. Sleep gives your rabbit a chance to dream, its brain processing the good experiences of each day.
Sleep helps your rabbit retain its memories, both of you and the activities it loves.
And sleep allows your rabbit’s body to make growth hormones to regulate energy production and preserve tissues the best it can.
Rabbits need a place to sleep that is clean. Any accidents during the day need to be cleaned up and bedding changed.
Your rabbit’s sleeping quarters should be free of offensive odors, and especially odors of any animals that eat rabbits, like the neighbor’s dog or cat or your teenager’s pet snake.
Rabbits need to sleep in the dark.
Like humans, rabbits make melatonin to help them sleep at night.
Also like humans, rabbits can’t make melatonin if they are exposed to blue light from full-spectrum lamps, overhead lighting, televisions, telephones, or computers.
The reason blue light keeps rabbits (and people) awake at night is that it is the first wavelength of sunlight that appears in the sky in the morning.
Blue light is a universal alarm clock that wakes up people and animals in the morning and keeps them awake at night.
Your rabbit’s bed should be big enough for them to stretch out in all directions.
The top of their enclosure should be high enough that they can stand up without having to bend their ears.
The bedding should be loose and soft. Your rabbit should be able to hide beneath the covers without getting caught by them.
And don’t forget to include a midnight snack. Something to nibble on gives your rabbit a sense of security.
A special note on bedding for your rabbit
Rabbits prefer to urinate and defecate somewhere they don’t sleep. When they are sick, they may not be able to do this.
To keep your rabbit comfortable while minimizing cleanup:
- Line your rabbit’s cage with newspaper.
- Add about 4 inches (10 cm) of straw, hay, or shredded paper to provide insulation and to give your rabbit the opportunity to burrow and hide if it feels like it.
- Place a layer of peat moss in the part of the cage where your rabbit is most likely to urinate or defecate in the middle of the night. Kitty litter also works. Either material keeps your rabbit from lying in its own urine through the night. Wood shavings, however, can irritate your rabbit’s external genitalia.
Clean your rabbit’s enclosure daily.
Provide Your Rabbit with Easy Access to Water and Food
Rabbits need to drink about a cup of water for every five pounds of body weight (100 ml of water per kilo of body weight) every day.
Failure to drink water can result in dehydration.
You can recognize dehydration in a rabbit by sunken eyes, dry mouth, crusted nasal secretions, and bunches of skin all over its body.
Dehydrated muscles and mouth may be very painful for your rabbit.
Rabbits need to eat about every 12 hours to keep their digestive tracts active.
If they don’t eat for 24 hours, the muscles that move food along their digestive tract may stop working.
This condition is similar to severe constipation, except there is no recovery from it.
There is no practical way for pet owners to force a rabbit to eat and drink if it doesn’t want to.
But you can provide your rabbit with its favorite foods to entice to take one last meal and hang on a little longer.
A special note on force-feeding your rabbit
If you believe your rabbit has a condition it can recover from, and getting to the vet for treatment is just a matter of time, you may be able to prolong its life with force-feeding.
This involves using a syringe (without a needle on its narrow end) to shoot tiny amounts of water and a liquid vegetable formula into your rabbit’s mouth, just 1 or 2 ml (a quarter to half a teaspoon) at a time.
Syringes and feeding formulas are available at pet supply stores.
You should never attempt force-feeding on a rabbit that is unconscious, and you should stop at the first hint that you are choking your rabbit.
We don’t recommend this approach for pet owners who do not have extensive experience with syringe feeding animals.
It would be doubly tragic for your sick rabbit to die as a result of choking on food and drink intended to save its life.
Manage Your Rabbit’s Pain
In nature, rabbits are near the bottom of the food chain, just above the plants they eat.
There are many wild animals that would pounce on them at the first sign of weakness.
For that reason, rabbits are practically pre-programmed to hide their pain.
You can infer that your rabbit is suffering pain if it:
- Squints all the time.
- Grinds its teeth loudly. Softer tooth grinding, however, is a sign of being well-fed.
- Loses all interest in normal activities.
- Keeps its back hunched up to protect its abdomen.
- Lies with its feet stretched out to press its abdomen against the bottom of its cage.
Never give a rabbit any pain medication manufactured for human use. The dosages will be as much as 50 times too high.
A rabbit’s kidneys can’t detoxify aspirin. Its liver can’t process Tylenol. The only pain medication you should ever give your rabbit is prescribed by a veterinarian.
Give Your Rabbit Lots of Attention
One of the reasons we love rabbits is they are very social creatures.
They enjoy the company of friendly animals and friendly people.
Cuddle them, groom them, talk to them, and give them their favorite treats, but also let them retreat if they are tired or in pain.
Frequently Asked Questions About Comforting Dying Rabbits
Q. How can I tell if my rabbit is about to die?
A. There are some general signs that death is near in rabbits.
- Changes in body temperature. A dying rabbit’s metabolism stops keeping it warm. Its body temperature drops below 100 °F (37.8 °C).
- Changes in pulse rate. A healthy rabbit’s heart beats between 180 and 250 times a minute.
- Shortness of breath. A rabbit normally breathes between 30 and 60 times per minute.
- Behavioral changes. A normally friendly rabbit that starts hiding may be nearing the end. Rabbits that lose interest in grooming may be very sick. You can groom them, of course.
- Bloating. When a rabbit doesn’t eat for a day, the bacteria in its intestines multiply (since they aren’t removed with feces) and cause gas.
- Sudden release of bowels. Rabbits may defecate just before they die.
- Rattling sound as the rabbit breathes. This is a sign that the end is very near.
Q. Is it true that rabbits scream when they die?
A. Some rabbits do, yes. It’s never a false alarm.
When a rabbit starts screaming, stay with it, and offer it all the comfort you can.
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