Why Do Rabbits Die Suddenly?

It’s a situation that pet rabbit owners encounter over and over again.

One day your pet rabbit is active, playful, and basking in your attention, and the next morning you discover that your rabbit has died.

Rabbits raised in good conditions often live between 7 and 10 years. PetMD reports that one rabbit lived to be almost 19 years old.

Your rabbit may be with you even longer than your dog, especially if you take steps to avoid preventable deaths. In this article, we will give you an overview of the most common causes of death in pet rabbits and what you can do to prevent them.


In most of the United States, nothing is more likely to kill your rabbit than heatstroke.

Rabbits exposed to temperatures over 85° F (29° C) suffer heat stress. If the condition progresses to heat stroke, they may go into shock. Seizures are common.

If this happens to your rabbit, wrap it in a cool, moist towel. Do not use an ice pack. This can put your rabbit into a different kind of shock. Get your rabbit to the vet as quickly as possible.

Even better, prevent heatstroke by making sure your rabbits always have water to drink and good ventilation.

Freezing a bottle of water for each of your rabbits and placing it into their cage gives them a way to stay cool.

Also read: Can Rabbits Survive In Hot Weather?

Hairballs and Gastric Stasis

A surprisingly large number of rabbits die from hairballs and other conditions that block the passage of food through their digestive tracts.

About 20 percent of a rabbit’s entire body is its digestive tract. It has a small stomach with a very small pyloric valve to let semi-digested food pass from the stomach to its small intestine.

The rabbit’s small intestine, which absorbs proteins and simple sugars, is small for its size. That’s because there are almost no simple sugars and very few amino acids from protein in the food a rabbit eats.

Instead, rabbits have a relatively sizable large intestine, which absorbs water and some carbohydrates, and a specialized organ called a cecum.

The cecum ferments partially digested food, and then sends it out as soft poop.

Oxygen in the air activates the bacteria in the soft poops so they release protein and create fat. Then the rabbit eats its own poop to extract the nutrients the bacteria release.


Rabbits instinctively lick themselves clean. This is to remove odors that could identify them to predators.

They swallow some hairs in the process. If they aren’t eating enough fiber to keep food moving through their stomachs, a hairball can form.

Large hairballs can block the pyloric valve. This keeps food and water in the stomach. They can also prevent the passage of soft poops into the cecum for their second digestion.

The result can be dehydration or starvation in just three to seven days.

Gastric Stasis

It isn’t always hair that clogs up the digestive tract of a rabbit. Giving a rabbit high-carbohydrate, low-fiber foods like bread or pastries can form a mass.

Gastric stasis in rabbits can also result from tapeworms. Rabbits may consume tapeworm eggs if they graze where cats, dogs, or foxes urinate or defecate.

How to Recognize Hairballs and Gastric Stasis in Rabbits

Rabbits suffering from hairballs or gastric stasis don’t want to eat. They may not drink as much water as usual. They produce fewer fecal pellets, and their poops may contain hair.

Some rabbits will be hunched over, grind their teeth, or display visible lumps in their stomach. They may react with pain if you rub their belly.

When your rabbit displays these symptoms, it is time for a quick trip to the vet. There are things you can do to prevent stasis.

How to Prevent Hairballs and Gastric Stasis in Rabbits

The single most important thing you can do to prevent gastric stasis in rabbits is to make sure they get a high-fiber diet. The single best source of fiber for rabbits is hay from grasses, such as timothy hay.

Hay from legumes (alfalfa is a legume) is OK for growing rabbits, but it is too rich in calcium and protein for mature bunnies. They can get kidney stones.

There are pellets that contain about 20% fiber from hay, such as the products made by Bunny Basics, Murdock, and Oxbow.

To this add about half a cup of green leafy vegetables for every pound your rabbit weighs (75 grams per kilogram of body weight).

Rabbits also benefit from about a tablespoon of berries, fresh fruit, or carrots per pound of body weight per day (30 grams of fruit, berries, and carrots per kilogram of body weight per day).

Unless you have an obese bunny, let your rabbits eat all they want.

Also read: What Causes Rabbits To Lose Their Fur?

Neurological Diseases

Sudden death in rabbits often results from neurological diseases. Some rabbits may carry a kind of bacteria that affects the brain and appear to be happy and healthy for months or even years.

Then the rabbit has to be moved to a new home, or has a scary encounter with a predator animal, or is exposed to loud noise or dunked in water, and it develops symptoms and dies in just a few days or even just a few hours.

The most common symptoms of neurological disease in rabbits are head tilt and paralysis of the back end of the rabbit.

But rabbits can tell you that they are sick with a neurological condition.

Encephalitozoon cuniculi

A rabbit that starts tilting its head (holding its head to one side) may have an infection.

Dwarf rabbits with a tilting head most commonly have an infection with a parasite called Encephalitozoon cuniculi.

Standard breeds that show this symptom are more likely to be infected with a kind of bacteria called Pasteurella multocida.

Dwarf rabbits with this parasitic infection may develop ataxia, a lack of coordination as they try to hop around.

They may develop nystagmus, quick, uncontrollable eye movements.

Other symptoms include uncontrollable rolling over, inability to control urination, wobbly back legs or paralysis of the back legs, seizures, and death.

This parasite is spread by:

  • Contact with urine or feces from or mating with infected rabbits. This is one of the reasons you should make sure your pet rabbit never has contact with wild rabbits, and you should quarantine any new pet rabbit (preferably giving them anti-parasite medications) for a month before keeping them in the same hutch or cage as the rabbits you already have.
  • Inhaling spores of the parasite. This is most likely to occur when you keep your rabbit in a small hutch with one or more infected rabbits.
  • Contaminated food and water. Allowing wild rabbits or keeping somebody else’s infected rabbits as a favor (for instance, when they go on vacation) with your rabbits can result in this.

Baby rabbits can catch the disease from their mothers during pregnancy.

Encephalitozoon infection is impossible to treat unless it is caught early. You need to take your rabbit to the vet at the first sign of symptoms, especially if your rabbit has gone through a recent trauma.

Pasteurella multocida

Standard breeds that develop a head tilt usually have an infection with a kind of bacteria called Pasteurella multocida.

Pasteurella infection usually starts out as sniffles. The bacteria travel through the Eustachian tube to the middle ear.

Your rabbit may start discharging pus from its ears. It may have watery, irritated eyes, and a puffy face. It may wheeze, cough, or snore.

If the bacteria travel to the brain, your rabbit may develop a tilting head or a problem with uncontrollable rolling over.

Pasteurella is most common in rabbits kept in crowded hutches with poor ventilation.

It is treatable with antibiotics that you will have to get from your vet, but it will not usually kill a rabbit unless it gets no treatment at all.

Injuries That Cause Neurological Symptoms

Rabbits sometimes develop paralysis or their hind legs after they fracture their spines.

Hopping requires powerful hind legs. Rabbits that struggle to get away from their owners often twist their hind legs, sometimes resulting in a fracture to a vertebra in the rabbit’s lower back known as L7.

Paralysis of the back end of the rabbit can quickly result in urinary tract infections and gastric stasis (see above). Outdoor rabbits with paralysis become extremely vulnerable to predators.

There isn’t a lot your vet can do to help a rabbit with a fractured spine.

Always approaching your rabbit slowly, where your rabbit can see you coming, reduces the risk of the kinds of struggles that can result in potentially fatal spinal injury.

Pregnancy Toxemia

Female rabbits that are about to give birth or that have just given birth, sometimes develop a condition called toxemia of pregnancy.

Does that are pregnant or lactating to feed their babies need more calories than usual.

If the mother rabbit does not get enough to eat, its body will start to break down fat, with the formation of excessive levels of ketones.

Symptoms can include weakness, convulsions, coma, and, sometimes in just a few hours, death.

There are two things you can do to prevent pregnancy toxemia in your female rabbits.

One is to make sure that your does get enough to eat, so their bodies do not have to break down fat supplies.

The other is to avoid overfeeding your female rabbits, so they do not become obese.

Rabbits that do not have extensive body fat will not have the fat to break down into toxic byproducts.

Also read: 20 Signs Your Rabbit May Be Dying

Key Takeaways

  • Sudden rabbit death can be caused by a variety of factors, including heat stroke, gastrointestinal stasis, neurological diseases, respiratory infections, and other illnesses.
  • To prevent sudden rabbit death, it’s essential to provide your rabbit with proper care, including a healthy diet, regular exercise, and regular veterinary check-ups.
  • If you suspect your rabbit is ill, it’s important to seek veterinary care immediately to increase the chances of a successful recovery.
Also read: How to Save a Rabbit from Dying? 10 Things You Must Know!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are some common queries people have about bunnies dying suddenly:

Can loneliness lead to rabbit death?

Yes, loneliness can lead to rabbit death. Rabbits are social animals and require companionship.

If they are kept alone for a long time, they can become depressed and may stop eating, which can lead to death.

How do rabbits behave before they pass away?

Rabbits may show signs of illness or discomfort before passing away.

These signs may include loss of appetite, lethargy, difficulty breathing, and decreased fecal production. If you notice any of these signs, it is important to consult a veterinarian immediately.

What are common reasons for rabbits to die suddenly?

Common reasons for rabbits to die suddenly include heart attacks, exposure to extreme temperatures, swallowing sharp objects, eating poisonous food or bedding material, and pre-existing health conditions.

Is stress a common cause of rabbit death?

Yes, stress can be a common cause of rabbit death. Stress can weaken the rabbit’s immune system, making it more susceptible to illnesses and diseases.

Stress can also lead to depression, which can cause the rabbit to stop eating and drinking, leading to death.

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