There are approximately one million rabbits kept as pets in the UK and this number is increasing. Through working in a busy small animal practice, we regularly see rabbits every day for various health issues. Some genetic health issues are more likely to occur in certain rabbit breeds and this article aims to cover this area of bunny health.
Genetic problems in rabbits
So you may be wondering whether in rabbits, like in cats or dogs, the breed type matters in terms of health? To answer this simply, yes. Similar to dog breeds, it is believed that crossbred rabbits experience less health problems than purebred rabbits, due to a wider gene pool.
When you hear the term ‘brachycephalic,’ most people associate this with dog breeds such as pugs and bulldogs etc. But did you know that brachycephalic breeds also occur in cats and even in rabbits too? ‘Brachy’ means short and ‘cephalic’ means head, therefore brachycephalic species have shortened skull bones, resulting in flattened face and nose shapes. Brachycephalic rabbit breeds include Netherland dwarfs, Lop-eared rabbits and Lionheads.
Categorically, brachycephalic rabbits are sadly often faced with more genetic health issues compared to other known breeds (this list is not exhaustive):
Congenital incisor malocclusion
Brachycephalic rabbits have smaller skull sizes which means that sometimes their upper and lower jaw grows abnormally. Of course any rabbit is at risk of developing dental disease due to the way that their teeth grow continuously. However, brachycephalic bunnies are prone to dental malocclusion, where their upper and lower teeth fail to meet in the correct way. Unfortunately, this leads to their teeth becoming overgrown and, in severe cases, the teeth can actually cut into the mouth (Brown, 2009).
In the majority of cases this presents as a congenital issue. It is therefore very important for any rabbit to have a thorough health and dentition check with a Vet. Incisor malocclusion needs careful management because if their teeth are left to grow too long they will be unable to eat or groom and it can be an extremely painful welfare issue. Your Vet will either burr their teeth down frequently to a normal length or they may surgically remove them to prevent the problem from recurring.
Breathing and respiratory issues
As mentioned above, brachycephalic syndrome is not just a dog problem! Shorter nosed rabbit breeds can experience breathing challenges due to a congenital narrowing and shortening of their airways. Rabbits are obligate nasal breathers (they cannot breathe through their mouths properly, even if they wanted to) and a brachycephalic head shape gives them a reduced ability to cope with respiratory disease, heat stress and sometimes exercise.
Distorted tear ducts
Brachycephalic rabbits are at higher risk of developing dacryocystitis, inflammation of the tear ducts (Hedley et al, 2022). These short-headed breeds are susceptible to developing dacryocystitis and distorted tear ducts due to their anatomy and head conformation. In brachycephalic cats, studies have shown that the greater the degree of brachycephaly, the more the tear drainage is affected (Schlueter et al, 2009), and it is likely that similar issues exist in rabbits.
In the wild rabbits have naturally upright and erect ears. However, as a result of breeding domestic rabbits, particularly brachycephalics, some are now born with floppy or ‘lop’ ears. Lop eared rabbits are prone to ear canal narrowing which could predispose them to ear infections and waxy build ups.
Furthermore, rabbit ear position is of great importance in rabbit behaviour and body language. Rabbit ear position can represent an expression of anger and we know that upright forward facing ears can indicate that a rabbit is happy. As a result of this, lop eared rabbits can make it difficult for other rabbits to understand them and it could give off mixed signals, this may affect bonding and relationships.
Other rabbit breeds
Other rabbit breeds may also develop any of the above conditions although brachycephalic breeds are over represented for these issues. There can be variability in brachycephalics with their skull shape and flatness. Generally flatter noses lead to more complications and health issues. It is not advisable to breed rabbits with any of these health conditions because we do not want to pass on any undesirable traits to their offspring.
Additionally, I won’t dive into the world of pet insurance today, but be aware that you can get your rabbits insured too – but that the premiums may be higher for higher-risk bunnies.
To conclude, rabbits are becoming increasingly popular companion animals and their health demands must be taken seriously. Despite the myth, owning a rabbit as a pet is a big commitment and caring for them can be highly demanding. Speak to your local Vet for further advice on caring for your pet rabbit.
- Brown, H, F. 2009. Dental disease in rabbits, diagnosis and treatment. In Practice. 31: 432-445.
- Hedley, J. Ede, V. Dawson, C. 2022. Retrospective study identifying risk factors for dacryocystitis in pet rabbits. Vet Record.
- Scleuter, C. Budras, K, D. Ludewig, E. Mayrhofer, E. Koenig, H, E. Walter, A. 2009. Brachycephalic feline noses. CT and anatomical study of the relationship between head conformation and the nasolacrimal drainage system. Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery. 11: 891-900.
- Rabbit population in the UK 2022 | Statista
- Charities highlight brachycephaly in rabbits and cats | Vet Times
- Rabbit Welfare Association