Heat stroke in rabbits: causes, symptoms and treatment

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The thermometer is rising and you’re worried that your rabbit is getting too hot and getting sick? You’re right to want to know more and to find out what precautions to take when it’s hot. After all, rabbits don’t do well in the heat. To help you take care of your furry friend in these circumstances, this article tells you everything you need to know about heat stroke in rabbits.

Why are domestic rabbits sensitive to heat?

Wild rabbits spend a lot of time in their burrows: it is estimated that they spend two-thirds of their time underground. In this true underground shelter, the temperature is stable. Also, when the outside temperature rises and the rabbit starts to suffer, it can simply burrow and only come out at the coolest hours to feed.

The domestic rabbit, on the other hand, cannot burrow. It must then rely on two thermoregulation systems.

The first one is located in the ears. These two organs represent between 10% and 15% of the body surface and are equipped with a vascular network that dilates and contracts according to the temperature of the environment. This is the so-called vasodilation system. When it is cold, the vessels in the ears contract so that the blood flowing through them is less exposed to the ambient air and cools down less. On the contrary, when it is hot, the blood vessels in the ears dilate, thus increasing the temperature exchange between the blood and the ambient air. The rabbit completes the mechanism by swinging its ears back and forth.
The animal may also pant to lower its body temperature. This means breathing faster and harder. This allows the animal to do in the lungs what happens in the ears.

What is heat stroke?

In captivity, the rabbit does not have a burrow, so it can only rely on the two physiological mechanisms we just mentioned. But when it is particularly hot and temperatures exceed 30°C, the cooling of the rabbit’s body remains limited. On the other hand, when the rabbit starts panting and this lasts, the animal risks becoming dehydrated. Above 39°C, these mechanisms are no longer useful and the animal risks hyperthermia.

That’s why it’s very important to take care of your rabbit and to anticipate heat stroke. Long-haired rabbits and rabbits with floppy ears, such as rams, are particularly susceptible. Young rabbits, pregnant females and sick individuals are also more susceptible.

How can you tell if your rabbit is suffering from heat stroke?

Movement creates heat. So, when its body temperature rises, the rabbit has the reflex to move less, but also to eat less. It will look for coolness by spreading out as much as possible. It starts panting and its heartbeat accelerates. Water droplets appear on the tip of the nose. Heat stroke can also be identified by the particularly high heat in the ears. To verify this, simply bring your hand close to them, without necessarily touching them.

Beyond heat stroke, it is hyperthermia that is to be feared. A rabbit left to its own devices develops cyanosis of the mucous membranes: they turn blue. The rabbit also starts to bleed from its nose and mouth. The metabolism is completely disrupted and, without quick intervention, death can occur.

How to react in case of heat stroke?

When the rabbit has not yet reached the stage of hyperthermia and you recognize that your rabbit is not well, you can help him by placing him in the coolest place in your home, taking care to air the room, without creating a draft.

You can also moisten the inside of his ears with warm water. The water should not be cold, otherwise you risk creating a thermal shock that could lead to cardiac arrest. The drop in the rabbit’s body temperature should be gradual, not abrupt.

You can also place a bottle of ice-cold water on the rabbit’s body, provided you wrap it with a cloth before placing it against the rabbit’s body.

If you are past the stage of heat stroke and are unable to bring the rabbit’s temperature down, or if you notice that it is not improving quickly, you should take your pet to the veterinarian to have it put on an IV.

Prevention rather than cure

It is best to anticipate the situation and do everything possible to avoid heat stroke. To do this, you must ensure that your rabbit’s environment is cool on hot days. The reflexes to adopt are the same as for us: air the cage before 8 a.m. and close the windows and shutters all day long.
The rabbit’s cage should be moved to the coolest place in your home, which can be the garage or the basement. In France, heat waves usually do not last very long. Even if this is not the rabbit’s usual environment, it is better to keep it cool. Under these circumstances, the rabbit will appreciate any source of cooling such as a cement, stone or tile surface.

If your rabbit has long hair, it is strongly recommended to shear it around May.

The cold bottle wrapped in a cloth, mentioned above for curative purposes, can also be used as a preventive measure.

More than at any other time of the year, you should make sure that your rabbit has enough fresh water at its disposal: it will inevitably drink more than usual. If your rabbit has floppy ears, you can even provide a bowl of water in which he can dip his ears if he wishes.

If you have a fan, don’t turn it directly towards your rabbit, otherwise it may catch a cold. The fan should only be used to circulate the air in the room where the rabbit is kept.

Baths should not be used as the rabbit may suffer from heat shock or undue stress.

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