Author: Patricia Larson, LVT
Rabbit foot care may not be high on the list of topics that bunny parents commonly think about, but it is certainly an important subject to cover, especially when talking about whole pet health. It’s important to remember that as part of domesticating rabbits, we are taking them out of their natural environment. In the wild, they would be running on soft, springy grass and they would have lots of room to move around.
When they are inside our homes, their world may be less cushioned (think of hard flooring, plastic-bottomed habitats, or even wired cages.) They will also likely have less room to run and play as compared to their outdoor cousins, and less ability to get away from bedding that may be soiled, no matter how fastidious you are about keeping their bedding clean.
As such, being sure to keep an eye out for issues is important. As prey animals, rabbits are notoriously good at hiding problems so having a set time that you check their feet (such as during nail trims) is ideal. Your veterinarian will likely check your rabbit’s feet at their annual physical exam as well but this yearly check won’t be enough. What are the most common concerns with your rabbit’s feet and how can you prevent them?
In this article, we’ll cover the following important topics relating to Sore Hocks and other common foot-related issues in rabbits:
- Definition of Sore Hocks
- Causes and prevention of Sore Hocks in rabbits
- Symptoms of Sore Hocks in rabbits
- How to treat Sore Hocks in rabbits
- Other common foot health issues in rabbits
What are Sore Hocks?
Ulcerative Pododermatitis, or Sore Hocks, is the most common concern in rabbit foot health, but what is it exactly? Ulcerative Pododermatitis are pressure sores caused by disruption of the normal stance or locomotion over time. They have varying degrees of severity that can develop on the underside of your rabbit’s feet. They can be particularly painful, can abscess, or even become open sores if not properly cared for.
Causes and Prevention of Sore Hocks in Rabbits
- Improper Flooring
- Excessive Body Weight
- Lack of Exercise
- Poor Hygiene
- Untrimmed Nails
The most common causes of Sore Hocks have to do with the environment. Soft bedding is a must! Keeping a rabbit on a hard floor with little padding can do a number on their feet. Remember that happy cousin leaping through the grassy glade? Fleece, paper bedding, or even a hefty padding of hay or softwood shavings can help a great deal.
Keep in mind that rabbits also need time to be outside their habitat to run, leap, and get that full range of motion on their feet. Inactive rabbits can become obese which puts extra strain on joints. Small cages don’t allow them to stretch out and get their weight off their hocks.
It is also important to keep both your rabbit’s home and body clean and well-groomed. Excessive moisture and lead to sores and infection, so keep that bedding fresh. Groom your rabbit regularly and keep their nails trimmed. Long, untrimmed nails can lead to the rabbit being forced back onto their hocks, it is important to allow their range of motion to be kept as normal as possible.
Symptoms of Sore Hocks in Rabbits
Symptoms of Sore Hocks in rabbits can include:
- Lethargy, hunched appearance
- Loss of appetite
- Teeth grinding
- Rapid and shallow breathing
- Changes in the bald patches on the feet
- Red, inflamed patches
- Raw or ulcerated sores
If your rabbit is dealing with swollen or painful feet, they are not going to be wanting to move around like they normally would. Eating is out of the question because they are in pain. Some rabbits may even become aggressive because they don’t want to be touched.
A quick look at the feet can offer a definitive look. It is important to keep in mind that a small amount of hair loss in the hock area (that backward-facing joint or heel that rabbits and other pets have) is perfectly normal. Getting a good idea of what the normal look and feel of your rabbit’s feet is key as it is slight changes that will indicate a problem is brewing.
There are different stages to sore hocks, early stages you may see some redness or inflammation, but this can progress rapidly to the moderate stage where you can see some open sores or scabs. Severe stages include abscess formation and deep tissue inflammation, which can lead to bone infections or damage to tendons. It is important to catch the process early on, as it is easier to treat.
Treating Sore Hocks in Rabbits
Step 1: Vet Consultation
If you suspect that your rabbit may be dealing with sore hocks, make an appointment to see your veterinarian right away. A physical exam will be performed, and other tests may be necessary depending on the severity of the case. Your veterinarian may want to run bloodwork, to evaluate the overall health of your rabbit and check for signs of infection. Samples may be taken from open lesions to establish the type of bacteria and choose the best antibiotic.
For particularly severe cases, radiographs may need to be taken to check on internal structures and check to check for other conditions, like arthritis, that may predispose your rabbit to hock issues.
Step 2: Pain Management & Wound Care
Treatment comes next. Depending on the severity of the pododermatitis, your veterinarian will prescribe medication to treat your sweet bun. This may include pain medication, antibiotics, and topical ointments. You may need to provide daily wound care, cleaning, bandaging (if your bun tolerates it), and keeping their environment well-padded and clean.
NOTE: Always wear gloves when treating wounds, bacterial infections can be passed from your rabbit to you!
Step 3: Optimizing the Environment, Increasing Activity, & Dietary Adjustments
Long-term treatment includes taking a careful look at the likely cause of the pododermatitis and making changes to prevent it from reoccurring. You may need to make changes to your habitat and bedding, make adjustments to your rabbit’s diet and increase their daily activity. Discuss prevention with your veterinarian and keep in mind that it’s a lot less trouble and expense to make these changes than to deal with another bout of sore hocks!
Other Common Foot Health Issues in Rabbits
While sore hocks are the most common foot-related issue in rabbits, there are a number of other common issues to be aware of and watch for. Like all health-related issues in rabbits, proactive care for these issues is your best bet in keeping your rabbit as healthy and happy as possible.
Arthritis in Rabbits
Arthritis is another common issue in rabbits, particularly as your bunny ages into their middle and senior years, and can become quite painful. Arthritis in rabbits is caused by joint inflammation leading to a lack of mobility. Symptoms for arthritis are similar to those of sore hocks. Arthritis can actually cause a bun to develop pododermatitis. You can also look for changes in their gait (wobbling or limping) or a lack of being able to move normally.
If you suspect that your rabbit is suffering from osteoarthritis, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Radiographs will be required to diagnose the joints that are causing the pain. They may also recommend some trials on pain medication to find the best one for your rabbit. Ongoing checks on bloodwork will be needed for some long-term painkiller use, to check liver and kidney function.
While there really isn’t any way to prevent arthritis you can certainly make your sweet bun bun more comfortable. Give them well-padded areas for rest and make sure to keep floors as anti-slip as possible. If your rabbit likes to get up on couches or chairs, provide them with ramps with anti-slip surfaces so they can make it up to their favorite spots.
Grooming will also be important, keep nails trimmed short so they can get as much traction as possible. Arthritic buns may also need to be cleaned more often, they may have trouble grooming themselves so make sure to check them all over and keep them clean.
Torn Toenails in Rabbits
Torn or cracked toenails are generally caused by a nail getting caught and the rabbit struggling to get free. This can be a traumatic experience for both rabbit and pet parent. Bleeding and pain are common and, depending on the severity, veterinary assistance may be required for pain and wound management. Radiographs may be needed to ensure that the rest of the toe or foot has not been damaged.
Prevention for torn toenails is fairly simple but not absolute. However, you can lessen the chance of this happening by keeping your rabbit’s nails trimmed and keeping them away from dangers like wire-bottomed cages, litter pans with wire grates, and other items that might trap a nail.
Fractures in Rabbits
Less common but equally traumatic are foot or leg fractures. Fractures are caused by some sort of trauma; this could be a trapped foot, a fall, or being injured by an outside force (e.g. another animal or vehicle). If you suspect a fracture in your rabbit, remain calm. It is important to keep your rabbit as calm as possible and support the suspected fracture.
Collect a towel and wrap your rabbit in it, binding it close to keep your rabbit contained. Seek veterinary care as soon as possible. It is likely that radiographs will be needed to diagnose the severity and type of fracture, and they can get you set up with pain meds and fracture management (bandages, casts, etc) materials.