Monday, January 5, 2015

Head tilt in pet rabbits is a symptom of illness, and with medical treatment it can be resolved

Pet rabbits often live out healthy lives so long as they get diligent care, but they can present with an occasional illness or injury, just like any other pet.

Rabbit owners can find one symptom especially disconcerting: seeing their delicate companion present with a head tilted sideways (which can sometimes accompanied by disorientation, rolling or even not able to move about at all).

Though the causes of what is referred to as "head tilt" can be numerous, the good news is that most often can be treated successfully and your furry friend can go about their business. The key in getting there is getting to the bottom of why head tilt is occurring.

But first, it's important to understand that head tilt, or torticollis, is not a disease in itself, only a symptom of a problem in the vestibular (or balance system). Just as in humans, this is comprised of things like the inner ear, the Central Nervous System (CNS), and even the extremities — rabbits use their sense of touch to coordinate movement. Any damage or illness related to one or more of these areas in the body can result in a bunny whose sense of balance is off kilter.

A visit with a vet who has experience with rabbits is always necessary to have a complete examination to determine the cause correctly.

As Dr. Lyssa Alexander explains, there are a couple of common culprits — middle or inner-ear infections or parasites — both of which require prescription medication to resolve.

They are more prone to torticollis than other animals, but Alexander stresses that "with treatment, most rabbits recover — and treating early is helpful."

A abscess in the brain, tumor and head trauma are seen less often as causes, but are still possible.

"Even with a little tilting of the head, it's important to get in right away" as things can escalate quickly, and progress to a pet exhibiting rolling, which can be quite disturbing to see.

Depending on what your clinician discovers from the examination, they may take a sample of any discharge from the ear for analysis and perhaps a blood sample. Alexander notes though, that in many cases, the symptom of head tilt is treated empirically, with antibiotics (usually Baytril), an anti-inflammatory and anti-parasitic drugs, usually with great success.

Pasteurella is a type of bacteria that is ubiquitous amongst rabbits, so it's important to not panic when it's suspected as the cause of the underlying issue (ear infection). Most of the time, it doesn't cause a problem for the animal — but occasionally, it happens — and a bunny's nature is a contributing factor.

"Bunnies, as prey animals, are prone to stress. Stress can impact the immune system, and allow an infection to take hold," adds Alexander, who along with Dr. Holly Zechar, co-owns All Creatures Animal Clinic in Ann Arbor.

For that reason, immune support is often pursued — along with a recommendation to eliminate possible stressors in the rabbit's environment.

It seems important to note that treating with antibiotics that are safe for rabbits is crucial, as not all of these drugs are appropriate. The reason: rabbits have a digestive system that is unusual, to say the least. You can click here to learn more about that, but an important thing to understand is the role of beneficial bacteria in helping bunnies digest food. The wrong antibiotic can disturb the favored gut flora and within a short time, kill the animal.

Alexander reassures that despite the possible length of treatment — several weeks, in most cases —a bunny can regain his health and stability his vestibular system and live out a healthy and full life.

Some residual head tilt is not uncommon, as the doctor clarifies, and she assures that bunnies can still live happy lives nonetheless.

In my research, I did unearth an interesting care plan that might be useful (as someone who has experienced a vestibular disorder, I can attest to it's validity, having had to do it myself). Vestibular physical therapy is detailed in one example in an article by rabbit expert Dana Krempels, Ph.D. and you can read about that and more on torticollis in rabbits, by clicking here.

For help with medicating your ailing bunny, click here.

Lorrie Shaw is a freelance writer -- most recently as a contributor on MLive -- and owner of Professional Pet Sitting. Shoot her an email, contact her at 734-904-7279 or follow her adventures on Twitter.

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