Safe Pain Relief for Rabbits

Updated May 25, 2017

Pet owners know when their dog or cat is ill or in pain---the signs are easy to spot and act upon. The same pain signals don't show in rabbits, states Dr. Susan Brown in "The Importance of Analgesia (Pain Killers) for Pet Rabbits." She says that it is "vitally important for you to be familiar with your pet and observe his or her actions daily so you can detect changes in behaviour. Your observations will become an important part of the history your give your veterinarian. The history is a vital part of the diagnostic process."

Pain Signs

Signs your rabbit is in pain include a reluctance to move and/or an abnormal sitting posture. Your pet may be depressed or lethargic with no interest in his surroundings. He may grind his teeth or vocalise when being handled or during elimination (defecating/urinating). The rabbit may stop eating and drinking or take a longer time to eat than usual. According to Dr. Brown, long-term pain and stress in rabbits leads to gastric ulcers and, in extreme cases, systemic organ failure.


Veterinarians usually administer an opioid analgesic during and after a surgical procedure, and after serious traumas. Derived from opium, these medications sedate the rabbit as well as deliver pain relief, and work to calm the animal's naturally nervous disposition. Most veterinary opioids (typically butorphanol, morphine and meperidine) alleviate pain for just two to four hours, while buprenorphine (the type most commonly used in rabbits) lasts for up to 12 hours. Doctors also prescribe tramadol to relieve moderate to severe pain in rabbits, usually post-surgery and in smaller doses than other medicines, because of the drug's very strong effects on rabbits.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (called NSAIDs) control inflammation and swelling and also function as analgesics. Veterinarians use them to treat certain musculoskeletal ailments, including arthritis and limb traumas; they also use them for incision pain and skin abscesses. Because of the NSAIDs' known long duration in the rabbit's body, doctors prescribe them with opioids for safe pain relief after surgery. Rabbit NSAIDs include carprofen (trade name Rimadyl), aspirin, ibuprofen, piroxicam and meloxicam---the most commonly prescribed medication. Rabbit owners need to monitor their pets for gastrointestinal distress when using NSAIDs long term and need to consult their veterinarian before administering the over-the-counter medications aspirin and ibuprofen.

Clinicians prescribe local anesthetics, usually lidocaine or mepivocaine, for minor surgical procedures including skin biopsies, the removal of small tumours and the placing of nasoegastric tubes. During complete eye exams or minor ophthalmic treatments doctors drop proparicaine, an optical anesthetic, onto the cornea so that the rabbit feels no pain. Veterinarians do not use local anesthetics for long-term pain relief because their action is typically short-lived.

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