The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines pain as ‘localized physical suffering associated with bodily disorder (as a disease or an injury); also: a basic bodily sensation induced by a noxious stimulus, received by naked nerve endings, characterized by physical discomfort (as pricking, throbbing, or aching), and typically leading to evasive action. b: acute mental or emotional distress or suffering’.
Pain is cannot be measured, thus it is subjective. Different individuals – whether human or otherwise – experience pain differently. As animals can’t communicate verbally, it can be a challenge to identify and quantify their pain. Dr. Michael Schaff, VMD once said, ‘Veterinary medicine is a lot like pediatrics. Infants and very small children cannot tell you where or how it hurts, and neither can the animals’.
Because rabbits can't talk, caregivers and veterinary staff must rely on observation of the pet’s behavior in order to decide whether the pet is experiencing pain. The signs can be subtle, especially in prey species such as rabbits; in prey species, the animal displaying a handicap is usually the first one eaten by the predators. Because a rabbit is undergoing stress when in unfamiliar and frightening surroundings (such as the veterinary office) it is your responsibility as a caregiver to be very familiar with your rabbit and his behaviors in order to notice when there is a change. A stressed rabbit is going to work twice as hard to mask pain as s/he would in a familiar home setting. Your veterinarian is going to depend upon your description of the rabbits’ behavior to help him or her make a diagnosis.
Pain in the house rabbit may be first evidenced as a lack or loss of appetite, a limp, a refusal to bear weight on a limb, hiding, reluctance or refusal to move, moving slowly, squinting of the eyes or grinding of the teeth. The rabbit may assume odd postures, may rub or lick an affected area, display increased respiration, or display sudden aggression.
To complicate matters further, sometimes similar behaviors can mean quite different things. For example, a content rabbit may lie stretched out with feet behind him. This could also be the posture of a rabbit with sore feet. Gentle tooth grinding – tooth ‘purring’ – is the sign of a contented rabbit, but loud tooth grinding is an indication of pain. Sudden intense pain or anxiety may cause the bunny to give a high-pitched ‘scream’, a sound you never want to hear (and will never forget if you do).
Other signs of pain in the house rabbit may include depression/lack of energy, lack of interest in his surroundings, taking a long time to eat, dropping food out of his mouth, refusal to eat ‘chewier’ items such as hay, grunting or crying when urinating, defecating or being examiner, no longer grooming himself or poor grooming, and urine scald (loss of fur/reddened skin around the rabbit’s private areas).
It is safe to assume that any invasive surgery – including spays and neuters – are going to cause varying degrees of discomfort/pain. As a pet owner, you are completely justified in insisting on pain medication for your pet following surgery. While old-school veterinary practitioners often believed that post-op pain prevented the pet from ‘overdoing it’ during convalescence, current medical studies indicate that people and animals return to normal patterns of eating and drinking more quickly if given post-op pain relief. In addition, the effects of pain can be particularly detrimental to rabbits, who are likely to stop eating if in pain, which then slows down and eventually causes a fatal shutting down of the GI system. Rabbits in excessive pain can actually go into shock and die within 24 to 48 hours, even though the injury itself would not have been fatal. Moderate to severe pain and also chronic pain can lead to gastric ulcers, a drop in the body temperature, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle due to the effects of chronic pain on the heart) and damage to the kidneys (another result of the effect of the chronic pain on the heart).
Adequate pain control will allow your pet to return to proper mobility, eating and drinking (and pooping!) more quickly. The house rabbit with good pain control will heal faster and get back to normal more quickly.
Note: none of the bunnies in the slideshow were in any pain. They were displaying behaviors that could be interpreted as pain, however, if their caretakers did not know that these were typical behaviors for these particular rabbits.
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