A healthy rabbit has bright, shiny, moist eyes that glimmer when they catch the light. There should be no discharge, no bulging around the eyeball and both pupils should be the same size. But if your rabbit is blinking more than usual, if his eyes look crusty or watery, or if the hair around his eyes is matted, your bunny might be suffering from an eye problem.
‘The most common symptoms of eye problems include clear or milky discharge, swollen eyeballs, or sore skin where tears are constantly flowing down the cheeks,’ explains Claire Speight, a veterinary nurse from the Rabbit Welfare Association. ‘Eye problems, such as blocked tear ducts and abscesses behind the eyeballs, are very often associated with dental disease or tooth root problems and shouldn’t be ignored. We would always recommend you visit your vet if you suspect any eye problems.’
Your rabbit’s eyes can also be vulnerable to bacterial infections. Common infections include conjunctivitis, which affects the lining around the eye, and pasteurellosis, which affects the upper respiratory tract but can lead to eye infections. The pasteurella bacteria tend to reside in the nose, lungs and eye membranes and can be present for many months without causing discomfort. But when a bunny is stressed or unwell, infection can set in – the first symptom is usually snuffles, but it can lead to a secondary eye infection similar to conjunctivitis.
There are other things to look out for, too: ‘Cataracts can occur from a parasite infection called E. cuniculi, and ulcers can happen when the eye is irritated – by a sharp piece of hay, for example,’ explains practising vet Ross Allan, from the British Small Animal Veterinary Association. ‘If you suspect that your rabbit has any of these conditions, contact your vet as soon as possible.’
‘Look out, too, for matted hair on the inside of the forepaws where your rabbit may be grooming the discharge from his eyes,’ says Emma Keeble, a rabbit veterinary specialist at The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. Emma advises against cleaning your rabbit’s eyes yourself because they’re so delicate: ‘You could accidentally scratch the cornea and cause a corneal ulcer,’ she explains. The best thing to do is pay a visit to your vet, who can show you how to apply eye drops correctly and demonstrate how to wipe away any discharge.
Preventing eye problems
You can help prevent many eye problems with sensible bedding choices, regular cleaning of your rabbit’s living quarters, and a healthy diet. ‘Avoid shavings because they’re too fine and can irritate the eyes, and make sure that your rabbit’s living and sleeping areas are always well ventilated,’ says Claire. ‘To prevent tooth problems, feed your rabbit a large amount of hay or grass each day – equal to about 80 per cent of his diet – together with a small amount of good-quality pellets (around five per cent of the daily food intake) and a large portion of greens.’
Emma avoids overhead hay racks because bedding material can drop into a bunny’s eyes while feeding, and she recommends cleaning the hutch regularly to keep ammonia levels down – ammonia is produced when your rabbit wees, and can easily irritate your bunny’s eyes.
Ross also suggests using dust-free hay, checking your bunny’s eyes when you handle him each day, and ensuring that his vaccinations are always kept up to date – particularly for the viral disease myxomatosis, which is usually spread by biting insects like fleas and mosquitoes. It often starts with runny eyes and can be mistaken for conjunctivitis, but it’s a deadly disease and it’s vital that all rabbits are vaccinated against it. Of course, if you are worried about your rabbit’s eyes or suspect that he might have an eye infection, contact your vet as soon as possible.