The position of a rabbit's eyes on either side of their head provides them with a much greater degree of peripheral vision than species that are predators. Combined with their far-sighted vision, rabbits can see predators approaching in the wild. However, rabbits have blind spots directly in front of them, directly behind them and under their chin.
Your rabbits’ sense of sight is also different to that of any other pets. For instance, rabbits are partially colourblind, and in very bright environments their eyesight diminishes significantly.
What is the most common eye problem in rabbits?
The biggest problem with rabbits' eyes is with their tear ducts. These can become inflamed and watery, with a sticky discharge that gathers round the eye and surrounding fur.
Surprisingly, tear duct problems are almost always linked to underlying dental health issues.
This is because your rabbits’ tear ducts run from the inside corner of their eyes to their nasal cavity, a route that takes the ducts close to the roots of their teeth. If your rabbits’ teeth have grown too long, or moved in their sockets, this causes a shift in pressure that impinges upon the narrow ducts so they become blocked and then infected. Your vet can treat this by flushing out the ducts with a saline solution to get rid of the pus and any infection.
What other eye conditions should I look out for?
Your rabbits’ eyes can be vulnerable to bacterial infections. Common infections include conjunctivitis – also called ‘pink eye’ – where the eyes look red and sore with fluid around the rim. For this, your vet will prescribe antibiotic cream or drops.
Another common infection is called 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, Pasteurella bacteria can flourish. The first symptom is usually snuffles, but it can lead to a secondary eye infection similar to conjunctivitis.
A foreign body
A foreign body in the eye, such as a sharp strand of straw, can cause redness and stickiness. To help this, bathe the sore or sticky eye using cooled boiled water and cotton wool, consulting your vet if the eye is still sore afterwards.
An opacity of the lens is known as a cataract. These are not common in young rabbits and are caused by a parasite infection present at birth, which may have no other symptoms. It's a good idea to get cloudy eyes checked by your vet, but often no treatment is needed. Most rabbits usually adapt well to any reduced-vision cataracts by relying on their other senses. Older rabbits with more advanced cataracts cope well, so long as they're in a familiar environment.
More serious conditions, such as an abscess, where you may notice a bulging eye or bump under your rabbit's eye, or an ulcer, squint, or the eye is closed or red, are treated using antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs and painkillers, but your vet will advise you.
What do your rabbits’ eyes say about their general health?
If your rabbits have bright healthy eyes, which are wide open, with smooth eyelids, equal-sized pupils and no watery or sticky discharge from the eye, it's more than likely their teeth are in good condition, too. Teeth can be kept at the correct length by supplying them with a good high-fibre diet of hay, grass and raw vegetables. Healthy teeth are crucial to general good health in rabbits.
Rabbits' teeth grow continuously, so your rabbits must have a constant source of fibre to chew and grind down their teeth at the same rate. Nibbling and chewing high-fibre food will stop their teeth from growing too long and causing blocked or inflamed tear ducts.
How can I help ensure my rabbits’ eyes stay healthy?
By far the most important thing you can do to maintain your rabbits’ ocular health is to prevent dental disease by feeding them a diet that has adequate roughage and long fibre; i.e. grass and hay.
Check your rabbits’ eyes regularly for any changes. Spacious living quarters, with open access to a run, will ensure your rabbits have plenty of room to hop around and stay fit and happy. Clean out your rabbits’ living quarters regularly to reduce bacteria and ammonia levels, as these can build up from wet, soggy paper, sawdust or straw, and irritate eyes and the respiratory tract. Also, avoid overhead hay racks because bedding material can drop into a bunny’s eyes while feeding.
Rabbits help keep each other's eyes in good condition through grooming, licking and cleaning the fur around their companion's eyes to remove any minor discharge. This also prevents the skin around the eyes from getting sore.
Finally, ensure that your rabbits’ vaccinations are up to date. The viral disease myxomatosis, which is usually fatal, can be mistaken for an eye condition in the early stages, as one of the symptoms is runny eyes.
If you are worried about your bunnies’ eye health, always seek veterinary attention, where you will be provided with expert advice tailored to your specific situation.