Ear problems in rabbits are extremely common, no matter what their breed. Vet Catherine Thomas advises on how to spot, treat and prevent the condition in your bunnies.
As you're well aware, your rabbits have highly sensitive ears. Due to the size and many folds of skin within their ears, even the smallest build up of dirt can lead to bacterial growth, making them particularly prone to inflammation and infection. Plus, ear mite infestations (caused by a parasite called Psoroptes Cuniculi) can also lead to infection, especially if left untreated.
While all breeds can get ear infections and ear mite infestations, lop-eared rabbits such as the English Lop and the Dwarf Lop are more susceptible to infection than other rabbit breeds. According to Catherine, lop-eared rabbits are prone to otitis externa (an inflammation or infection of the outer ear) because they have a weak point in the canal where it folds over allowing the ear to flop down.
'Lop-eared rabbits often get a build up of ear wax in their ear fold, which sometimes causes the ear canal to expand and form a pouch full of wax,' she explains. 'But all rabbits can experience ear problems. And other types of ear infection include otitis media, an inflammation or infection of the middle ear, or otitis interna, an infection of the inner ear.'
Fortunately, by knowing which early signs to look out for, you can make sure your rabbits get the treatment they need straight away. Read on for how to check your bunnies' ears and you can help spot and prevent infections in the first place.
Spot the symptoms
'An inner ear infection can cause symptoms such as torticollis (head tilt) because the inner ear is where the balance organs are,' Catherine says.
Loss of appetite
Rabbits might go off their food due to a feeling of dizziness and nausea from the ear infection, or the fact that it can hurt to chew.
Discomfort can cause some rabbits to become subdued or irritable, while others may begin to grind their teeth.
Cold-like symptoms and discharge
Occasionally, an ear infection can spread to the nose and throat, and there may also be visible discharge in the ears.
'But often, ear infections can go undiagnosed because rabbits don't show any obvious signs,' Catherine warns. 'If you think there might be a problem, trust your instincts and book an appointment to see your vet.'
Easier to spot than bacterial ear infections, you may see the following signs in your rabbits if they have ear mites:
Ear mites cause itchiness and some discomfort, so rabbits may scratch their neck and ears more than usual and have scaly, peeling skin around the ear area.
Hair loss and lesions
In some cases, affected bunnies may lose patches of hair and lesions might appear around the neck, feet and abdomen due to scratching and over-grooming.
A thick, brown fluid
Known as exudate, this fluid forms in response to the ear mites and can clearly be seen in the ear canal.
A step-by-step guide to checking your rabbit's ears
One sure-fire way to spot an infection as soon as it takes hold, is to be completely familiar with your rabbits' ears in their healthy state. These tips from Catherine can help keep your rabbit comfortable during a check, and ensure you spot any changes right away:
1. Keep your rabbit comfortable
'So that your rabbits can't hurt themselves trying to get away, it's important to ensure they're in a comfortable position before you start the check. Give them a bit of a fuss or a treat first to make sure they are happy and relaxed but, if you notice they're distressed at any point, stop.'
2. Check the outer ear and ear canal
'The pinnae, the outer part of the ear, which sticks up or flops down, should be clean with no scabs, flakes, scales or wounds. Then look at the ear canals. It's normal for there to be a little wax, but it should usually be a pale, creamy colour.'
3. Check for lumps
'Feel around the base of the ear, below the opening, for any swelling or lumps. But be aware that sometimes swelling can take place all around the area, making it difficult to pick up a particularly swollen point or lump.'
4. If unsure, consult your vet
'If you're concerned about the amount of wax you've spotted, or can feel any swelling around the ears, always speak to your vet.'
Your vet will prescribe a course of antibiotics to treat bacterial ear infections and, if your bunnies show any signs of discomfort, they may also recommend anti-inflammatories. In the case of inner- or middle-ear infections, X-rays may sometimes be necessary to check for pus build up.
Ear mites are treated with anti-parasite injections or spot-on treatments. It's particularly important that the treatment lasts longer than three weeks, as mites can live for up to 21 days. The parasite also spreads easily from rabbit to rabbit, so it's vital that your bunnies' home environment is thoroughly de-contaminated to prevent reinfection.