Osteoarthritis in Lagomorphs

Summary Information
Diseases / List of Miscellaneous / Metabolic / Multifactorial Diseases / Disease summary
Alternative Names --
Disease Agents
  • Progressive deterioration of the articular cartilage. (B609.2.w2)
  • May be primary (associated with ageing), hereditary, developmental factors, or trauma-induced. (B609.2.w2)
Infectious Agent(s) --
Non-infectious Agent(s) --
Physical Agent(s)
General Description Pet rabbits with age-related diseases, such as osteoarthritis, are now more commonly encountered as longevity increases with improved diet and husbandry. (B601.11.w11) 
Clinical signs
  • Non-specific "not doing right." (V.w65)
  • Reduced mobility. (B606.10.w10, B609.2.w2)
  • Abnormal gait, lameness or stiff gait (B601.11.w11, B609.2.w2)
    • Progressive, increasing in frequency and severity of the abnormal gait. B609.2.w2)
    • Lameness or stiffness may be worse both after exercise and after prolonged immobility. (B609.2.w2)
  • Reluctance to move (B601.11.w11)
  • May be unable to hop. B609.2.w2)
  • Hunched posture (B601.11.w11)
  • Anorexia if the rabbit is in significant pain (B603.1.w1)
  • Ungroomed areas such as between the shoulders and around the tail and perineal region. (B609.2.w2)
  • Faeces or caecotrophs may be found in the perineal area. (B609.2.w2)
  • Urine scalding of perineum if unable to reach a normal stance during urination. (B601.11.w11, B609.2.w2)
Further Information
  • Physical examination. (B609.2.w2)
    • Stiff gait/lameness. (B609.2.w2)
    • Reduced range of motion, crepitus of joints. (B609.2.w2)
    • Swelling of joints, painful joints. (B609.2.w2)
    • Sometimes joint instability (if associated with e.g. a torn ligament). (B609.2.w2)
    • May be obese. (B609.2.w2)
    • May have ungroomed areas of coat, faecal soiling, urine scalding. (B609.2.w2)
  • Radiography (B601.11.w11)
    • Although these animals are usually in some degree of discomfort, it can be difficult to assess this clinically so radiography is needed for definitive diagnosis. (B601.11.w11)
    • The joint capsule may be distended, osteophytosis may be visible, soft tissue thickening and mineralization may be seen and joint spaces may be narrowed. (B609.2.w2)
  • Further testing
    • Arthrocentesis - synovial fluid may contain slightly higher than normal mononuclear cells, whereas with septic arthritis there would be large numbers of neutrophils. Synovial fluid can also be sent for bacterial culture and sensitivity testing to rule out septic arthritis. B609.2.w2
    • Synovial tissue biopsy could be used to rule out neoplasia. B609.2.w2
Differential diagnoses
Long term analgesics and anti-inflammatory medications
  • Meloxicam, orally (B601.11.w11) the liquid form is useful for dosing rabbits. (B606.10.w10) 
    • Up to 1.0 mg/kg twice daily. (V.w65)
    • Use with caution in rabbits with reduced renal function. (B609.2.w2)
  • Carprofen 2.2 mg/kg orally every 12-24 hours. (B609.2.w2)
  • Aspirin - paediatric syrup, 100 mg/kg orally twice daily. (B606.10.w10)
  • Use NSAIDs only when the rabbit is showing clinical signs due to the arthritis. (B609.2.w2)
  • Tramadol is being used in rabbits in the US; anecdotally it is reported to have some beneficial effect. (V.w65)

Supportive treatment

  • Limit exercise; this should be kept to level at which the clinical signs are not aggravated. (B609.2.w2)
  • For prevention of soiling and pressure sores: deep bedding material should be provided. (B601.11.w11, B606.10.w10)
  • Make sure the rabbit continues to eat (remembering that pain may lead to anorexia) - provide a good range of green leafy foods, also concentrate pellets. (B609.2.w2)
  • Encourage water intake - wet leafy foods as well as providing fresh water. (B609.2.w2)
  • Ensure that food and water are easily available to a rabbit with limited mobility. (B606.10.w10)
  • If the rabbit is anorectic, feed with a syringe, or if necessary by nasogastric tube. (B609.2.w2) See:
  • Make sure that the rabbit's litter tray has a low rim, or no rim, so it is easy to enter. (B606.10.w10)
  • For urine scalding: clip the hair around the perineum, bathe the area daily and apply barrier cream. Antibiosis may be necessary in some cases. (B601.11.w11)
  • If the rabbit is obese, slow weight loss should be encouraged (to decrease the stress on the rabbit's joints) by increasing availability of hay and green food while decreasing concentrates. (B606.10.w10, B609.2.w2)

Surgical treatment:

  • Arthrotomy may be used in the treatment of osteochondral disease. (B609.2.w2)
  • Consider reconstructive surgery if there is joint instability. (B609.2.w2)
  • Femoral head osteotomy could be considered as a salvage procedure. (B609.2.w2)
  • Arthrodesis could be considered in some cases, for example with joint instability. (B609.2.w2)
Associated Techniques
Host taxa groups /species
Disease Author Nikki Fox BVSc MRCVS (V.w103); Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referees John Chitty BVetMed CertZooMed MRCVS (V.w65)

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