Self-mutilation in Rabbits

Summary Information
Diseases / List of Physical / Traumatic Diseases / Disease summary
Alternative Names See also:
Disease Agents The cause of this condition is not clear and it is thought that a number of conditions may result in this behaviour: 
  • Obsessive/compulsive behaviour
    • Boredom and frustration: sociable, active animals are most susceptible to self mutilation due to psychological disorders. (B600.9.w9)
    • Genetic predisposition
      • This condition was identified in a particular strain of Checkered cross laboratory rabbits, bred for resistance to infectious disease conditions and affecting about 5 - 10% of the total population. (J83.29.w2)
      • No causative agent was identified on clinical, mycological, parasitological, bacteriological, histological (including of the brain as well as the feet, and skin samples from elsewhere on the body) or haematological investigation. (J83.29.w2)
      • The condition was thought to be a genetic disorder because the rabbits were from highly inbred stock, the disorder was never seen in rabbits of other breeding lines that were kept under identical conditions in the same building, other causes were ruled out, and the disorder was seen under different husbandry conditions (e.g. singly or group housed), and when affected rabbits were moved to different institutions or to private homes. (J83.29.w2)
  • Sequel to intramuscular injections of xylazine-ketamine, and xylazine-ketamine-acepromazine. (B601.13.w13, B602.19.w19, B610.23.w23, J14.40.w3, J495.41.w6)
    • Self mutilation with the removal of digits on the foot of the injected leg was reported in two laboratory rabbits following xylazine-ketamine and in four of six rabbits following xylazine-ketamine-acepromazine injected intramuscularly into the caudal thigh (hamstring muscles). (B600.9.w9, B602.19.w19, J14.40.w3, J495.41.w6)
    • This was the result of perineural drug infiltration around  the sciatic nerve, causing perineural lymphohistiocytic inflammation and fibrosis, and axonal degeneration of the sciatic nerve (swelling and vacuolisation) dysthesia. (B602.19.w19)
    • Symptoms occurred two to four days post injection with xylazine-ketamine (B600.9.w9, B602.19.w19, J495.41.w6) and two weeks post injection with xylazine-ketamine-acepromazine. (J495.41.w6)
  • Trauma. (J83.29.w2)
  • Following surgery. (J83.29.w2)
  • Hypersensitivity 
  • Harvest mite infection (Chiggers)
  • Contact Dermatitis 
  • Atopy 
  • Foreign body e.g., hay seeds or grass awns may become embedded in the rabbit's skin and cause intense irritation. 
  • Ringworm in Hedgehogs, Bears and Lagomorphs (with notes on Elephants)

(B600.9.w9, B601.13.w13, B602.19.w19, B608.21.w21, B610.23.w23, J83.29.w2)

Infectious Agent(s) --
Non-infectious Agent(s) --
Physical Agent(s) --
General Description
Clinical signs
  • Extensive self mutilation, commonly the pads and digits of the front feet. (B608.21.w21)
  • Lesions may occur anywhere although the fore feet seem to be the commonest site. (B600.9.w9)
  • The behaviour can also be directed at the mammary glands or the fur. (J83.29.w2)
  • Lesions may be so severe that some digits may be lost. (B600.9.w9)
  • In hereditary compulsive self-mutilation: (J83.29.w2)
    • Initially small erythematous areas on the digits of the one or both forepaws. 
    • Licking and chewing at the front feet.
    • Progression of lesions to open wounds by one to three days after onset
    • Hyperactivity and frequent movement of the paws, described as "air boxing".
    • Progression over weeks leading (if uninterrupted by treatment) to loss of digits or even the loss of the carpus.
      • This occurred in very early cases, before recognition of the compulsive disorder.
    • Following intervention, relapses after up to a year, of the same forefoot, contralateral foot, or both feet.


Further Information
  • Some rabbits are prone to this condition. (B600.9.w9)
  • The condition can be hereditary. (J83.29.w2)
  • Thorough clinical examination including ruling out foreign bodies that can often be seen by closely examining the skin. 
  • Rule out other causes of pruritus by mycological, parasitological, bacteriological and histological investigation. See: Clinical Pathology of Lagomorphs

  • Histopathological examination of the sciatic nerve and surrounding area in cases following intramuscualr injection.
    • Axonal degeneration in the sciatic nerve. (B600.9.w9, J495.41.w6)
    • Perineural lymphohistiocytic inflammation and fibrosis, and axonal degeneration of the sciatic nerve (swelling and vacuolisation). (J14.40.w3)
General treatment
  • Clean and bandage the damaged digits. (B602.19.w19) 
  • Antibiotic therapy to cover for secondary bacterial infection. (B602.19.w19)
  • Parasiticide to cover for a possible mite hypersensitivity. (B600.9.w9) Options include:
  • An Elizabethan collar placed on the rabbit can be effective in preventing self-mutilation, but also prevents normal caecotrophy. (J83.29.w2)

If all other causes of self mutilation have been ruled out and a compulsive behaviour disorder is suspected:

  • Haloperidol (a dopamine antagonist)
    • 0.2 - 0.4 mg/kg intramuscularly twice daily. (B600.9.w9, J83.29.w2)
      • No side-effects (such as sedation) were seen. (J83.29.w2)
      • This was effective in the 21 cases in which it was used. (J83.29.w2)

Prevention of damage associated with intramuscular injections in the caudal thigh muscles:

  • Administer intramuscular injection into the lumbar muscles rather than caudal thigh muscles. (B602.19.w19, J14.40.w3)
  • Split the dose to ensure no more than 1.0 mL is administered intramuscularly at any one site. (J14.40.w3)
  • Administer xylazine and ketamine separately in different sites. (B602.19.w19)
Prevention of boredom and frustration in psychological disorders:
  • Environmental enrichment is necessary including a bonded companion and the opportunity to exercise.
  • Neutering is useful to prevent any frustration which may be associated with the desire to acquire a suitable nesting site or a receptive companion. 
  • A high fibre diet is important in reducing boredom, providing a mound of grass or hay for the rabbit to chew through.
  • Toys - branches of wood, or cardboard boxes, to provide entertainment. 
  • See: Mammal Behavioural Requirements 


Associated Techniques
Host taxa groups /species
Disease Author Nikki Fox BVSc MRCVS (V.w103); Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5
Referees Anna Meredith MA VetMB CertLAS DZooMed (Mammalian) MRCVS (V.w128); Richard Saunders BVSc BSc CertZooMed MRCVS (V.w121)

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