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Pre- and Post-operative care of Rabbits

Dana Krempels, Ph.D.

University of Miami Department of Biology (updated 3 January 2011)

Any surgery can be physically and emotionally hard on both you and your companion rabbit, since there's really no such thing as a surgery that is 100% risk free. I hope the following information will help you and your rabbit get through either emergency or elective surgery with maximal safety and minimal stress.

Pre-operative Care

  1. Be sure to schedule surgery with a veterinarian who is very familiar with the rabbit's unique anatomy and physiology, and who has had a great deal of experience and success with rabbit anesthesia and surgery. You might wish to start with the House Rabbit Society veterinary listings at the House Rabbit Society Veterinarian Listings. Veterinarians specializing in "exotic" species are often rabbit-savvy. But before you commit to surgery, make sure. The House Rabbit Society has an excellent site on how to find a good rabbit vet that should make this easy.
  2. If possible, schedule the surgery so that you can bring your bunny home with you the same evening. Spending the night in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by strange people and the sound and smell of potential predators, can add unnecessary stress and lengthen your rabbit's recovery. Very few veterinary hospitals have 24-hour monitoring staff, and your bunny will probably not be watched for at least part of the night if s/he stays in the hospital. Home, where he can be monitored lovingly and regularly, is almost always best.
  3. If your rabbit is bonded to another rabbit, it is important to bring them to the hospital together so that the mate can offer moral support in the pre-operative waiting period and during recovery. It also will help prevent the dreaded un-bonding phenomenon that sometimes occurs when one member of a bonded pair comes home smelling of Strange and Scary Hospital. The last thing you want your bunny to suffer after surgery is violent rejection by his/her own mate! Unfortunately, this goes for bonded groups, too. It is best to bring everyone in for moral support and to prevent post-operative social rejection.
  4. DO NOT FAST YOUR RABBIT PRIOR TO THE SURGICAL APPOINTMENT, even if the person scheduling your appointment tells you to do so. (Receptionists giving such instructions often recite the rules for dogs and cats, not realizing that the rules are different for rabbits.) Here are the reasons why some (inexperienced with rabbits) clinic staff might suggest fasting, and why these reasons do not hold true for rabbits:
    1. a. Some surgical anesthetics can cause nausea. One of the reasons veterinarians fast most animals pre-operatively is the risk of vomiting during surgery or recovery. This can cause accidental aspiration, the breathing of liquid into the lungs, which can be fatal. However, rabbits lack the vomiting reflex, and are physically almost incapable of regurgitation. In rabbits, the risk of aspiration due to vomiting is negligible.
    2. b. Feeding your bunny before surgery helps the gastrointestinal (GI) tract remain active, which will speed recovery. Rabbits who become inappetant (i.e., not wanting to eat) after surgery are more difficult to "jump start" back to normal eating habits. Even relatively brief periods (24 hours) of anorexia can result in GI stasis and some liver damage in rabbits.
    3. c. Some veterinarians may be concerned that food in the intestine will interfere with their obtaining a correct body weight, necessary for calculating the proper dose of injected anesthestic. This should not be a concern with rabbits because
      • Under normal circumstances, the intestine of a healthy rabbit is never empty, and should not be. Rabbit GI passage time is relatively lengthy (approximately 12 hours), so to get the intestine completely empty would take a very long time. Also, since an anorectic rabbit can begin to suffer liver damage in relatively short time when the GI tract is empty, it is not advisable to fast the rabbit before surgery.
      • If the veterinarian is using isoflurane or sevoflurane, the gas anesthetic of choice, body weight is not an issue, since the gas is adminstered through the respiratory tract. Even though isoflurane gas is more expensive than injectable anesthetics, it is worth the extra cost to ensure a safer surgery and faster recovery.
        IMPORTANT NOTE: Although intubation allows much more precise administration and monitoring of gas anesthesia, and is safer in case of an emergency cardiac or respiratory arrest during surgery, please be aware that intubation of rabbits is a delicate procedure requiring a great deal of practice and expertise. If your vet is NOT experienced with rabbit intubations, it is probably much safer for the isoflurane to be administered via mask. You might wish to ask your vet about this before you schedule the surgery.
      • Injectable pre-anesthetic doses are not likely to be affected by the slight difference in weight of a rabbit with a full intestine.
  5. Take a bit of your rabbit's normal food (pellets and hay) along as well as a small bag of favorite fresh herbs. Ask that the foods be offered to your bunny after the anesthesia has worn off. The sooner bunny starts nibbling after surgery, the quicker the recovery.