One quarter of pet rabbits found to have ear conditions that affect welfare - Veterinary Practice
Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


One quarter of pet rabbits found to have ear conditions that affect welfare

Research by the Royal Veterinary College has revealed the welfare impact of ear conditions in pet rabbits in the United Kingdom

A recent questionnaire conducted by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), has found that approximately one quarter of pet rabbits in the sample were reportedly affected by ear conditions that are painful and/or impair their hearing.

The findings suggest that increased recognition is needed because of its associated harms to rabbit welfare.

By raising awareness of the ear conditions and those most susceptible, owners and breeders can be better equipped to seek treatment and select healthy rabbits and thus, improving rabbit welfare.

While ear diseases are typically described as “common” in rabbits, prevalence estimates vary, with one study finding that 3.5 percent of rabbits will experience certain ear conditions over their lifetime.

However, ear conditions can be difficult to recognise in rabbits, so can be easily missed, and behavioural signs of pain and hearing loss usually manifest as unresponsiveness and reduced activity which can easily go unnoticed by owners or vets. Therefore, true prevalence could indeed be higher.

Ear conditions can represent considerable animal welfare issues because they can cause pain, hearing impairment, loss of balance or a combination of these.

By conducting an online questionnaire, a team of researchers at the RVC investigated the nature and scale of ear conditions as a welfare issue in UK pet rabbits, including owner-reported signalment, veterinary diagnosis of ear conditions, ear conformational risk factors and the effects on rabbit behaviour.

Of the 551 responses, 49 percent of rabbits were reported as having lop-ears, 43 percent erect-ears and the remainder either asymmetrical (one erect ear and one lop) or approximately horizontal ears (“oar-lop” or “horn-lop”).

Key findings included:

  • More than a quarter (29 percent) of rabbits were reported by their owners to experience at least one ear problem, while 21 percent had been officially diagnosed by their vet (including 32 percent of half-lops and 25 percent of lop-eared rabbits compared to 10 percent of erect-eared rabbits)
  • The most common ear conditions indicated by a vet were ear infections – particularly otitis media (middle ear infection) and interna (inner ear infection) – and excessive ear wax
  • Owners reported that 16 percent of rabbits had impaired hearing, 14 percent had an ear-related problem that reduced rabbit quality of life and 7 percent had a perceived pain response when owners looked in the ears
  • 11 percent of rabbits with a vet indicated ear problem were reported to flinch and pull away during ear examination compared with 3 percent of rabbits flinching during ear examination if they had no such veterinary indication
  • Rabbits with ear pain responses were three times less likely to perform binkying behaviour (joy jumps) and three times more likely to have a perceived reduction in overall quality of life according to their owners
  • 24 percent of affected rabbits had never received a veterinary indication of their ear condition
  • Almost all specific conditions reported were seemingly more common in the lop-eared and asymmetrical phenotypes than in the other ear conformations. In this sample, lop-eared rabbits were 19 times more likely to be reported as having impaired hearing or deafness and 5.5 times more likely to have impaired quality of life due to an ear problem

Dr Charlotte Burn, associate professor in animal welfare and behaviour science at the RVC, said: “Rabbits are well known for their long ears, but it’s awful to think that, beneath the surface, many rabbits are experiencing painful ear infections or deafness.

“We want to raise awareness of this, because rabbits often hide their pain, and sometimes it can be hard to tell if they can hear properly.

“It’s also worrying that nearly a quarter of owners who suspected that their rabbits had ear problems had apparently not taken their rabbits to a vet for treatment or pain relief.”

“Some rabbits with ear problems frequently scratch at their ears, shake or tilt their heads, or avoid you touching their ears.

“This study also shows that rabbits with ear disease may not respond to regular important sounds, like the rustling of a treat packet, and they rarely binky about, which suggests that they may not feel like playing as much as other rabbits do.”

Have you heard about our
IVP Membership?

A wide range of veterinary CPD and resources by leading veterinary professionals.

Stress-free CPD tracking and certification, you’ll wonder how you coped without it.

Discover more