One of the most common urinary tract ailments is a urinary tract infection, also called cystitis. Cystitis is characterized by the inflammation of the urinary bladder caused by a buildup of bacteria. Most rabbits with this condition will have discomfort while urinating. Regular observation of your rabbit’s elimination behavior and proper husbandry will help prevent the development of an infection.
Some rabbits have abnormal urinary tract structures that can predispose the animal to infections. Abnormal structural change can develop in a rabbit’s urinary pathway; it can increase the pressure in the ureters, the tubes that release urine. In addition, the excretion of too much calcium can lead to bladder or kidney stones which will further block the tubes that excrete urine.
Cystitis is not only caused by obstructions to urinary pathways but may also be caused by inflammation or physical trauma that blocks the normal flow of urine from the kidneys. An overgrowth of urinary tissue, also known as hyperplasia, may also contribute to difficulty urinating. This condition is associated with cancer but is very rarely diagnosed in rabbits.
The symptoms of urinary tract infections are relatively similar to those of other urinary tract diseases. Because of this similarity, it is important that you take your rabbit to a veterinarian as soon as you observe any of the following behaviors:
• Frequent but brief urination
• Painful or difficult urination
• Thick, cloudy, beige, or brown–colored urine
• Hunched posture while urinating
• Weight loss
• Crying or grunting during urination, handling, or regular movement
Treatment & Prevention
Any blockage of the bladder or urethra must receive immediate medical attention, as this can represent a life-threatening emergency. Many times inpatient care is necessary until the rabbit can urinate freely on its own. Such treatment can include surgical removal or urinary obstructions, proper fluid balance, and antibiotic treatment. The permanent effects of the infection will depend on the ability of your veterinarian to restore proper urinary flow. Rabbits that develop cystitis often develop the condition throughout life. If your rabbit has a history of urinary tract infections, you can minimize the odds of developing additional urinary infections by following these steps:
• Always supply fresh water. Rabbits must always be supplied with clean water that is free of dirt, grass, and other impurities. Water should be changed every day. Proper fluid intake helps to dilute urinary waste products and can decrease the risk of an infection. Owners should also inspect watering bottles to make sure they work properly and are free from algae buildup which can restrict the flow of water when your rabbit attempts to drink.
• Provide your rabbit with a moisture-rich diet. Foods high in moisture will add water to its system and will help prevent thick highly concentrated urine that can easily lead to urinary tract infections.
• Clean your rabbit’s toilet area regularly. A clean toilet area encourages your rabbit to urinate. Regular urination prevents urinary contents from backing up. Rabbits that have soiled toilet areas may retain urine for longer periods of time.
• Exercise your rabbit. Rabbits need time to move freely. Normal movement promotes regular urination.
Lisa Karr-Lilienthal, Ph.D. & Amanda Young – University of Nebraska-Lincoln