Head tilt in rabbits can be caused from a variety of reasons and the how extreme a rabbit is affected from head tilt also varies. Also known as torticollis or wry neck, head tilt may appear as a slight turn of the head to an extreme twist of the neck where the side of the rabbit's head lays on the ground.
A middle ear infection caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida is one of the leading causes of rabbit head tilt. However in dwarf breeds, head tilt has been commonly associated with the parasite Encephalitozoon cuniculi which invades the brain of the rabbit.
Aside from infections caused by bacteria and parasites, head tilt has also been caused by trauma, stroke, and cancers of the brain. When disease or trauma has affected the vestibular nerve, a rabbit no longer knows which way is up which causes the head to awkwardly tilt towards the ground. Poisons can also cause brain injuries leading to head tilt. Toxic plants and lead paint should never be left within a rabbit's reach.
At the first signs of head tilt, rabbit owners should seek medical care from a veterinarian who specializes in rabbit care. The earlier the cause is treated, the better chances a rabbit has at recovery. Diagnosing head tilt is typically done by a process of elimination. A rabbit that is experiencing head tilt and has not had any recent trauma may need tests performed for infections or diseases.
Depending upon what caused the head tilt will decide on which treatment is best for the rabbit and rabbit owner. Some head tilt disorders can be cured by treating the infection or disease while others may not be treatable like those caused by trauma or stroke.
Rabbit owners may choose to euthanize their rabbits when the head tilt cannot be cured. However, many owners have been able to care for rabbits with head tilt with only extra nursing care that the rabbit may need. Some rabbits with head tilt are able to live a full lifespan with the handicap when owners provide extra grooming care and help with their daily feeding requirements. Placing water and food in containers that are easily accessible and giving extra attention to brushing the coat since a rabbit with head tilt may not be able to fully groom themselves properly.
Most causes of head tilt are preventable. Careful handling of rabbits is important since a rabbit's spine is susceptible to injury when dropped or attacked by predators. A rabbit's environment should be cleaned and sanitized regularly to prevent parasites and the growth of bacteria which is a major concern to the overall health of a rabbit.
THE RABBIT HANDBOOK by Dr. Karen Gendron, copyright 2000.