Rabbits that have paralysis will have a loss in the ability to move a body part, usually their hind legs. Paresis is considered partial paralysis which isn't as extreme as full paralysis but can still take away from a rabbit's ability to care for themselves. Unfortunately, rabbit paralysis is typically caused from some type of trauma like that seen from mishandling or an attack from a predator.
Rabbit paralysis is normally seen in the hind quarters as the result of an injury in the lumbar region of the back. When a rabbit struggles to become free from whatever is holding it (owner or predator), the rabbit kicks out and pulls which can cause damage to the back. When the back sustains a fracture or break, the spinal cord becomes damaged thus leaving the rabbit with paralysis of the hind legs. Many times this type of injury can also cause the rabbit to lose their control over bowel and bladder movements.
While trauma is normally the cause for this disorder, paralysis and hind-limb weakness can also affect a rabbit due to degenerated discs, parasites and bacterial infections. Arthritis and disc deterioration is a common ailment in older rabbits which leave a rabbit with weakness in the hind quarters. Owners may notice that their rabbit is unable to climb or move about as freely as they once were.
Older rabbits may require assistance and special care to help them live comfortably in their golden years. A veterinarian can diagnose deterioration of the discs with a simple radiography which will rule out other causes of paralysis or paresis.
The microsporidian parasite Encephalitozoon cuniculi (E. cuniculi) and the roundworm parasite Baylisascaris procyonis (B. procyonis) are also known to cause paralysis of the front and hind legs. Diagnosing either of these parasites in a rabbit can be somewhat difficult. Since many rabbits carry E. cuniculi without showing any affects of the parasite, a positive blood test for E. cuniculi only means the rabbit is a carrier of the parasite. The blood test cannot positively tell a veterinarian if the parasite caused paralysis in the rabbit.
Diagnosing B. procyonis is usually done by ruling out all other possibilities which many times comes too late for the rabbit. The rabbit has often died before a prognosis is made and only then can a positive diagnosis be made by examining the brain and other organs for the parasite's larvae. There are no successful treatments in rabbits for either of these parasites.
Baylisascaris procyonis is an intestinal roundworm commonly found in raccoons. Veterinarians highly recommend that rabbit owners should never allow their rabbits in the vicinity of raccoons or keep raccoons as pets. If your yard is frequented by raccoons, a rabbit should not be allowed to roam freely as to avoid contamination.
Paralysis has also been known to occur after a rabbit has come into contact with toxins such as poisonous plants, pesticides, heavy metals, and household hazards like antifreeze and medications. A stroke, bacterial infections, and cancer have also been known factors in causing paralysis and paresis in rabbits.
Caring for a rabbit with paralysis is a long-term commitment. Rabbits with this disorder will require nursing care for the rest of their life including keeping the rabbit safe, protected and cleaned. Rabbit owners should consult a veterinarian to discuss proper treatments available for paralysis and hind limb weakness in rabbits. Careful handling practices are important, children should especially be taught the correct way in handling a rabbit. Rabbits with paralysis are commonly euthanized however; many devoted rabbit owners have been able to help their pets live a manageable life with paralysis and hind limb weakness.
THE RABBIT HANDBOOK by Dr. Karen Gendron, copyright 2000