Rabbit anaesthesia has come a long way in the last 20 years. It used to be common for rabbits to be more likely to die than survive an anaesthetic, but these days, our anaesthetics are much safer and our monitoring equipment more sophisticated. As veterinary professionals, we have become much better educated in the needs of a rabbit, in terms of both general husbandry and their care in the veterinary clinic and the combination of all of these factors has massively improved survival rates for rabbits undergoing general anaesthesia. However, rabbits are still at greater risk of death and complications as a result of anaesthesia than cats and dogs and we believe in doing everything we can to minimise that risk.
One of our nurses holds the Certificate in Veterinary Nursing of Exotic Species and keeps up to date with the latest developments and advice on rabbit medicine. Our vets also kept up to date through their CPD (Career and Professional Development) courses and between us, we work together to ensure we make each rabbit anaesthetic as safe as possible. We will take a thorough history and examine your pet to determine the level of risk and may advise changes in husbandry for a number of weeks before embarking on any elective surgery. If your pet is poorly, we may advise providing supportive care and medication for a few days to reduce the anaesthetic risk to your pet.
We always advise that when bringing your pet into the surgery for the day, you also bring along any bonded partner rabbits; bonded rabbits should never be split up as this causes them significant stress. We also ask you to bring a lunch box with your pet(s) containing their favourite foods to tempt them to eat after surgery. You are also welcome to bring any other items such as food/water bowls and blankets which may make your pet feel more comfortable.
We preferentially house rabbits in the isolation room if it is available, so that they are housed away from other predatory species such as cats and dogs. If it is not available, we would normally place them in the cat ward, as this room is quieter than the dog ward and we ensure we choose a kennel away from the cats and partially cover it with a towel to reduce stress. We have PetRemedyTM diffusers in all wards, which contain valerian root extract; this is believed to have a calming effect on all species of animal.
A pre-op health check is carried out, where we listen to the heart and lungs and measure your pet’s body temperature, to ensure that these parameters are all within the normal range. You can also elect to have a pre-op blood test, which is a small blood screen to check basic organ function.
If all appears to be well, a pre-med is given, consisting of a potent analgesic (painkiller) which also has a sedative effect. Once your pet is lightly sedated, we place an intravenous (IV) catheter. This is most commonly placed in a vein on the outside of your pet’s ear. All rabbits will have one of these placed for the following reasons:
- It gives us immediate access to a vein, should an emergency situation arise and emergency drugs need to be administered.
- It allows us to deliver IV fluids before, during and after surgery and this is associated with improved patient recoveries.
- It allows us to administer a controlled volume of anaesthetic, which reduces the risk of giving an overdose.
The only time we will not place an IV catheter is if we are unable to due to the tiny size of the vein (which can be a problem in very small breeds such as Netherland Dwarfs and baby rabbits).
When your pet is due to be operated on, we will provide your rabbit with oxygen for a few minutes prior to induction of anaesthesia. This is important because rabbits can sometimes be prone to breath-holding, so a short time spent breathing in oxygen-enriched air will reduce the negative effects of any period of breath-holding. We then induce anaesthesia by giving intravenous drugs through the IV catheter. Once anaesthetised, we always attempt to secure an airway (except for dental work), as we believe this is safer for your pet, should an emergency situation arise and the rabbit stops breathing; having airway access enables us to ‘breathe’ for your pet because their respiratory system will be connected to an anaesthetic breathing circuit. We use either:
- Endotracheal tubes: these are long tubes which are placed down into the windpipe
- V-GelTM tubes: these are tubes which are placed right at the back of the oral cavity and form an air-tight seal over the larynx
We do not generally use these tubes for dental work, as they reduce visualisation of the oral cavity and restrict access to it, and dental burring is usually a relatively fast procedure, so we use a mask instead. Endotracheal tubes can be tricky to place and after a second failed attempt, we will resort to using either a V-GelTM tube or a mask, as repeated attempts to intubate increase anaesthetic risk. V-GelTM tubes to do not always fit each patient perfectly, so where the fit is not good, a mask will be chosen.
Hypothermia is the biggest cause of death during the recovery period, so when prepping your pet for surgery, we are careful not to get your rabbit too wet (to reduce the risk of hypothermia), and we take steps such as using a heated operating table or heat pad, and thermal blankets to keep him/her warm. They are connected to a monitor which measures a variety of important parameters and this is constantly checked by a Registered Veterinary Nurse whilst he/she is also monitoring the heart, breathing and other parameters. We only use modern synthetic suture materials as recommended by rabbit experts and our anaesthetic agents are the safest and most recommended for rabbits. Our vets also place intradermal sutures; these are sutures buried under the skin to reduce irritation and the likelihood of the rabbit interfering with the wound.
After surgery, we recover your pet from his/her anaesthetic and ensure that a member of the clinical team monitors your pet until they are up and mobile. We have an incubator and oxygen cage available for those patients who require it. Gastric ulcers have been found in the stomachs of a number of rabbits at post mortem, so in line with recommendations, we also administer a drug which helps to protect the stomach and also stimulates gut movement, which is of utmost importance in rabbits.
We believe continuing analgesia at home is very important for a rapid recovery, so we always send your pet home with a painkiller to be administered for a few days, along with the stomach protectant, both of which are given orally and generally well-received by rabbits.
For dental work on rabbits and small mammals, we have a special piece of equipment specially designed for this job. It positions the rabbit in such a way that gives the veterinary surgeon excellent access to the oral cavity, whilst enabling the veterinary nurse to monitor the anaesthesia unhindered.