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Mystery Death of a Year Old Doe

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Hello Everyone,

I'm a long time stalker and great admirer of the users of this forum. Permies has been a wonderful resource for my wife and I as we establish our homestead on our 5 acre plot of land in western Washington state. I haven't really been compelled to join as a member until now. With today's death of our only remaining Silver Fox doe, we could really use the expertise of the members here.


Last summer, I acquired the doe from a Silver Fox breeder when she was about 3 months old. She was bright eyed, full of vigor, and definitely the most high strung of the 3 rabbits that we purchased (a buck and two does).

All three rabbits were housed in large wire rabbit cages with open access to organic, non-GMO rabbit pellets, timothy hay, and any rabbit safe forage plants available. The cages are elevated roughly 4 feet off the ground in wooden frames built by my wife.

The cages with their frames were housed in an old barn that, while not weather tight, sheltered them from the wind and rain.

We attempted to breed our oldest doe (5 years old) with our buck in September and November without success. She died overnight on new years eve/day.

With our youngest doe too young to breed, we decided to wait until Spring to try to breed her. At that time, she would be over a year old and fully matured.

The buck and doe endured a cold winter and enjoyed the dandilions, purple dead nettle and pacific waterleaf that we foraged for them every day. They continued to eat their organic pellets and timothy hay as well.

We bred the buck and doe 8 days ago (May 11th) with one fall-down by the buck. I found the doe dead this afternoon with half full water and food.

When I entered the barn to find her dead, I startled a rat that was in her cage. nibbling on her I would imagine.

Before burying her, I noticed that her hind legs were covered with runny feces and a long yellowish piece of feces coming out of her. She seemed totally normal yesterday.

At the moment, I'm very confused as to why a year old doe would suddenly die like this. All 3 rabbits came from the same breeder and none have shown signs of illness (clear eyes, no discharge from the nose, normal feces) but both of our does have passed suddenly. I assumed that the older doe just got too old, but our young doe has taken me totally by surprise. I'm hoping that the Permies community might help me do a theoretical autopsy on this doe and help me with my rabbit setup going forward.

The game plan this summer is to build out a rabbit colony setup and bring in two to three new does. Before I do, though, I want to ensure that the new does will be protected and have a solid foundation for a healthy, happy life going forward. Any thoughts are very much appreciated.



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It is very hard to say. I just lost a rabbit under the same circumstances here.

It really is only a guess unless you test, which means having an autopsy done. Your local land grant university should be able to do that for a small fee.

Sadly, when a farm has livestock, inevitably there is going to be deadstock, and so for some strange reasons animals die for no apparent reason. As you gain experience, you will get better at recognizing the signs well before an animal is in dire shape. I have rabbits, but primarily we are a sheep farm and over the last 9 years we have really gotten our mortality down, from about 40% to 4%, so we are definitely learning. Having autopsies done is a big part of reducing the learning curve.
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Location: Zone 6b, Ontario, Canada
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It happens.
When I find dead rabbits who were on their food last night and have a healthy beefy frame I normally just assume it is a heart attack. But I am not even sure if rabbits have heart attacks.
The one thing I would say is that rats are capable of killing an adult rabbit, though not typically inclined to.

One important thing. Rats love baby rabbits. If they can get into, or chew their way into your rabbit cages they will. You will likely need to find a more secure method of housing your rabbits if you want to be able to raise young.

One technique I have found very helpful with rabbits is eating deadstock. It feels like less of a waste that way.
Technically, if you cook it at the suggested temperature for the suggested time you can eat anything. But I have found rabbits typically die minutes before their morning feeding, leaving a still warm and pliable corpse that is still perfectly fresh.
Curt Crosbie
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Many thanks to both of you for your input. I'm with you and have essentially chalked it up to "it happens." The rabbit must have died early in the night after our last check on them as she was pretty stiff when I found her. Didn't want to work a still rabbit for food.

I'm hoping that switching to a beefy colony style set up will help them live longer, happier lives. Thought it was ironic that they would survive a harsh winter like this last one only to die when it finally starts warming up a little.

Again, thanks for your input. Fingers crossed for better luck down the road.

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Location: Zone 6b
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Reaching back to when I raised rabbits as a kid... back end discharge and nothing from the front end (eyes or nose)?

Did you change anything in the diet in the two days before you found her?  Have you had running hot and cold cycles?  (hot one day and very cold the next especially the night?)

You definitely need better climate control and more secure vermin proofing. If you disturbed a rat, that means it was IN the enclosure and left when you showed? That's not good.  

In later years I would fight 'wet tail' in hamsters, which is a sudden and persistent round of diahrrea such as you describe for the rabbit. Hm. Usually the wet-tail would go through retail stock about March and April because most of the big suppliers have holding barns in the south and that's when their season turns. The infection is very contagious and would spread amongst the stock and go into the stores.. I learned to buy a large stock of medication around February and have it on hand. Sometimes it would harbor for awhile, but... a bladder or urinary infection would show the same symptoms. You bred the doe about a week before... it could be something got shoved up the wrong channel when the buck had issues and she gained the infection.

Did you go somewhere where someone is also raising rabbits or handle some strange ones in the 4-5 days before yours became sick? Or have someone over that also has rabbits? If you found a rat in the cage maybe a rodent born illness transferred across to the rabbit.

Aspergillis (black thread mold) can grow in wet bedding and kill across the board, but it shows up in the front end (respiratory). As does pneumonia from too wet and cold conditions OR rapid hot/cold cycling. (as a kid we had -40 winters and a friend that kept them in an insulated shed, had a brooder light that he used for lighting. While working in there, it would bring the temperature up into the 50's. Then he would finish, turn off the light, and leave. He lost every one of his rabbits to pneumonia within a few weeks.

If there was somewhere you could have had a necropsy (animal autopsy) performed it would possibly have found the cause. That's not cheap however.

My condolences for your stock loss. Clean everything majorly thoroughly, use bleach, rinse well, air and sunlight dry if possible (UV kills a LOT). All equipment. It will help prevent disease persistence and transference.
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Keeping in mind that I don't breed rabbits, just have kept them as companion animals for the past few years--Rabbit organs decay extremely quickly and can't be autopsied accurately for more than a few hours after their deaths.

A rabbit is essentially a digestive system on legs. So, 9/10, when there's an unexpected death unrelated to temperature or predation, it's due to a digestive issue, either she ate something she shouldn't have or didn't get enough of something she needed. If she was abstaining from her hay, or wasn't getting enough, it's possible she had too much protein or fat in her diet from the pellets or was not getting enough movement through her digestive system. GI stasis can onset in 24 hours and is often fatal. The diarrhea leads me to believe that she wasn't getting enough fibers from the hay--was her poo runny, extra large, or loose at all in the days leading up to her death? Bunny poop should be matte, brown, and almost crumbly. If it's too black, oleic, etc., that indicates that their diet is *too* nutrient rich. Often times uneaten caecotrophs (nutritious poop clusters which can appear to be diarrhea) are the result of too many nutrients in the food. Rabbits have fragile digestive systems and can't handle a ton of minerals, even plants can be too much for them sometimes.

The other thing I never hear people talk about is that breeding does are very susceptible to ovarian cancer. Almost 50% of intact does get it after age 2. Since you need yours intact for breeding, its kind've a moot point, but both male and female rabbits frequently die of testicular or ovarian cancer if not fixed.
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