In this lesson we will cover why it’s important to know about the ways to check your pet’s health and how to do it. If you have any concerns about your pet, it’s always better to talk to your vet because they are trained to carry out advanced health checks and provide medical help.

  • Why is it difficult to tell if a pet is healthy?
  • Hands-off checks
  • What’s an emergency?
  • Extra checks used by vets (equipment and diagnostic tests)

Why is it difficult to tell if a pet is healthy?
Before we answer that question, we would like you to draw a picture of your pet. Then beside that picture write down some reasons why you think it is difficult to tell when your pet is healthy.

Here are some reasons why the vets we work with can find it difficult to tell if a pet is unhealthy:

  • As pets can’t talk, we rely on the people who look after them to try and tell us when there is a problem. It’s not always easy for pet carers to know when there is a problem because…
  • Small pets, like rabbits, had wild ancestors and when they lived in the wild, they were hunted by other predators (like foxes or wolves) who saw them as food. Pets still keep some of the behaviours that kept them alive in the wild. This means they try and hide anything that might make them appear weak and more likely to be hunted and caught. So if your pet is ill, they will be doing their very best to hide that from everyone around them, including you.

Hands-off checks
Luckily there are a lot of things you can do to gather clues about your pet’s health. Living beings have five senses to help them understand the world. Do you know what they are?

Five senses and pet health checks

  • Sight – what we can see both in terms of how the pet looks and what they do (behaviour)
  • Hearing – what noises are our pets making?
  • Touch – how the pet feels to the touch
  • Smell – what does your nose tell you about your pet? Have a sniff!
  • Taste – in the old days medical doctors used taste to identify illness (including tasting wee!). As well as being a bit gross, this was a very bad idea and we definitely don’t recommend it, as it can spread infection and disease from one person (or pet) to another! Always wash your hands after handling your pet.

Here are 10 things you can include in a hands-off check of your pet:

1. Position check – how does your pet look when you first approach them?

Healthy signs

  • Sitting or lying normally, looks comfortable
  • Exploring their surroundings, showing interest
  • Shows the same every day behaviour you expect

Unhealthy signs

  • Hunched up or sitting awkwardly, looks sad
  • Hiding away
  • Acts in an unusual way, holding up a paw, head tilted or ears drooping if normally upright


2. Reaction check – be careful not to scare your pet but find out how they react to your voice or presence

Healthy signs

  • Comes to the front of the cage to greet you as usual
  • Appears to be listening to your voice or reacts to noises
  • Is watching what you do and looking at you and their surroundings

Unhealthy signs

  • Doesn’t react to something new or hides away
  • Doesn’t react to sound, only to movement
  • Acts in an unusual way, holding up a paw, head tilted or ears drooping if normally upright
  • Bumping into things or not aware of what is going on around them


3. Listening check – stay very quiet, what do you hear?

Healthy signs

  • Normal squeaks or greetings
  • Quiet breathing (often silent)

Unhealthy signs

  • Harsh breathing or heavily snuffling
  • Groans, whimpers or cries
  • Wheezes or gurgles


4. Movement check – how is your pet moving around?

Healthy signs

  • Moving freely
  • Moving around as often as before
  • No excessive scratching or rubbing at coat

Unhealthy signs

  • Limping
  • Groans when moves
  • Not wanting to move or reduced activity


5. Sniff check – using your nose to detect any unusual smells

Healthy signs

  • Pet is eating the same amount of food and drinking the same amount of water as before
  • Has no difficulty eating and wants to eat the same foods as usual

Unhealthy signs

  • Refusal to eat and/or drink or refusing to eat a particular food they enjoyed before
  • Dropped food, part eaten food or choking on food. Food being stored away but not eaten


6. Food and water check

Healthy signs

  • Although some small pets can have strong smelling urine there should not be any unusual or offensive smells (although ferrets might be an exception!)
  • Areas to check are the mouth, ears and bottom!

Unhealthy signs

  • Strong smell of wee or poo (even when the cage is clean)
  • Unpleasant smells


7. Poop check – not to be ignored!

Healthy signs

  • Poop looks as solid as before and is produced in normal amounts
  • If rabbit – no excessive poop in the cage
  • Rabbit continues to eat own poo! This is normal for a rabbit. Read about it here

Unhealthy signs

  • Lack of poop
  • Lots of caecotrophs (large, dark poops that are normally eaten) in the cage
  • Runny poop or poop that sticks around the back end


8. Body size check – not to be ignored!

Healthy signs

  • Weight stays the same, unless the pet is overweight and has been put on a diet
  • Body size is normal for the pet. You can find out more about this Read about it here.

Unhealthy signs

  • Weight loss (unless part of a vet recommended diet)
  • Weight gain (unless part of a recommended recovery plan after illness)


9. Clean and dry check – look for anything unusual in the appearance, from oozing eyes to an untidy appearance

Healthy signs

  • Eyes are bright with no fluid or stickiness leaking out
  • Clean nose, free of any fluid or snot
  • Coat is shiny and smooth (or normal appearance if wire haired or curly coated)
  • No patches of hair loss or red or sore areas
  • No signs of parasites (small insects like fleas that jump into the pet)

Unhealthy signs

  • Closed, sore or sticky eyes
  • Swelling around jaw or leaking fluids through nose
  • Clumped up hair or pet has stopped grooming itself
  • Hair loss or itching
  • Obvious wounds
  • Dark wax, bleeding or fluid around the ears


10. Behaviour check – this is all about knowing what is normal for your pet. Sometimes signs of ill health can be quite subtle, so it’s okay to trust your instinct that something is wrong

Healthy signs

  • Interacting with people and other animals as normal
  • Follows usual routine

Unhealthy signs

  • More alert than usual, hyperactive or unsettled
  • Hiding away, not wanting to interact
  • Sleeping a lot if this is not normal for that pet
  • Changes in routine – such as sleeping during the day instead of at night (be aware that some pets like hamsters are more active at night)

Getting to know your pet
The more time you spend with your pet, getting to know what is normal for them, the faster you will recognise when things are not right.
You might find it useful to keep a record about your pet and their habits:

  • Use photos to show how their coat looks or even their poop!
  • Put together a daily diary of what your pet usually does, at what times
  • Put the health check list beside the hutch and go through it once a week
  • Draw pictures to show what your healthy pet looks like and draw arrows to the areas that best show good health
  • Try to take a photo of what your pet does when they are happy (this can include popcorning for guinea pigs and binkying for rabbits)

What is an emergency?

Now that you know what a healthy pet looks like, or an unhealthy one, you need to know what an emergency is. All vet practices have arrangements in place so that if a pet becomes seriously ill at a time when the veterinary clinic is not normally open, an emergency vet can be contacted.

If you suspect your pet is ill during the day, when the practice is open, remember that it is much better for the pet to be seen then, when all the equipment is available and experts are at work. Do try and make sure that appointments are made for pets to be seen during the day, rather than using the emergency service. There is no 999 for pets – you will need to contact your usual vet and listen for a message about the out of hours emergency service.

A small pet will be very ill if:

  • They have collapsed and feel colder than usual
  • They have become very hot, are panting and on the point of collapse (for instance heat stroke)
  • They have stopped eating for more than 24 hours
  • They are showing signs of significant pain (this can include grinding their teeth)
  • They are straining
  • They are having difficulties giving birth
  • Their abdomen has swollen up and they are showing signs of distress

As we have mentioned, small pets hide signs of illness and once they start showing signs are often very ill, so always check in with your vet if you are unsure.

Extra checks used by vets (equipment and diagnostic tests)
As well as a hands-off health check, vets are trained to perform a hands-on check. They know how to feel for broken bones, to feel the pet’s tummy and to check that there are no teeth problems.

Small pets like rabbits have to be handled very carefully and your vet is trained to do this without injuring the pet, to check their health.

If you have ever taken your pet to the vet can you remember what equipment they used to help them examine your pet?

Your vet may use:

  • Stethoscope: this helps the vet listen to your pet’s heart, lungs and even for noises made in the tummy (digestive system). It is able to do this because it makes a quiet sound louder – called amplification.
  • Otoscope: this tool has a light and a special piece of glass that magnifies (makes what you see look bigger). It means the vet can see very small things clearly so they can find out what they are. Although vets use otoscopes to look down ears, they might also use it to look into your pet’s mouth as it can be difficult to see the teeth clearly in small pets.
  • Ophthalmoscope: this is used to examine the eyes. If you have ever had your eyes checked by a doctor or optician, they will use the same kind of equipment. It allows the vet to see the structures inside the eye as well as what you can see on the outside.

Special challenge
Add the words stethoscope, otoscope and ophthalmoscope to your list of words to learn to spell and test yourself on them tomorrow!

Did you know?
Vets can also take X-rays of your pet if they think they have broken bones. The proper word for a Xray picture is a radiograph.

Project time!
We hope you have learned a lot today about how you can check your pet is healthy and how vets can help your pet when they are ill. Now it’s your turn to carry out a health check and take part in some citizen science.

We would like to share your data with some of the top vets in the world who specialise in treating rabbits and other small pets. Ask your parent to send it to us and we’ll send you a special certificate of participation to mark your contribution to pet science.

Download Project 1