Welfare impact of ear conditions in pet rabbits

Research by the Royal Veterinary College reveals that affected rabbits are less likely to display binkying behaviour and are more likely to experience a reduction in overall quality of life

A recent questionnaire conducted by the Royal Veterinary College (RVC), has found that approximately one quarter of pet rabbits in the sample were reportedly affected by ear conditions that are painful and/or impair their hearing. The findings suggest that increased recognition is needed because of its associated harms to rabbit welfare. By raising awareness of the conditions and those most susceptible, owners and breeders can be better equipped to seek treatment and select healthy rabbits and thus, improve rabbit welfare.

While ear diseases are typically described as ’common’ in rabbits, prevalence estimates vary, with one study finding that 3.5% of rabbits will experience certain ear conditions over their lifetime. However, ear conditions can be difficult to recognise in rabbits, so can be easily missed. Behavioural signs of pain and hearing loss usually manifest as unresponsiveness and reduced activity. These can easily go unnoticed by owners or vets, especially if long-term, and rabbits may hide pain when humans are present. Therefore, true prevalence could indeed be higher.

Ear conditions can represent considerable animal welfare issues because they can cause pain, hearing impairment, loss of balance or a combination of these. Therefore, by conducting an online questionnaire, a team of researchers at the RVC investigated the nature and scale of ear conditions as a welfare issue in UK pet rabbits, including owner-reported signalment, veterinary diagnosis of ear conditions, ear conformational risk factors and the effects on rabbit behaviour.

Of the 551 responses, 49% of rabbits were reported as having lop-ears, 43% erect-ears and the remainder either asymmetrical (one erect ear and one lop) or approximately horizontal ears (’oar-lop’ or ’horn-lop’). Within the questionnaire shared with pet owners, key findings included:
  • More than a quarter (29%) of rabbits were reported by their owners to experience at least one ear problem, while 21% had been officially diagnosed by their vet (including 32% of half-lops and 25% of lop-eared rabbits compared to 10% of erect-eared rabbits).
  • The most common ear conditions indicated by a vet were ear infections - particularly otitis media (middle ear infection) and interna (inner ear infection) - and excessive ear wax.
  • Owners reported that 16% of rabbits had impaired hearing, 14% had an ear-related problem that reduced rabbit quality of life and 7% had a perceived pain response when owners looked in the ears.
  • 11% of rabbits with a vet indicated ear problem were reported to flinch and pull away during ear examination compared with 3% of rabbits flinching during ear examination if they had no such veterinary indication.
  • Rabbits with ear pain responses were three times less likely to perform binkying behaviour (joy jumps) and three times more likely to have a perceived reduction in overall quality of life according to their owners.
  • 24% of affected rabbits had never received a veterinary indication of their ear condition.
  • Almost all specific conditions reported were seemingly more common in the lop-eared and asymmetrical phenotypes than in the other ear conformations. In this sample, lop-eared rabbits were 19 times more likely to be reported as having impaired hearing or deafness and 5.5 times more likely to have impaired quality of life due to an ear problem.

Dr Charlotte Burn, Associate Professor in Animal Welfare and Behaviour Science at the RVC, said:

"Rabbits are well known for their long ears, but it’s awful to think that, beneath the surface, many rabbits are experiencing painful ear infections or deafness. We want to raise awareness of this, because rabbits often hide their pain, and sometimes it can be hard to tell if they can hear properly. It’s also worrying that nearly a quarter of owners who suspected that their rabbits had ear problems had apparently not taken their rabbits to a vet for treatment or pain relief."

"Some rabbits with ear problems frequently scratch at their ears, shake or tilt their heads, or avoid you touching their ears. This study also shows that rabbits with ear disease may not respond to regular important sounds, like the rustling of a treat packet, and they rarely binky about, which suggests that they may not feel like playing as much as other rabbits do. If your rabbit is relatively inactive, they could be in their own silent world of pain from an ear problem or from something else, so do get them checked by a vet."


Chivers BD, Keeler MRD, Burn CC (2023) Ear health and quality of life in pet rabbits of differing ear conformations: A UK survey of owner-reported signalment risk factors and effects on rabbit welfare and behaviour. PLoS ONE 18(7): e0285372. https://doi.org/10.1371/­journal.po­ne.0285372

The full paper will be available here: https://doi.org/10.1371/­journal.po­ne.0285372

About the RVC

  • The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK’s largest and longest established independent veterinary school and is a Member Institution of the University of London.
  • It is one of the few veterinary schools in the world that hold accreditations from the RCVS in the UK (with reciprocal recognition from the AVBC for Australasia, the VCI for Ireland and the SAVC for South Africa), the EAEVE in the EU, and the AVMA in the USA and Canada.
  • The RVC is ranked as the top veterinary school in the world in the QS World University Rankings by subject, 2023.
  • The RVC offers undergraduate and postgraduate programmes in veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing and biological sciences.
  • The RVC is a research led institution with 88% of its research rated as internationally excellent or world class in the Research Excellence Framework 2021.
  • The RVC provides animal owners and the veterinary profession with access to expert veterinary care and advice through its teaching hospitals and first opinion practices in London and Hertfordshire.