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How do I know if it hurts?

We are pretty good these days at reading our dogs and cats. We know when they are happy and we can tell when they are sad. There are many familiar clues we look for – wagging tail, ear position, eye position. We often read these clues and tells without even realizing we are doing so and when this happens it an almost feel like a special heart to heart link with our pets.

But what about some of the more unusual pets we might have? Rabbits, Guinea pigs and birds? These species can be much more challenging to read and their behavioral cues are often much more subtle.

There is a very good reason for this. Prey species will display a strong protective reflex masking of pain or disease. This survival instinct will kick in with any cause of pain, illness or stress. Out in the wild, wild world, the sick or injured animal is an easy target for predators. Why would an eagle go for the spry healthy rabbit when it can dive for the sick slow one?! Therefore, prey animals will hide their pain or illness until they are unable to do so anymore. Conceal at all costs is their mantra and they are very very good at it.

This means that a very unwell rabbit may show only the most subtle signs that anything is wrong. They might just be a little quite, less interactive, crouched in a corner, hiding a little. Not eating so well or have reduced output of poo. Not a huge change in behavior but there may be something catastrophic behind this!

Birds will also conceal at all costs until they are just unable to hold it together any longer. Frequently owners will note their bird sitting quietly, fluffed and sleepy looking. This posture is referred to as the ‘sick bird look’. That is a general term but it’s designed that way to try and encompass the myriad of possible reasons a bird may adopt this vulnerable posture. This sudden change in behavior may be the only indication that a bird has a serious problem that may have been going on for a while and now they are decompensating and in serious need of help.

As the owner of a pet from these prey species it is very important to be aware of the subtle ways they may tell us something is wrong. Know your pet’s behavioral cues and look for small changes that may be very meaningful. Swift attention in these delicate species if very often the key to resolving disease and distress before it becomes a disaster.

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