Floppy-Eared Rabbits Suffer From Ear and Dental Problems

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

floppy eared rabbit

Story at-a-glance -

  • Floppy-eared rabbits suffer from increased health problems, including those associated with their ears and teeth, compared to their erect-eared counterparts
  • The problems are so severe, researchers suggested, that it “brings into debate the ethics of breeding and buying lop-eared rabbits”
  • One study showed that floppy-eared rabbits were 43 times more likely to have narrowed ear canals and 15 times more likely to show a pain response upon ear examination
  • The study also showed that floppy-eared rabbits were 23 times more likely to have diseased incisor teeth and 12 times more likely to have overgrown molar teeth
  • Part of the problem is that the selection for droopy ears also leads to modifications in the shape of the rabbit skull, such that the jaw is abnormally shortened
  • Lop rabbits suffer from many of the same health problems as flat-faced (brachycephalic) pets, such as pugs and shih tzus
  • If you are in the market for a lop-eared bunny there are hundreds waiting for their furever home at rescues, humane societies and house rabbit societies across the U.S.

Floppy-eared rabbits, also known as lop-eared rabbits, are undeniably cute, but like English bulldogs, they are cruelly bred for their appearance — at the expense of their health. Rabbits don’t naturally have floppy ears. The lopped ears are the result of a genetic trait that’s been bred into these bunnies for purposes of creating cute pets, but recent research suggests their welfare may also be compromised as a result.

Floppy-eared rabbits suffer from increased health problems, including those associated with their ears and teeth, compared to their erect-eared counterparts. The problems are so severe, the researchers suggested, that it “brings into debate the ethics of breeding and buying lop-eared rabbits.”1

Rabbits With Floppy Ears Have More Ear and Dental Problems

A study conducted by researchers from the Royal Veterinary College in the United Kingdom, suggests floppy-eared rabbits face the risk of severe and often painful health problems that other rabbits with upright ears do not. Part of the problem is that the selection for droopy ears also leads to modifications in the shape of the rabbit skull, such that the jaw is abnormally shortened.

Anecdotally, floppy-eared rabbits are said to often suffer from ear canal narrowing, leading to reduced airflow and increased buildup of ear wax. In turn, this may lead to ear infections that can cause pain and even deafness. The abnormal shape may also lead to problems with the jaw and teeth. According to the UK-based rabbit rescue, The Rabbit Residence Rescue (RRR):2

“The lopped ears in these rabbits is a genetic ‘oops’ that we have bred into them and unfortunately, it’s not without complications. The skull of a lop, especially in the smaller lops, is vastly shorter than a natural wild rabbit shape, and it’s here that issues are seen …

Speak to people who have had lops over the years, and the prevalence of deafness and eyesight problems seems tragically common.”

In the featured study, which was carried out at RRR, researchers compared 15 lop-eared rabbits to 15 erect-eared rabbits, examining their teeth and ears and watching for signs of pain, such as shaking their head, scratching their ears or flinching upon examination. The rabbits with floppy ears were found to have significantly more problems with their ears and dental health compared to rabbits with upright ears, including being:3

  • 43 times more likely to have narrowed ear canals
  • 15 times more likely to show a pain response upon ear examination
  • 23 times more likely to have diseased incisor teeth
  • 12 times more likely to have overgrown molar teeth
  • 13 times more likely to have sharp molars

Floppy-Eared Rabbits May Suffer From Pain and Deafness

The rabbits with floppy ears were also significantly more likely to have molar spurs, which are sharp points that form due to uneven wear, and ear wax buildup. When the researchers checked the rabbits’ medical records, discrepancies were also noted. While 14 of the floppy-eared rabbits had a history of ear wax buildup and nine of them had to have their ears cleaned repeatedly, only three of the rabbits with upright ears had problems with ear wax — and none had a history of repeated ear cleanings.

Similarly, eight of the floppy-eared rabbits had a history of dental abnormalities and six had previously had dental treatment, while none of the upright-eared rabbits had required such dental care. The researchers also suspected that the floppy-eared rabbits suffered from more pain, and potentially deafness and difficulty eating, noting:4

"The welfare consequences of a rabbit having lop ears include pain, as indicated by statistically significantly increased pain responses during examination of lop ears … Additionally, the higher frequency of signs consistent with [outer ear] otitis found in the lop eared compared with the erect eared rabbits, suggest potential for pain, [impaired hearing], or even deafness."

Animals Shouldn’t Be Bred for Appearances

Lop rabbits are popular pets, but when animals are bred for extreme appearances — like ears that flop over instead of stand up — their health can suffer greatly. Bulldogs are perhaps the most well-known example, but many other breeds and species also suffer, including flat-faced (brachycephalic) pets, such as pugs and shih tzus, as well as munchkin cats, which are bred to have short legs.

In fact, lop rabbits suffer from many of the same problems as flat-faced dogs, according to RRR, which noted, “If you look at a show standard Mini Lop in particular, they have a very boxy skull, some may even look so flattened in the face it looks like they’ve run into a wall! This has resulted in these rabbits suffering similar problems to brachycephalic dogs …”5

When it comes to choosing a pet, it can be easy to fall for long, droopy ears, but it’s essential to be aware of the health problems that come along with them. Ultimately, animals shouldn’t be bred to have contorted shapes and sizes just because some may find them aesthetically pleasing. Animals deserve to have the best quality of life possible, and this can’t happen if they’re plagued with health problems from the start.

Pet owners, too, need to be aware of the increased health demands of adding a floppy eared rabbit (or other animal with an intentional unusual physical trait) to their home. As Daniella Dos Santos, British Veterinary Association president, said in a news release:6

"Sadly, vets tell us that all too often they're seeing clients who have chosen a pet with certain features without being aware of the serious health and welfare problems they may have as a result. It's critical that prospective owners think 'health over looks' when choosing a pet, as extreme features may come hand in hand with hereditary problems that can lead to serious health problems and be distressing and costly to treat.”

If you’re considering a rabbit as a pet, know that adopting one with naturally upright ears will probably be the healthier choice, but if you have your heart set on a floppy-eared rabbit, avoid supporting increased breeding of these health-problem-prone bunnies and adopt a homeless one from a shelter or rescue instead.