Bracing a Rabbit with "Splay-leg"

by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.
University of Miami Biology Department

Some rabbits are born with a condition known as "splay-leg," in which the front legs, hind legs or all four legs splay out to the side like little seal flippers. Although most experts believe that the condition is congenital (possibly due to genetics resulting in weak connective tissue), it can be exacerbated by environmental conditions, such as being raised on a slippery floor that gives no traction. A 100% cotton, textured bathmat surface for playing and exercising as soon as babies come out of the nest may help reduce the incidence of splay-leg.

Bracing Baby Rabbits with Splayed Legs

Splay-leg bunnies can usually move about with a flopping motion, and we do know of completely happy adult "splay-leg" bunnies who can race around the house effortlessly. However, because these bunnies can develop other health problems related to their abnormal posture, it isn't a bad idea to try to correct the problem when it is first detected, in very young babies about 3-8 weeks of age. Whatever the cause of the problem (nature or nurture), in some cases it can be corrected if the babies are fitted with simple, home-made leg braces, as illustrated below.

The brace itself consists of nothing more than

  • a natural cork from a standard wine bottle, cut to about 1" long
  • two 100% cotton pads, slightly larger in diameter than the cork, and about 1/4 inch thick
  • breathable, adhesive sports tape Here's an exploded diagram of the positions of these components as they will be assembled between the bunny's legs:

    Diagrams below show how to brace a bunny's front legs.

  • Very gently pull them to normal position, and place the cork, with cotton pads on each end, against the bunny's wrists, or slightly higher.

  • While you're holding the brace and bunny, have another person carefully wrap a loop of the sports tape completely around the legs and brace.

  • Successfully assembled, the brace should allow the bunny to stand, though he will (at least temporarily) not be able to move the front legs independently.

  • Although the bunnies tend to be very upset at first, and may struggle, they get used to the contraption anywhere from a few hours to a day or two after you've strapped it on, and begin to learn to hop in "tripod" fashion.

    Here's what a front-leg brace looks like, from top view and from a somewhat oblique view:

  • Back legs are more tricky. You'll use the same set-up and procedure as for the front legs, but position the brace just above the hocks (ankles).

    Bunnies are not fond of having their back legs braced, and they will struggle. But again, they do tend to get used to it within a few hours, and start to learn to hop.

  • For back leg braces, be sure you don't obstruct the urethral opening or anus with tape or padding! Also check frequently to be sure the padding and/or tape do not become soiled with urine or feces. If this happens, a mild rinse, thorough drying and re-bandaging will be necessary to prevent burn to the delicate skin.

    Here are a couple of drawings showing how the back leg braces should be attached:

    Caveat lector: I have never tried to use these braces on a rabbit with all four legs splayed, so I am not certain how well this would work. It might be worth a try. If the bunny seems very stressed, it would probably be best to do one set of legs at a time, perhaps starting with the front, allowing bun to become accustomed to the encumbrance, and then doing the back a few days later. The cure should not be worse than the disorder!

    Bunnies we have braced this way sometimes need to be re-wrapped every week or so. Be sure to monitor the braces for soiling, and replace them if they are wet or dirty.

    Each time the braces are changed, allow the bunny a few minutes to walk on a surface with good traction, to check progress. It can take several weeks before the cartilage and muscles strengthen and grow to produce more normal posture, but it will work. Patience is the key to a full lifetime of better mobility.

    Bracing an Adult Rabbit with Splayed Legs

    Adult rabbits whose legs are already fixed in the splayed position may not be very amenable to bracing. It can hurt to force the legs into a normal position. So if bracing is tried at all, it should be done very gradually, not pulling the legs together too closely all at once. Do no more than the bunny will tolerate without ripping off the braces.

    It's possible the bunny will simply not tolerate the braces, and tear them off or act very stressed and unhappy. If this is the case, wait ten minutes to see if bun adjusts, but don't torture a truly unhappy bunny by forcing the braces. Splayleg bunnies can be perfectly happy with a little extra care and cleaning.

    For those adult buns who do tolerate bracing, we've found that a strapping system without corks or any hard parts works best. (More details to be posted soon, including a video. But for now, I hope this helps.)

    Here is a diagram of how we have successfully braced an adult splayleg bunny's feet.


    Good luck!

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