Can a bath really kill a rabbit?
While I find several respected rabbit authorities repeating this warning, I am not finding any reliable reference indicating a documented death related to a bunny bath. I want to take the best care of my pet rabbit, but I also don't want to make a choice based on a old wives' tale. It is pretty hard to imagine a scenario where an animal domesticated from Europe (and exposed to rain in the wild) could have evolved in few hundred years to the point it might die from getting wet.
Note rabbits are generally self cleaning like a cat. I am granting as a given that a rabbit bath would only be required in extreme cases.
Kind of... bathing can be very stressful to a rabbit; stress can cause body function changes that can kill a rabbit.
Rabbit digestive systems are fairly fragile, and stress can upset the balance in their gut causing them to go into GI Stasis. When this happens, the GI tract shuts down and unless this is dealt with in the first few days, it is usually fatal. The problem is it can take a day or two before you can tell for sure that your rabbit is in stasis, so the rabbit is often beyond help before the problem is noticed. GI Stasis kills more rabbits than any other cause.
I have a few rabbits that have needed a bath from time to time. These are the tips I have for bathing your rabbit:
Make sure you have rabbit safe shampoo. Many human, dog, and cat shampoos contain chemicals that are toxic to rabbits. Make sure you are going to use a cleaning product that it is rabbit safe. If it does not state that it is, assume that it is not, just to be safe. Make sure that you really need shampoo. If you just have urine on the hindquarters (this is pretty common in male rabbits), that can usually be rinsed away with water on the surface of the fur, without the need for thorough cleaning with shampoo.
Use warm, but not hot water. Rabbit fur generally protects your rabbit from the effects of water, but when you are bathing them, the water will soak through to the skin. If it is too hot or too cold, your rabbit could go into shock. My rule of thumb is water that I could put my hand in with no immediate discomfort, and leave in without any discomfort. If it is too hot/cold for you, it is too hot/cold for your rabbit.
Do not make your rabbit sit in a pool of water. I have a raised grate that I use for rabbit baths. It is not normal for rabbits to sit in water, and doing so causes them stress.
Keep your rabbit properly supported. - A rabbit spine can break relatively easily. And even if it does not break, if your rabbit is not being supported properly, it can be painful and cause stress. Most of the time, your rabbit will want its back feet supported. When you need to clean that area, flip the rabbit over into Trance position. Make sure that the rabbit's back is properly supported, then clean the feet, and genital area.
Bathe only the areas needed. The most common problem I see is that some of my rabbits will get some poop caked on their feet and/or underside. When this happens, I do my best only to wash the areas that need cleaning. This will reduce the time spent in the bath. Also when you bathe your rabbit, the process will wash away some of the natural oils that protects the rabbit and its fur. Limiting the areas you bathe reduces the impact of this.
Try to avoid getting water in their nose. This is as uncomfortable to a rabbit as it is to you, and they do not have the ability to blow their nose like we do. For this reason, I try my best to avoid getting my rabbits' heads wet at all. When it happens, I immediately try to help the rabbit by drying their nose with cotton balls. Just hold it for a second or two on each nostril, repeating until it comes away dry.
Dry your rabbit as thoroughly as possible. When the bath is done, if the rabbit is not dried well, they will get cold and this causes stress, and may even send them into shock. I dry my rabbits with towels. If the rabbit has angora fur, you may want use a blow dryer on low heat.
YOUR RABBIT SHOULD NOT SMELL LIKE FRUIT OR FLOWERS! Rabbits are very attuned to scents, and changing the scent on them can be traumatic to the rabbit, which may cause problems with any of its companions. Rabbits normally have a gamey smell to them. This is their natural scent and using scented soap or perfumes on them can be very stressful.
I would also note that my rabbits are used to being picked up, held, petted, posed, and thoroughly examined. We do this partly because they are show rabbits and need to be able to handle that, and partly because we love them very much and they get a lot of attention. I believe that their being used to this treatment helps reduce the stress when a bath is needed.
@starsplusplus That is probably accurate. I have a nice wash basin with a good sprayer I use.