Rabbit Diseases

 

We do not want our beloved pets getting ill so here are some common rabbit diseases and the signs to look out for and how they can be treated and prevented.

 

You should check your rabbits each day for any signs of rabbit diseases. These might include the following:

  •  Diarrhoea
  • Significant weight change (in either direction) over a short period
  • Loss of appetite
  • Drinking much more or less than normal
  • Lack of energy/sleeping more than usual
  • Unusual swellings
  • Skin conditions
  • Limping 
  • Unusual bleeding
  • Signs of pain, such as sensitivity to touch
  • Runny eyes or nose

Myxomatosis

Cause and Symptoms

Myxi is usually spread by biting insects (fleas, mosquitoes) carrying the Myxoma virus. It is the worst out of all the rabbit diseases. However, direct rabbit-to-rabbit spread can occur. Previously, this was mainly seen in a French respiratory strain of the disease, but reports from the Autumn 2000 UK outbreak suggest that rabbit-to-rabbit transmission may now occur the UK.

Pet rabbits could contract myxomatosis in a variety of ways:

• Bites from mosquitoes carrying the Myxoma virus.
• Bites from fleas carrying the Myxoma virus (fleas can survive for many months in hay)
• Myxomatosis can also be spread by Cheyletiella fur mites

The classic form of myxomatosis is seen in rabbits that haven't been vaccinated. It is a dreadful disease that causes immense suffering: affected rabbits can take a fortnight to die and treatment is usually futile, which is why euthanasia is usually recommended.

Classic myxomatosis starts with runny eyes and in the very early stages can be confused with other causes of conjunctivitis. However, myxomatosis differs as the genitals are also swollen. It rapidly progresses to a severe conjunctivitis which causes blindness and is accompanied by lumpy (nodular) swellings on the head, plus lumps on the body. Excessive amounts of thick pus discharges from the nose and swollen eyes (which are often sealed shut). There are also two atypical forms of myxomatosis: one causes pneumonia and a snuffles-like illness; the other ("Nodular myxomatosis") mainly affects skin and carries a better prognosis.

If a vaccinated rabbit develops myxomatosis, the disease is usually much less severe. The exact pattern of disease seen in vaccinated animals is very variable, and impossible to predict: it depends upon how much immunity the rabbit has. Some rabbits develop just a few odd skin lesions and remain otherwise well; others become quite poorly and suffer from swellings and conjunctivitis more like classical myxomatosis. The difference is that vaccination turns a fatal illness into one that is treatable.

Treatment

If an unvaccinated rabbit catches myxomatosis and develops the full-blown classic form of the disease, survival is very unusual, even with intensive nursing and treatment with antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infection. Most affected pets in this situation are put to sleep as soon as the diagnosis is made, to prevent futile suffering.

If a vaccinated rabbit is unlucky enough to catch myxomatosis, the situation is much less gloomy. How severely any one vaccinated rabbit will be affected is impossible to predict. It depends on how much immunity they developed after their vaccination. Some rabbits simply develop a single skin lump and remain perfectly well. A few become really poorly. Others fall somewhere in between, such as being a bit "off colour" with a few skin lesions.

Treatment is usually successful in the vaccinated rabbit with a good vet, nursing care and a bit of luck. But it if the rabbit is unlucky enough to be badly affected, intensive and prolonged veterinary and nursing care (weeks rather than days) is occasionally required.

Rabbits being treated for myxomatosis need:

• Careful nursing care in a warm environment (21-22 degrees centigrade)
• Regular bathing of sticky eyes and genitalia
• Fluid therapy – subcutaneous, intra-peritoneal or intravenous fluids may be used
• Tempting food and syringe or tube feeding if necessary
• Antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infection

This doesn't make vaccination a waste of time – far from it. Rabbits that have not been vaccinated will almost certainly die if they catch myxomatosis…. rabbits that have been vaccinated usually live to tell the tale if they catch it.

Prevention

This is simple. Get you rabbit vaccinated every 6 months against the horrible disease.

VHD

Cause and Symptoms

Rabbit Viral Hemorrhagic Disease is one of the highly contagious rabbit diseases caused by a calicivirus that affects only rabbits of the Oryctolagus cuniculus species. 

Symptoms may include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • High Fever
  • Spasms
  • Sudden death

VHD, however, is often a very swift and sudden killer, giving little warning. Rabbits may die without showing any symptoms at all. Some bleeding from the nose, mouth and rectum is sometimes seen.

Treatment

  • The incubation period of this disease is very short, and rabbits may die within 48 hours of exposure to the virus that causes VHD.
  • The death rate of rabbits exposed to this virus is very high, between 50 and 100%, with the latter number probably being closer to actual mortality rates. Rabbits who survive this disease are carriers and shed the virus for at least 42 days, perhaps longer.
  • Rabbit calicivirus is a very hardy virus, remaining viable in the environment for 105 days at 68F (i.e. remains stable for 105 days at room temperature) and for 225 days at 39F. It resists freezing.
  • There is no known cure for VHD. Vaccinations are available in countries where the disease in endemic, but there is no vaccine currently available in the US.

Prevention

Getting their yearly jab is the biggest thing you can do to help your rabbit not get this disease.

Fly Strike

Cause and Symptoms

This is one of the rabbit diseases mainly seen on rabbits in the summer time and can be fatal if not spotted soon enough to be treated.  It is caused by flies laying their eggs on dirty fur so the most common area is around the rabbits bum. These eggs hatch into maggots that eat your rabbits flesh hence why it is fatal.

Treatment

If you find maggots on or around your rabbits anus immediate veterinary attention is required and the situation should be treated as an emergency. If possible, ring ahead, so that the vet can be prepared for your arrival and treat your rabbit immediately as your rabbit will probably be in pain and shock and will require careful nursing if it is to survive.

If you can not get to a vet immediately, then pick off as many of the external maggots as you can, using a pair of tweezers. The maggots which have burrowed into the flesh can be encouraged to the surface of the skin, by heat such as a warm, damp towel. Ideally you should avoid wetting the rabbit’s coat, as damp fur will clog the clippers that vets use to shave the infected areas, however, dipping your rabbits rear into water can help to get rid of some maggots providing the area is dried afterwards.  

The preferred method of treatment for fly strike is to remove the maggots using tweezers and shave off any damp or dirty fur. This should be carried out by your veterinarian as the rabbits skin is very thin and tears easily. Your vet will not only have skilled and experienced staff on hand but they will also be able to administer sedation or an anaesthetic to make the process easier, which in turn will ensure that your rabbit does not experience discomfort. Rabbits that have fly strike will also often need antibiotics to prevent infection. Anti-inflammatory and pain killing drugs are sometimes also administered.

Prevention

The best way to prevent this from happening is making sure the hutch is as clean as possible all the time as this stops flies becoming attracted to going into the hutch.  Also to make sure your rabbit is kept as clean as possible especially around their back end as if it is dirty that is what will attract the flies to that area.

Dental Disease

Cause and Symptoms

Dental disease in rabbits is most commonly caused by the wrong food being fed to them.  The symptoms of this rabbit diseases can be going off their food, weight loss, drooling, a wet chin, dirty bottom and discharge from the eye.

Treatment

Molar spurs can be filed smooth by your veterinarian, who may use anything from a Dremel tool to a blunt-tipped diamond file. The procedure ordinarily requires anesthesia (e.g., isoflurane or sevoflurane gas), but usually can be done relatively quickly.

Prevention

Making sure your rabbit gets the most suitable diet.

Heat Stroke

Causes and Symptoms

Caused by your rabbit being out in the heat too long. The symptoms could include:

  1. Panting
  2. Lethargy
  3. Weakness
  4. Convulsing
  5. Red Ears
  6. Salivating

Treatment

If a rabbit's body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit, it is recommended to seek emergency veterinarian care immediately. When a rabbit's body temperature becomes too high, the prognosis for a full recovery is usually poor.

When a rabbit becomes overheated, quick action can mean the life or death of the rabbit but bringing down the temperature too quickly can also be dangerous. Immediately immerse the rabbit's body in tepid (not icy) water, keeping the head from becoming immersed. To keep the rabbit's stress levels down, a wet towel can be placed on the rabbit to help wet the coat or the water can be slowly dripped on the body. Gently rub the water into the fur so that the water reaches the skin. Keep the rabbit cool until you can reach a veterinarian where IV fluids and medication can be administered.

Heat stress can be treated at home if caught early enough by applying alcohol on the rabbit's feet and ears. Mist the ears with cool water and remove the rabbit from the heat. Gently wet the rabbit and rub the water into the skin.

Prevention

Prevention is simple.  As I said on my "How to look after a bunny" page, keep the hutch in a shaded area so they are not in direct contact with the sun.  And if you let them roam around the garden through the summer then make sure they have plenty of shaded areas to go to.

Snuffles

Causes and Symptoms

Snuffles is a term used to describe the symptoms of runny eyes, runny nose and sneezing in rabbits. The cause of these symptoms is often a chronic bacterial infection in the tear ducts and nasal sinuses. The bacteria involved are usually Pasteurella spp or Staphylococcus spp.

Rabbits with dental disease are prone to developing snuffles. This is because the tooth roots pass very closely to the tear duct as it drains from the corner of the eye to the nose. When the teeth become maloccluded (do not meet), the tooth roots push upwards and can obstruct the tear duct. This blockage prevents normal drainage of tears through the duct and allows the bacteria to grow.

It has been suggested that rabbits kept in poorly ventilated hutches may also be prone to developing snuffles. The build-up of fumes from urine or from certain types of wood shavings, eg cedar, may cause irritation to the eyes, and possibly trigger snuffles.

Treatment

Snuffles are treated with antibiotics for 15–30 days. The antibiotics used are enrofloxacin (baytril), ciprofloxacin and trimethoprim sulfa. Rabbits need bacteria in their intestine to help in digestion and they need these bacteria to be supplemented during and after the antibiotic treatment. Hence, these antibiotics are to be used strictly under veterinary guidance.

The symptoms will be mild if the strain of pasteurella multocida is a mild one and the immunity of the infected rabbit is strong. This can be recovered without any treatment. If the strain is serious or the animal has a weak immune system, the disease can be severe and can cause death. This treatment of antibiotics is given to avoid any further complication in a rabbit’s health. And at severe conditions, the disease is difficult to be cured.

Prevention

Rabbit snuffles are a contagious and difficult disease to treat. Prevention plays a major role in trying to control and cure this disease. Breeders should keep their rabbit and its surroundings clean. Reducing stress is very important in helping a rabbit from getting infected and reducing the severity of the disease. Stress can be because of poor nutrition, improper housing and overcrowding.

Avoid a healthy rabbit to come in contact with an infected rabbit. This disease can be transmitted through secretions. It can also be transmitted through hands and clothes. The breeders should wash their hands after handling a rabbit.

Snuffle is a disease that can have serious consequences to rabbits. It is a widespread and contagious disease. Rabbit owners should be aware of the symptoms of rabbit snuffles and take a rabbit to a veterinarian immediately for treatment.

Sore Hocks

Causes and Symptoms

If there is not sufficient bedding in the hutch or it is not changed regularly it can occur as it is caused by the wire which hurts their feet.  The following will be an indication that your rabbit has this problem. The hair on the back legs near the bend will be missing.  There would be redness around that area as well and if this is not treated it could become more serious.

Treatment

If there are open wounds then it is a trip to the vets for antibiotics that will be needed.  If not then it can be self treated by wahing their legs, trimming the loose fur in that area gently then treating it with bag balm or calamine lotion.

Prevention

Make sure there is enough bedding in the hutch and add blankets or towels if necessary to the hutch.

Kidney Failure

Causes and Symptoms

The causes of chronic and acute renal failure in rabbits vary; acute renal failure (or ARF) may arise from shock, trauma, extreme stress, stroke, heart failure and blood infection.  Meanwhile, a urinary tract obstruction or a urinary tract infection which has spread to the pelvis can bring on either the chronic or acute form of renal failure in rabbits. Aging and diabetes are some other common causes for the condition.

The symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Inability to eat
  • Fever
  • Diarrhea
  • Seizures
  • Lack of stool or inability to produce stool
  • Heart complications (often in acute renal failure cases)
  • Painful or tender kidneys (when palpitated)

Treatment

A rabbit will generally receive treatment on an outpatient basis. However, if it is experiencing acute renal failure (or crisis), it will require immediate fluid balance therapy to prevent additional injury to the kidneys. Fluids are usually administered intravenously, although the veterinarian may also suggest adding fresh greens to the rabbit's diet for rehydration. If the veterinarian prescribes glycoprotein medication for the rabbit, it is to help with anemia or a low red blood cell count.

Prevention

A major step in preventing renal disease is to provide your rabbit with a diet that is low in calcium. The accumulation of calcium in the urinary system can lead to mineral deposits that hinder the function of the kidneys. Alfalfa hay, which is also used in the formulation of rabbit pellets, is high in calcium. Feeding your rabbit a high quality grass or timothy hay will help prevent the ingestion of excess calcium.

Rabbit owners should also practice good husbandry techniques. Providing rabbits with a continuous supply of fresh water will ensure proper fluid balance in the urinary system and help prevent a rabbit’s urine from becoming overly concentrated. Rabbits should also be kept in an area that is free from environmental threats that could cause extreme stress.

Obesity

Causes and Symptoms

The causes for obesity in rabbits include being caged too often, along with excessive feeding habits. If it is fed too many treats or snacks during the day and not allowed to exercise it off, then it is sure to become obese.  Typically rabbits prone to obesity tend to be more than 20 to 40 percent overweight. An easy way to determine this is to give the rabbit a physical exam. If you cannot find the ribs under the layer of fat and skin, then it is probably obese.  Other signs of obesity may include flaky dermatitis, as the rabbit has difficulty fully cleaning under its skin folds. The animal may also have difficulty breathing and be excessively tired.

Treatment

Proper nutrition is the key to treating obesity. Often high-quality grass hay and fresh greens, including lettuce, parsley and carrot tops are generally recommended over an exclusive pellet diet. Fresh fruits and other non-leafy vegetables are not recommended during the obese period, as these can lead to other health problems in the rabbit.

Prevention

The best means of preventing obesity is to feed your rabbit a balanced diet. To do this, make sure that you limit the amount of food and treats that are available to your rabbit. Rabbits older than 6 months should be fed a grass hay-based, pelleted diet and allowed free access to grass hay. Alfalfa hay and alfalfa-based pellets should only be provided to young growing rabbits and pregnant animals.

Another factor to increase your rabbit’s chance of avoiding obesity is to provide him with adequate opportunities for exercise. With proper supervision, letting a rabbit stretch his legs in an enclosed, predator-free area will allow him to work off extra calories and energy. Exercising your rabbit is also a great way to spend quality time with your companion. Many companion rabbits are easily trained to be taken out on a harness and leash to provide additional supervised exercise. Rabbits can also be supplied with commercially sold rabbit toys or other forms of enrichment to increase physical and mental stimulation while in their hutches.

If your rabbit is obese, following a proper and healthy weight-loss program is essential to the overall health of your pet rabbit. Your veterinarian can help you to set up a weight-loss and nutrition program for your rabbit.

Loss of Appetite

Causes and Symptoms

There are many causes that can lead to anorexia or pseudoanorexia. Anorexia may occur due to:

  • Stomach ulcers
  • Dental diseases
  • A metabolic disorder (e.g., kidney failure)
  • Cardiac failure
  • Infectious disease
  • Respiratory disease
  • Neurological disease
  • Tumor growth
  • Poisoning
  • Environmental or dietary changes

Conversely, pseudoanorexia may result from any disease that interferes with the rabbit's swallowing reflex. Dental diseases such as gingivitis, diseases of the esophagus, and disorders affecting the jaws or teeth are other causes for pseudoanorexia.  There are also a number of risk factors that may contribute to the development of anorexia or pseudoanorexia, including diets with an inadequate amount of long-stem hay and immediately following a surgical procedure.

Treatment

Anorexia and pseudoanorexia need to be addressed by treating the underlying cause of the condition. No matter what the cause, it is important the rabbit begins eating again as soon as possible. Most rabbits that haven’t been eating regularly suffer from some degree of dehydration and may require the administration of electrolyte-filled fluids. Some medications may also be helpful.  On the other hand, symptomatic therapy (treatment of anorexia-related symptoms) may entail the reduction of environmental stressors and a change in the rabbit's diet to encourage eating.

Prevention

As there are many causes leading to anorexia or pseudoanorexia in rabbits, it is difficult to suggest any specific methods of prevention. However, psychological causes of anorexia (a lack of appetite) may be prevented by making sure the rabbit is not put in any stressful environments, and that it receives a tempting, healthy diet and a clean cage.

Tilted Head Syndrome

Possible causes of head tilt (also known as torticollis or wry neck) are:

  • Middle/inner ear infection (otitis media /interna)
  • Stroke (cerebrovascular accidents)
  • Trauma
  • Cancer (neoplasia)
  • Cervical muscle contraction
  • Encephalitozoonosis
  • Cerebral larva migrans
  • Intoxication

A diagnosis as to the cause of the problem is frequently made after elimination of other possibilities. Lets examine these one at a time, starting with the one thought to be most common:

Inner Ear Infection
An inner ear infection may have started with an outer ear infection, which remained unnoticed and untreated and gradually worked its way into the inner ear, or with a middle ear infection, which resulted from an upper respiratory infection. Or it may have arisen from bacteria in the nasal cavity or bloodstream. A radiograph of the head may help determine if the middle ears are affected. Some of the bacteria which have been cultured from ear infections are Staphylococcus sp, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Pasteurella multocida, Bordetella bronchiseptica, Proteus mirabilis, Streptoccus epidermidis, Bacteroides spp. and Escherichia coli.

Treatment needs to be aggressive and prolonged. If exudate (pus) is found deep in the ear canal, a culture and sensitivity should be done in order to determine the bacterial agent and which antibiotics will be most effective in eliminating the infection. However, if it is impossible to access the bacteria in order to do the culture, many veterinarians will opt to treat with one of the antibiotics usually successful in curing an inner ear infection, such as enrofloxacin, chloramphenicol or penicillin G procaine with benzathaine. If no improvement is noticed after 4 weeks, a change in antibiotic is recommended.

If attempts to clear the infection with antibiotics appear to be failing, the veterinarian may suggest ear surgery to be able to obtain a sample for a culture and sensitivity, to remove exudate, and to provide drainage. Antibiotics need to be withheld for 3 days prior to obtaining a culture. One treatment includes leaving a drain. However, the exudate that rabbits produce is frequently very thick and does not drain.

If the head tilt is extreme, a steroid may be prescribed in an attempt to reduce the inflammation. If the rabbit is not eating or drinking, the doctor may recommend that fluids be administered subcutaneously and food given orally by syringe.

Although middle and inner ear infections reportedly have a poor cure rate, I know many cases of success in getting rabbits through this illness. The "secret" is long term antibiotics, frequently a minimum of 30 days. However it may be necessary for a rabbit to be on antibiotics for 6 months or even for the remaining years of his life. This treatment in conjunction with a loving and supportive environment can provide the rabbit with a good quality of life even if the disease cannot be completely eradicated.

Stroke
Stroke is usually suspected on the basis of physical signs. Imaging to diagnose this problem is available to humans but difficult to arrange for companion rabbits. As in humans, acerbrovascular accident can kill, but if it does not, then the rabbit may initially be left with one side of his face, and perhaps one entire side of his body affected. One side of his face will droop, he may drool, and one eye may not function properly. He may not move normally or may move in circles. Function usually will slowly return over a period of months. Almost three years after a stroke, one of my rabbits has only a slight tilt to his head, unnoticeable, unless pointed out. Benny just looks a bit quizzical.

Care for a bunny who has suffered a stroke involves nursing him through his difficulties in eating, drinking and moving. Antibiotics do not help these cases, but sometimes are given to help rule out infection. Acupuncture should also be considered in treatment of these cases.

Trauma
A blow to the face, neck or head can result in an injury to the brain which can cause the rabbit to have a head tilt. Trauma even could result from a panic reaction. Depending upon the severity of the trauma, an anti-inflammatory might be helpful to speed recovery.

Cancer
Tumors occurring in the brain, neck or ear could produce a symptom of head tilt.

Cervical muscle contraction
A "muscle spasm" could cause a temporary head tilt. This situation will resolve itself once the muscle is relaxed.

Encephalitozoonosis
Encephalitozoon cuniculi, a protozoan parasite, can cause brain disease (meningooencephalitis and microscopic cysts), and can result in paralysis anywhere in the body, since every part of the body is controlled by a specific part of the brain. (See the HRJ Vol. III No. 2 for a detailed description of this parasite.) Frequently there are signs preceding a head tilt caused by E.cuniculi such as tripping, dragging of feet, tipping over. These symptoms may have appeared and then vanished weeks or months prior to the head tilt. A blood test for antibodies to E. cuniculi can tell whether your rabbit has been exposed.

Cerebral larva migrans
Baylisascaris spp are round worms which live in the intestine of raccoons and skunks. A rabbit may acquire eggs from these works by eating grasses, food, or bedding contaminated by feces. Larvae hatch from the eggs and migrate into the brain, where they live and grow and destroy brain tissue. There is no known cure for this invasion. Ivermectin probably does not penetrate the brain in sufficient quantities to kill the larvae, although it may kill them before they reach the brain.

Intoxication
This could be caused by ingestion of lead, found in paints or imported pottery, or ingestion of a toxic plant such as the woolly pod milkweed.

Caring for a rabbit with head tilt

Regardless of the cause, most cases of head tilt have similarities.

The "down" eye (the one facing the floor) will usually not close and will require eye ointment to keep the eye moist.

Lack of balance is what causes rabbits to "roll" and be unable to stand, so I try to pick them up as little as possible. When you must pick your rabbit up, hold him securely against your own body, to help him feel as stable as possible. Depending upon the size of your rabbit you can usually figure out how to confine him to a smaller space (perhaps a sweater box with the higher sides). Place one of the synthetic sheepskin rugs (that allows urine to pass through but will keep the bun dry) on the floor of the cage or box, and then place rolled towels or small blankets to help prop him up, so that he will be less likely to roll when he loses his balance. A stuffed toy bunny friend also helps.

Most rabbits will keep eating but may need to be hand fed with lots of sympathy with every bite of food. He may not want his pellets, but he will usually eat a variety of fresh green veggies, carrots and fruits if you hold them for him. It may help to switch from timothy to alfalfa hay to encourage him to eat lots of roughage.

If your rabbit decides to decline food, you will have to be ready to syringe feed him. There are many recipes for syringe feeding and you can be fairly creative. The primary point is to get food into his stomach so that his gut doesn't stop moving, which would add further complications to the process of getting him well. A sample recipe might be pellets mixed with 2 parts water, mixed garden baby food, some banana, some powdered acidophilus, some apple sauce (some of whatever he usually likes that has a strong taste). Feed him as frequently as possible throughout the day, and as much as you can get down him at each feeding. When he clenches his teeth and won't swallow, stop for awhile and try more later.

My bunny Chase caught this horrible parasite but over 2 months on you would not think anything had been wrong with him.