It is believed that 99% of health problems in rabbits would not occur with proper management, which includes good sanitation, feeding high-quality feed, taking time daily to clean and fill water and feed bowls, providing adequate room, cleaning sitting boards, cleaning ears and checking teeth and continually providing protection from cold, heat, wind and rain. Sanitation plays a major role in the health of your rabbit and cannot be overemphasized. Failure to adhere to good sanitation practices will inevitably result in the development of bacterial and fungal diseases.
Abscesses are serious and occur from bacterial infections when the skin is broken, usually as a result of sore hocks, punctures, scratches and bites. It will also develop if the sutured area is not medicated daily with Nitrofurazone ointment during and after removal of the sutures. These collections of pus, surrounded by thick, fibrous wall, may develop after a bite or other wound. They are also found around the mouth due to dental disease. Treatment aims to remove the entire abscess, including the wall.
Sometimes, this is simply not possible, and the veterinarian may have to settle for draining the pus, followed by one of a variety of strategies to try and kill off any residual bacteria. Antibiotic-impregnated beads, glucose paste, and commercial gels are all under investigation. In chronic cases, a systemic medication should be given orally so that the staph infection will not run rampant throughout the body. With intensive nursing and wound care, combined with rational use of surgery and antibiotics, the outlook for rabbits with abscesses is improving. It is important to allow the abscess pockets to heal from the inside out. However, they can be a recurrent and long-term problem.
Encephalitozoon cuniculi is a single-celled intracellular microorganism. All mammals are susceptible to infection with this organism; however, it causes significant central nervous system and kidney disease in pet rabbits. The spores infect enterocytes and lymphocytes, spread to the bloodstream or the lymphatic system, reaching the brain, kidney, liver, and other organs. Encephalitozoon cuniculi infection causes a severe granulomatous meningoencephalitis and chronic interstitial nephritis and fibrosis.
Due to brain damage, infected rabbits are often unable to right themselves and even have seizures and painful muscle spasms. Chronic kidney failure results in weight loss, lethargy, and loss of appetite. Ocular infection results in uveitis and cataracts. The infection can affect rats, mice, hamsters, guinea pigs and immunocompromised humans.
Flystrike occurs if flies lay eggs on wet or dirty skin and eggs hatch into maggots. This disgusting condition is found in rabbits kept outdoors in poorly ventilated, dirty caging, especially during warm months. Older, obese rabbits are particularly at risk, but long-coated animals are also vulnerable.
The maggots of some fly species can eat their way deep into normal tissue, releasing toxins and making the rabbit desperately ill. Immediate treatment is vital; a badly fly-blown rabbit will be lucky to survive even with intensive and expensive therapy. Prevention is better than cure, so for your outdoor rabbits, perform daily bottom checks, keep older rabbits well-groomed and at their correct weight, and keep litter boxes and hutches clean.
It is important to periodically check the genital area of your rabbit for redness and inflammation caused by bacterial infection as a result of unsanitary conditions. Usually, this is seen in does and is caused either by a rabbit urinating on herself or urinating in an area and sitting on it. If left unattended during the fly season, the area will draw flies, and maggot infestation may result in the death of the rabbit.
Wash the affected area with a mild soap like Castile or liquid organic, and dry with a towel in warm weather or with a hairdryer set on low in cold weather. An application of Bag Balm (used for exterior udder problems) or Nitrofurazone dressing or ointment will heal the area.
A doe may regularly urinate on her sitting board or in her nest box and sit on it. The board should be washed off and turned over and set in a new place, away from the potty corner. The same is true with regard to a nest box.
As you groom your rabbit, look carefully for any dandruff, particularly behind the ears and along the spine. Dandruff indicates a mite infestation. This is most often due to a species called Cheyletiella which causes Cheyletiellosis. This common problem is now usually treated with three injections of ivermectin, given 7 to 10 days apart. This treatment has largely replaced medicated shampoos, much to the relief of many rabbits and their owners.
Some newer antiparasitic preparations are under investigation and will hopefully make treatment even more simple and effective in the near future. Mites can survive away from the rabbit, so bedding and cages must be carefully cleaned. Incidentally, Cheyletiella can also affect humans and cause a mild itchy rash that disappears when the rabbit has been treated.
The most commonly observed “skin problem” is actually a normal molt. All rabbits have slightly different molt patterns. Some will molt fully and rapidly twice a year, while others shed their coat continuously. The latter is especially true of thick-coated rabbits living in a centrally heated home. Molting can be very dramatic, with tufts of fur falling out.
You may see a temporary pigmentation of the skin in the moulting area, a mark where the new fur is growing through, or an area of short coat like a Rex rabbit. All are quite normal. Molting rabbits need frequent brushing, which will reduce the chance of hair blocking up either your rabbit’s intestine or your vacuum cleaner.
The deadly viral disease myxomatosis may cause lumps to appear in the skin. Other early signs of myxomatosis include swelling around the eyes, ears, and genitalia. Fortunately, myxomatosis in house rabbits is essentially unknown.
Orchitis is an infection of the testicles. The testicle becomes enlarged and usually contains an abscess. Sometimes the infection can be limited to the membranes covering the penis, a condition called balanoposthitis. The infection is transmitted to does by infected bucks during breeding and is treated by applying antibacterial ointment containing penicillin.
Pasteurellosis is the designation for all the diseases associated with Pasteurella multocida. Pasteurella bacteria are often found in the nasal passages of the healthy-looking rabbits. Stress resulting from extremes of temperature, high humidity, pregnancy, and nursing is a primary factor in the development of snuffles. The signs of the disease vary and may include snuffles, pneumonia, pyometra, inflammation of the ear canal, conjunctivitis, skin abscesses and presence of bacteria in the bloodstream (septicemia).
“Pyometra” means pus in the uterus. Pyometra results from the introduction of the bacteria into the uterus during mating and may be traced to a single buck with a chronic infection of the testicles. The walls of the uterus are usually dilated, and the organ is filled with pus. Does that are nasal-positive for the bacteria are also vaginal-positive for the same bacteria. Pet rabbits can sometimes be saved by ovariohysterectomy.
Rabbit syphilis, also called venereal spirochetosis, or “vent disease,” is a noncontagious genital infection with Treponema cuniculi microorganism which can produce crusty ulcers of borders of the nose, lips, eyelids, vulva, prepuce and perineum, in some cases resembling an upper respiratory infection and may cause difficulty breathing.
Transmission is through direct contact with infected skin or from the infected dam to kits at birth. Affected rabbits may experience metritis and abortion. Bucks may remain carriers which can develop ulcers when exposed to poor sanitation and overcrowding. Rabbits with syphilis may be prone to other infections. Breeding rabbits should be regularly inspected for lesions.
Another condition that can affect both rabbits and humans (and other domestic pets) is the fungal infection ringworm. This appears as bare patches or sores on rabbits, and round, scaly patches on humans. All affected parties require treatments.
Skin Diseases & Disorders
Healthy rabbits should have a shiny coat, free of parasites. There should be regular periods of molting when the coat is replaced. A small, pink, callused area on the point of the hock is normal. Warning sign include:
- Sore or bare patches in the fur
- Lumps and bumps
- Red or raw areas on the point of the hock, or on the pads of the feet
Snuffles is a disease of the upper respiratory tract. The mucous membranes of the nasal passages become infected by bacteria from inhaled air or by direct contact with infected animals or contaminated objects. There is a direct correlation between the level of ammonia in a rabbitry and the amount of respiratory disease.
Signs & Symptoms
The disease is characterized by pus-filled nasal discharge. The extent to which the infection spreads into the lower respiratory passages depends on the harmfulness of the bacteria and susceptibility of the animal. If the disease is confined to the upper passages, the first signs are sneezing followed by nasal discharge. The rabbit’s forepaws may be caked with the discharge because of the attempts to wipe it away from his nose.
By using broad-spectrum antibiotics, the signs can be alleviated. However, the animal will remain a carrier of the bacteria and will be able to infect the offspring and caged neighbors. Vaccines have not proved to be effective.
The only effective method of control is strict culling. If a rabbit has a nasal discharge, sneezes for two consecutive days, cull it from the herd. If you are not sure when to cull a rabbit, “when in doubt, cull it out.” In addition to strict culling, good ventilation must be provided to control snuffles.
Antibiotic combinations have been used with some success in pet rabbits. If the nasal discharge regresses, take care not to stress the rabbit.
Rabbits can acquire toxoplasmosis infection only through ingestion of sporulated oocysts of the parasite, with the exception of possible congenital transmission from rabbit dams to their fetuses. Contamination of the environment with oocysts shed by the definitive hosts is considered a potential risk for both humans and other animals.
Domestic rabbits reared on farms and in backyards and pet shops in different countries were tested for Toxoplasma gondii. In northern Mexico, antibodies to T. gondii were found in 16.3% of 429 rabbits. In the studies, the high presence of the parasite infection could be caused by factors, such as rearing outdoors or in a pet shop, feeding of possibly contaminated vegetables and cohabitation with cats or dogs.1
During the summer months or days of high humidity, both bucks and does can pick up a chronic moist dermatitis known as a wet dewlap. The condition may result in a bacterial or fungal infection with loss of fur on face, dewlap, chin, legs and feet. Fungal and/ or bacterial infections are caused by continuous wetting of fur. Sometimes the infection may not be obvious.
Check the neck area and chin for possible abscesses which can result from excessive scratching of the affected area. Any slimy fur should be cut away using rounded-tipped grooming or bandage scissors. If the skin is raw, Betadine ointment is good to use as the iodine in it will kill the fungus. You can also apply baby powder, corn starch or fungus powder to dry the area. Be careful not to allow the rabbit to inhale the powder. Iodine or prescribed antifungal cream like Conofite (Miconazole Nitrate) applied to affected areas will also stop the spread of a fungal infection, especially on the legs and between the toes.
A wet dewlap during cold weather can lead to a respiratory problem, so remedy the problem immediately. Treatment is best done with the rabbit held on its back in a reclining position. Be careful when cutting fur as the skin is so thin and supple that it is very easy to cut it in error.
Image Credits: Fletch 2002, WikiMedia
- Salman et al. – Seroprevalences Of Toxoplasma Gondii And Neospora Caninum In Pet Rabbits In Japan
- Katherine Quesenberry, James W. Carpenter – Ferrets, Rabbits and Rodents: Clinical Medicine and Surgery
- Luis E. Rodríguez-Tovar et al. – Encephalitozoon Cuniculi: Grading The Histological Lesions In Brain, Kidney, And Liver During Primoinfection Outbreak In Rabbits