Common rabbit diseases

There are some common diseases and problems seen in rabbits that can be prevented by ensuring you have an understanding of what a healthy rabbit requires and the subtle signs that can tell you your rabbit is unwell. Rabbits are wonderful domesticated pets, but it should be remembered that they are very closely related to wild rabbits, and as such will hide signs of illness until they are very unwell, as this would make them “easy prey” in nature. We encourage close observations of your pet rabbit, a correct diet, up to date vaccinations and regular health checks to ensure you pick up the early signs of problems, and prevent diseases developing.

The more common problems/ diseases that we see in domesticated rabbits are:

Overgrown Teeth

Cause and clinical signs

rabbit, bunny, diseases, prevention, treatment

A rabbit’s teeth continually grow throughout its life and if a rabbit is not constantly grinding their teeth down by eating fibre we start to see their molar teeth forming sharp spikes that damage their cheeks and tongue. This causes pain that makes them reluctant or unable to eat.  The incisors at the front of the mouth can, in severe cases grow around in a curl meaning rabbits cannot close their mouth or eat at all.  Once a rabbit stops eating their gut stops working and they can die.

Prevention

80-90% of your rabbit’s diet needs to be fibre in the form of oaten or grass hay. The rest of the diet should be leafy greens, with pellets and other treats being minimal to non-existent.

Treatment

A general anaesthetic and burring the teeth flat is the only treatment that can correct overgrown teeth.

Snuffles (Pasteurellosis)

Cause and clinical signs

Close contact with an infected rabbit can easily transfer the Pasteurella multocida bacterium to your rabbit. The bacteria can affect the eyes (discharge, redness, squinting) and/or nose (sneezing, discharge), thus giving the disease its name “snuffles.”  Pasteurella can infect other areas of the body as well, including ears (resulting in a head tilt), abscesses (seen as lumps on the body) and uterine infections. 

Prevention

Some strains of the bacteria remain latent in the rabbit’s nasal tract until the immune system is placed under stress, such as when a new diet or pet is introduced or if overcrowding occurs.  Reducing stress for rabbits that are infected and the quarantine of new rabbits are good ways of preventing introduction of the disease or recurrence of signs.

Treatment

Treatment involves a long and sometimes repeated course of antibiotics.  Occasionally surgery is required if an abscess forms.

Hairballs (Trichobezoars)

Cause and clinical signs

Hair can normally be found in a rabbit’s stomach as they self-groom. However, as rabbits cannot vomit, hair must be able to pass through the gut. If it can’t then it will form an obstruction and serious complications. Hairballs are so common that they should always be considered as a problem in any rabbit that is lethargic and not eating.

Prevention

Hairballs are more likely to become a problem if there is an issue with the gastrointestinal tract (gut stasis) or they are not receiving enough fibre in their diet, so a high fibre diet is a great preventative measure.

Treatment

Sometimes surgery is the only treatment if the hairball causes a blockage in the gut. Medication to get the gut working again can also help.

Uterine Tumours

Cause and clinical signs

rabbit, bunny, diseases, prevention, treatment

Entire female rabbits can develop a cancer called uterine adenocarcinoma and it should be suspected anytime an un-desexed female rabbit becomes sick. Some of the more common clinical signs include blood stained vaginal discharge, aggressive behaviour, mammary gland cysts and lethargy.

Prevention

Desexing early at 4-6 months of age.

Treatment

Desexing, hopefully prior to the cancer spreading through the body.

Myxomatosis

Cause and clinical signs

Myxomatosis is a virus that is transmitted by mosquitoes, fleas or by close contact between an infected rabbit and a susceptible rabbit.  The disease is recognised by swelling and discharge from the eyes, nose and anogenital region.

Prevention

Unfortunately there is no vaccination available in Australia. Invest in a mosquito proof rabbit hutch or bring your rabbit inside at dawn and dusk when mosquito levels are higher. Flea control can help and when introducing new rabbits keep them isolated for at least 2 weeks.

Treatment

The disease is invariably fatal.

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (previously known as Rabbit Calicivirus)

Cause and clinical signs

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus (previously known as Rabbit Calicivirus) is spread by mosquitoes, flies and/or through indirect contact or direct contact with an infected rabbit.  

There are currently four strains of RHDV virus (RHDV1, RHDVa, RHDV2 and RHDV1 K5). Rabbit haemorrhagic disease virus (RHDV) 1 K5 will be released nationally in the first week of March 2017. This virus is being released as a biocontrol measure to manage wild European rabbits. 

In most adult rabbits the disease progresses rapidly from fever and lethargy to sudden death within 48-72 hours of infection. The incubation period for the RHDV is between one to three days. Most rabbits will show no signs of external symptoms of RHDV.

The clinical signs include poor appetite, restlessness, lethargy and fever.  The disease causes acute liver damage with resultant blood clotting abnormalities. This disease can be fatal due to the obstruction of blood supply in vital organs and/or internal haemorrhages. RHDV has a mortality rate of 70 to 90% in susceptible rabbits.

Prevention

Vaccinating your rabbit will:

  • Provide protection against RHDV1

  • From the limited research carried out, it would indicate that it does provide protection against RHDV1 K5.

  • May or may not provide protection against RHDVa and RHDV2 and not in every rabbit.

Vaccinations are administered every 6 months for adult rabbits. Adult rabbits that are overdue for a vaccination or have not previously been vaccinated will need to be given two vaccinations, one month apart. Young rabbit kittens can be vaccinated from four weeks of age repeated monthly until 12 weeks of age and then every six months.

We recommend along with vaccination:

  • Preventing direct and indirect contact between domestic and wild rabbits.

  • Avoid cutting grass and feeding it to rabbits if there is the risk of contamination from wild rabbits.

  • Wash hands, with warm soapy water between handling rabbits.

  • Good insect control is also important and will help reduce the risks of introduction of both Calicivirus and Myxomatosis. Insect control could include insect proofing the hutch and keeping rabbits indoors. We also recommend a monthly treatment with a topical biting insect preventative, but please talk to your vet about the correct dosage regime.

  • Infected rabbits should be isolated with care taken to minimise environmental contamination.

Treatment

There is no treatment available. 

Often there are subtle changes in your rabbit’s behaviour that may be a clue to a disease process occurring.  If you have noticed any changes or are concerned about something your bunny has been doing then it is advised to get them checked by your vet. The earlier problems are detected the better your rabbit’s chances are of living a healthy life.

Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any questions or require further information.

For more information see the page on Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease Virus

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