Rabbits - Diseases

What are some of the common diseases of pet rabbits?

Common conditions of pet rabbits include snuffles, internal and external parasites, overgrown incisors, uterine problems (infections or cancer), and sore hocks.


What are the signs of these diseases?rabbits-diseases-1

"Snuffles" is the lay term given to an infection of the upper respiratory tract generally caused by species of bacteria called Pasteurella multocida.(although other bacteria can also cause this infection). Most commonly, clinical signs are related to the eyes (mucoid or purulent discharge, redness, squinting) or nose and sinuses (sneezing, mucoid or purulent discharge). Often the eyes and nose are affected at the same time. Crusty, matted fur is often seen on the inside of the front paws. Pasteurella multocida can infect other areas of the body as well. Ear infections (resulting in a head tilt), abscesses (seen as lumps on the body), and uterine infections (often only diagnosed during exploratory surgery) are frequently seen. Sudden death from septicemia (infection in the blood) is rare but can occur.

Rabbits can become infected with various intestinal parasites (coccidia and pinworms are common), as well as external parasites such as ear and fur mites, fleas and occasionally ticks. Regular examinations including microscopic fecal examinations (at least once a year) will allow easy diagnosis and treatment.

A rabbit's teeth are continuously growing but the daily act of chewing food as well as chewing on wooden blocks, branches and toys helps them wear down at a rate equal to their growth. Regular chewing exercise keeps the teeth at a consistent normal, functional length. Occasionally, trauma or disease will change the way the teeth grow and they will become overgrown. Both the molars and the incisors (the big teeth you can see at the front of the mouth) can be affected, but the incisors are more often the problem. Rabbits with overgrown teeth may stop eating and drool excessively. You can easily detect a problem with the incisors by looking into the rabbit's mouth. A veterinarian familiar with rabbits will have to assess the molars, which are further back in the mouth.

Like dogs and cats, female rabbits should be spayed early in life (by 4-6 months of age). Un-spayed female dogs and cats often develop malignant breast cancer, un-spayed female ferrets can die of fatal anemia, while un-spayed female rabbits often develop uterine cancer. This type of cancer is called uterine adenocarcinoma and is a relatively common condition of older intact female rabbits. It should be suspected anytime an un-spayed female rabbit becomes sick or is passing blood. Diagnosis is difficult and often only made definitively during exploratory surgery.

"Un-spayed female rabbits often develop uterine cancer."

"Sore hocks" or pododermatitis is a condition that is fairly common in rabbits. The hocks are essentially the ankles of rabbits. When a rabbit is sitting, which it does most of the time, its hocks are in contact with the floor of its cage. Often, wire-floored cages are too rough on the hocks, causing the protective fur layer on the sole of the foot and the hock to wear thin; the skin turns red, eventually wears through and becomes ulcerated and painful. The condition is usually prevented by taking the rabbit off wire bottom cages entirely or for rabbits that must live in wire cages, provide with another surface to sit on, such as a piece of wood, Plexiglas, or a towel that covers at least half of the wire cage.


How can I tell if my rabbit is sick?

Some signs of disease in rabbits may be specific for a certain disease. More commonly, however, signs are vague and non-specific, such as a rabbit with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases including hairballs, uterine cancer, and even kidney or liver failure.

"If a rabbit misses even one meal this is a cause for concern and should be promptly investigated."

You should be concerned if you notice ANY deviation from normal, and should immediately take your rabbit to your veterinarian for an evaluation. If a rabbit misses even one meal this is a cause for concern and should be promptly investigated.


How are rabbit diseases treated?

Most cases of snuffles are mild and, if caught early, can be managed or cured. If left untreated or if the strain of bacteria is particularly aggressive, this disease can be severe, chronic and potentially fatal. A swab for bacterial culture can be taken to help guide treatment. Treatment usually involves either oral or injectable antibiotics, given for a minimum of 2 - 4 weeks. In some cases, treatment can be required for months (or rarely for years) depending on the response to therapy. Certain oral antibiotics, especially oral penicillin and similar drugs, can be fatal to rabbits. There are some excellent oral and injectable antibiotics for use in rabbits with this infection, but none is a sure cure. Eye drops and nose drops , may be used in conjunction with other antibiotics as prescribed by your veterinarian.

All rabbits carry some Pasteurella organisms, but only some show or manifest disease (the immune system generally keeps the organisms in check). Stresses such as improper diet, new diet, change in diet, introduction of a new pet, overcrowding, environmental stresses, immunosuppression or other disease may trigger clinical disease. Many rabbits become chronically infected. The disease is easily transmitted by close contact between rabbits but remember that not all rabbits will manifest disease. Ideally, new rabbits should be isolated (for about one month) before introducing them to existing pets. Litter should be changed regularly to prevent ammonia accumulation from the urine, which can irritate the eyes and nasal tissue. Relapses may occur if your rabbit is exposed to stressful situations. It is important to keep your rabbit as healthy as possible, to minimize problems with pasteurellosis.

External and internal parasites are usually treated easily. The choice of medication your veterinarian will prescribe depends upon the findings of an examination and any necessary ancillary tests, such as a fecal examination for intestinal parasites or microscopic examination of a skin sample or an ear swab for ear mites. Oral medications are usually given for internal parasites. Oral medication, topical medication, shampoos and/or environmental treatments may be necessary for external parasites, depending on the diagnosis. One skin mite, called Cheyletiella or walking dandruff, can be very challenging to eliminate.

Overgrown incisors or molars can be managed by filing or grinding down the incisors, usually under anesthesia. This tooth trimming often has to be repeated at regular intervals, as the teeth continue to grow throughout the rabbit's life. Clipping the teeth with nail trimmers or wire cutters, once a popular treatment, is no longer recommended due to the ease with which the incisors can fracture (break), resulting in pain and infection. You may wish to discuss with your veterinarian the option of having certain problem teeth removed under general anesthetic.

"Clipping the teeth with nail trimmers or wire cutters, once a popular treatment, is no longer recommended due to the ease with which the incisors can fracture (break), resulting in pain and infection."

rabbits-diseases-2Uterine adenocarcinoma is treated surgically by spaying the rabbit. Because the cost of the procedure is higher when the rabbit is sick (rabbits with uterine cancer may need intensive care such as hospitalization, fluid therapy, and force-feeding), early spaying to prevent the problem is recommended. Uterine infections may also require spaying in addition to antibiotics.

Treatment of sore hocks can be difficult and challenging, especially in the later stages of the condition. Treatment requires antibacterial medications to control the infection, coupled with cleaning of the sores on the hocks. Providing soft bedding is essential to allow the sores to heal. When caught early, the hocks can usually be treated without much effort. However, this can easily become a chronic, stubborn, deep infection.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Rick Axelson, DVM

© Copyright 2009 Lifelearn Inc. Used and/or modified with permission under license.