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Common Health Issues in Rabbits

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

Rabbits are a popular choice for many families with an estimated 900,000 rabbits kept as pets in the UK. And it's no surprise as rabbits are highly intelligent, inquisitive animals. Owning rabbits can be extremely rewarding. Rabbit's come in a variety of breeds, shapes and sizes and each bunny has there own unique personality. Typically they'll live for 8 - 12 years, but some may live for longer. In that time it's quite likely that you'll see some health issues along the way. Let's break down some of the most common health issues.

1. Swellings

These may be due to abscesses which are the most common skin swelling incidents in rabbits. They’re most common around the head region in particular but because the pus produced by rabbits is very thick, it makes draining and systemic antibiotics fail quite often. Therefore, the most preferred method of removal is a small surgical operation. If however, the surgical route isn’t an option due to complications, then there are alternatives. One in particular is getting samples of the fluid inside the abscess and using the samples to determine which antibiotics to use. For this type of swelling it takes time to build up, and you may not even realise they’re there for a while until they become noticable.

The most common cause of lumps and bumps on rabbits are warts, caused by a papilloma virus and benign growths such as fatty tumors (lipomas). Malignant skin cancers are not common in the rabbit, but do occur and are most often a metastasis of another cancer, most noteably uterine cancer. Any unusual growths on the skin should be watched for change in size, shape, or color and should be evaluated by a veterinarian. If a skin mass is removed, it is a good idea to have your veterinarian send it out for pathology so it can be identified and any further treatment can be instituted if necessary.

Home remedies are typically ineffectual and may lead to complications or even death. It is always best to consult your veterinarian rather than attempting home diagnosis and treatment

2. Holly, mistletoe and ivy poisoning

Rabbits are absolutely everywhere because, well, they breed like rabbits. But believe it or not, rabbits aren’t actually indigenous to the UK. They were introduced by the aristocracy in the 12th Century for fur and meat and they kind of just took over because they populate so fast. Now if you go down any country lane at night you’re sure to see a few Thumpers hopping about in the headlights.

However, as a result many of our native plants aren’t good for them and one of the most common is ivy. All of the plant is toxic to rabbits although particularly the leaves and berries and if your rabbit has eaten ivy symptoms may show within hours or they could take up to three days to appear. Signs of ivy poisoning include lack of appetite, diarrhoea, abdominal tenderness, and colic, as well as muscle twitching, paralysis and convulsions. Holly and mistletoe can also be poisonous.

If you think your rabbit has eaten any of these plants, remove your rabbit from the source and contact a vet. Since rabbits can’t physically vomit, you can’t induce this. Instead the best way to go is to give fluids through an IV, your local vet will be able to do this. Never give your rabbit any medicine or force them to drink without advice from your vet - rabbits are easily distressed.

3. Loss of balance or head tilt

The condition, known as torticollis, makes the neck twist, causing a bunny’s head to tilt dramatically to one side. It has many causes, including ear infections, strokes, brain tumors, and other forms of head trauma.

So there are a range of causes, but head tilt is often caused by bacterial infections of the middle and inner ear or infections of the brain. If the head tilt is caused by a bacterial infection then it’s good news - this one can be treated with some ear drops. Another common cause is the parasite Encephalitozoon cuniculi which is a significant cause of disease and can, occasionally, pass to humans. Once a rabbit has E. cuniculi. it passes infectious spores in its urine.

The bad news is that this is a lifelong ailment and will result in many other health issues such as seizures. Transmission to another rabbit occurs by eating these spores in contaminated food and water. If your rabbit has been affected it may struggle to stand up and its head may circle continuously in one direction. Rabbits should be kept as quiet as possible with dimmed lighting to avoid self-injury occurring.

4. Loss of appetite

Loss of appetite may happen gradually or suddenly and may be associated with abdominal pain or swelling, passing mucus instead of droppings, or increased salivation and drooling and wet fur around the mouth. While loss of appetite is not a specific indicator of one disease, it may be serious as it can lead to lack of gut movements. This, in turn, can result in the onset of shock due to bacterial poisons. Any rabbit that fails to eat for more than four to six hours should be seen by a vet.

5. Myxomatosis

Myxomatosis is a man made virus currently spread by biting insects including fleas and mosquitoes. It killed 99% of the UK’s rabbit population when it arrived in the country in 1953 and at the time was welcomed by farmers, who saw it as a way to eradicate an animal they saw as an agricultural pest. It causes a gradual swelling of the area around the eyes, ears, anus and genitals and can be fatal.

You should always get your rabbit vaccinated by your vet to prevent infection. But if you do see any of the signs mentioned, then you should see a vet immediately. There aren’t currently any treatments specifically for Myxomatosis, vets typically just try to keep fluids up and the rabbit comfortable to give them the best chance of fighting the virus off.

6. Rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease

RVHD is a virus spread between rabbits by direct and indirect contact such as contaminated feed. There are two strains of the disease — RVHD1 which has been in the UK since the 1980’s, and the more recently discovered RVHD2. In unvaccinated rabbits it’s fatal and sometimes there are no warning signs. In rabbits that survive the first few days after infection, diarrhoea with blood is often seen.

RVHD1 is a swift and efficient killer – almost all unvaccinated rabbits who catch RVHD1 die within a day or two. The virus causes massive internal bleeding. Some rabbits bleed from the nose and back passage before death, others die so quickly there may be no outward sign of disease at all. Owners often think their rabbit has died of “fright”, a heart attack” or (in summer) “heatstroke”. Most cases are never diagnosed: RVHD is often only suspected when several rabbits die in quick succession and post-mortem examination is needed to diagnose the illness.

RVHD2 is often fatal, although some rabbits have recovered with veterinary care. What makes it more dangerous in some ways is that it has a longer period in which the rabbit is infectious, this results in the disease spreading more widely. The strain can also be less easy to recognise because there is often no visible bleeding, so rabbits can simply be found dead or ill with no obvious cause. Due to the lack of obvious symptoms, owners often do not realise their rabbit has an infectious disease and this results in the rabbit not being given treatment early enough and precautions not being taken to contain the infection.

Your rabbits can currently be protected by injection anytime from five weeks of age, then a booster every 12 months against RVHD1. This is when it is part of the combined Myxo-RHD vaccine. RVHD2 requires a separate vaccination, every 6-12 months. These vaccinations are very effective, so it’s important that you keep your rabbits up to date with them.

7. Paralysis of one or more limbs

Paralysis of one leg may be associated with a fracture, nerve damage or a dislocation. Paralysis of both hind legs is more likely to be associated with a spinal injury such as a fracture or dislocation. These sorts of injuries are common in rabbits. Any rabbit showing signs of paralysis should be seen by a vet immediately.

8. Breathing difficulties in rabbits

If you notice a discharge from your rabbit’s eyes and nose as well as noisy breathing, your rabbit breathing fast, or open-mouthed breathing, you should contact either your own vet or, out of hours, your nearest emergency clinic immediately. These may indicate respiratory infections or heat stress, which can be very serious in rabbits.

9. Ear mites

Ear mite infestation in rabbits is caused by the parasite Psoroptes cuniculiis. The main symptom is skin scales on the inner ear, which turn into larger, thicker crusted lesions with surrounding hair loss. Ear mites are generally not an emergency but if left untreated the lesions can become infected, which can cause loss of balance and hearing. If your rabbit has ear mites you may see itching around the ear, head and neck, head shaking and a thick beige fluid in the ear canal. Mites should be dealt with promptly, as if they become an infestation and the population gets out of control then they may start draining more blood from your rabbit than he can replace.

For more information on your pet rabbits, check out our Small Pets Guide!

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