COMMON DISEASES OF PET RABBITS
What are some of the common diseases of pet rabbits?
Common conditions of pet rabbits include snuffles, hairballs, parasites, overgrown
incisors, uterine cancer, and sore hocks.
What are the signs of these diseases?
"Snuffles" is the lay term given to infection with the Pasteurella
bacterium. Most commonly, clinical signs are related to the eyes (discharge,
redness, squinting) or nose (sneezing, discharge). Often the eyes and nose are
affected at the same time. Pasteurella 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 also seen. Sudden death from septicemia (infection in the blood)
is rare but can occur.
Hairballs (trichobezoars) are relatively common in rabbits. Like cats and
ferrets, rabbits are very clean animals and love to groom themselves. Occasionally,
a lot of hair is swallowed during the grooming procedure and forms a ball in
the stomach. Rabbits can't vomit, and if the hair doesn't pass through their
intestinal tract they will develop an obstruction. Hairballs are so common that
they should always be considered as a problem in any rabbit that is lethargic
and not eating. Diagnosis can be made by taking radiographs (X-rays) of the
stomach. If the owner is sure the rabbit has not eaten within 24 hours and the
radiographs reveal food in the stomach, we can be pretty sure something is causing
an obstruction, and it is often a hairball. Sometimes, the diagnosis is only
made during exploratory surgery.
Like dogs and cats, rabbits can contract various intestinal parasites, as
well as external parasites such as fleas. Yearly microscopic fecal examinations
will allow easy diagnosis and treatment. External parasites, such as fleas,
ticks, mange, and ear mites, can also infect rabbits.
Like rodents, a rabbit's front teeth, the incisors, grow continuously throughout
life. Usually, chewing on food and wood blocks and toys keeps them a normal
length. Occasionally, this is not sufficient and the incisors will overgrow.
Rabbits with overgrown incisors may stop eating or drool excessively. Looking
into the mouth allows you to easily detect the problem.
Like dogs and cats, female rabbits should be spayed early in life (by 4-6
months of age). Whereas un-spayed female dogs and cats often develop malignant
breast cancer, and un-spayed female ferrets die of fatal anemia, unspayed female
rabbits often develop uterine cancer. The type of cancer is called uterine adenocarcinoma.
This is a relatively common condition of older female rabbits. It should be
suspected anytime an un-spayed female rabbit becomes sick. Diagnosis is difficult
and often only made during exploratory surgery.
"Sore hocks" is a condition that is fairly unique to 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 put too much pressure on the hocks, causing them to lose hair, turn red,
and become ulcerated and painful. The condition is usually prevented by supplying
rabbits that live in wire cages with another surface to sit on, such as a piece
of wood, Plexiglas, or a towel covering at least half of the wire cage.
How can I tell if my rabbit is sick?
Signs of disease in rabbits may be specific for a certain disease. Most commonly,
however, signs are vague and nonspecific, 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. ANY deviation from normal
should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinary
How are rabbit diseases treated?
Most cases of snuffles are mild. Treatment involves antibiotics. Due to potential
problems with many oral antibiotics, injections are often preferred. Eye drops
and nose drops, prescribed by your veterinary surgeon, may be needed in selected
Pasteurella is easy to treat but hard, if not impossible, to cure.
Like the kennel cough bacterium in dogs, most if not all rabbits have Pasteurella,
but only some show signs. Many rabbits are chronically infected, just like some
children always seem to have a cold. The disease is easily transmitted by close
contact between rabbits; new rabbits should be isolated (for about one month)
before introducing them to existing pets. Stressful situations, such as the
introduction of a new pet, new diet, or overcrowding, can cause relapses. Litter
should be changed regularly to prevent ammonia accumulation from the urine which
can irritate the eyes and nasal tissue.
Hairballs are best treated medically when possible, as the mortality rate
from hairball surgery is very high. For very early, mild cases, injections of
drugs that alter intestinal motility may allow the obstruction to pass. Your
veterinary surgeon may also use fluid therapy and force feeding to help encourage
the hairball to pass through the intestinal tract. Otherwise, surgery is needed
to remove the hairball. The earlier surgery is performed the better; mortality
(death) from surgery is often 50% or higher!
Many veterinary surgeons feel that giving rabbits cat hairball medicine on
a regular basis helps prevent the problem. Feeding rabbits a diet high in hay
(fiber) also helps prevent hairballs and other intestinal problems. Daily brushing
is also essential for removing excess dead hair.
External and internal parasites are usually easily treated. Which medication
your veterinary surgeon will prescribe depends upon his findings after an examination
an necessary ancillary tests, such as a fecal examination for intestinal parasites
or microscopic examination of an ear swab for ear mites.
Overgrown incisors can be treated by filing the incisors under anesthesia.
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.
Uterine 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 hospitalization, fluid therapy, and force feeding), early spaying
to prevent the problem is recommended.
Treatment of sore hocks can be difficult and challenging, especially in the
later stages of the condition. Treatment requires antibacterial medications
to clean the infected 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, difficult-to-treat condition.
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