INFECTIOUS DISEASES OF RABBITS
Two serious diseases caused by viruses are very common in rabbits. They
are myxomatosis and viral hemorrhagic disease and every pet rabbit
should be vaccinated against them. Because they are viral diseases there are
no effective treatments once the rabbit is infected.
This is caused by the myxoma virus which is widely distributed in the
wild rabbit population. You might argue that your rabbit never comes into direct
contact with animals from the wild and so does not need vaccination. The problem
is that the virus is carried by rabbit fleas and mosquitoes so the disease can
be passed on without direct contact. The incubation period is two days to a
week and the first sign is the development of puffy eyelids and a purulent (pus-producing)
conjunctivitis. Swelling under the skin extends around the eyes, ears and genital
region. Death is usually 18 days to three weeks after infection but occasionally
animals will survive and signs regress over three months.
Pregnant animals should not be vaccinated, nor rabbits under six weeks
old. Occasionally there is a local reaction at the injection site but compared
with the lethal infection seen of many unvaccinated animals this is insignificant.
Viral hemorrhagic disease
This was first noticed in China many years ago but now has an almost worldwide
distribution. Viral hemorrhagic disease is caused by a calicivirus and, although
the incubation period is up to three days, animals may die suddenly without
any clinical signs. If there are signs they include anorexia (not eating), pyrexia
(fever) apathy and prostration. There may be convulsions and coma, dyspnoea
(difficulty breathing), a mucoid foaming at the mouth or a bloody nasal discharge.
Some animals survive this acute phase but die a few weeks later of liver disease
Given the horrendous death experienced by affected rabbits, every rabbit
should be vaccinated annually or even every six months in areas where the disease
Two other infectious diseases of rabbits are Encephalitozoan cuniculi and
This disease also known as Nosema cuniculi, causes a chronic latent
condition in rabbits, with active disease being characterized by neurological
signs such as seizures, paralysis and eventually coma. There are no particularly
effective drugs to treat the disease although sulfonamide antibiotics may be
useful. Encephalitozoonosis has been described in a few cases in people but
its significance is not really known. This underlines the importance of always
washing your hands after handling any animal and particularly before eating
or preparing food.
Pasteurella is a bacterium which commonly causes abscesses and inflammatory
disease in rabbits. It can infect the nasolacrimal (tear) duct, and can cause
abscesses of with tooth roots, skin or internal organs. A very common problem
associated with the organism is upper respiratory tract infection causing snuffles.
Indeed it may be that most rabbits have this organism in their noses but the
immune system keeps it at bay. Only when the rabbit is under stress can the
bacterium start to cause overt clinical problems. Treatment may include antibiotics
but these do not penetrate well into the pus produced by Pasteurella infection.
Also, rabbits do not take particularly kindly to antibiotics since they upset
the delicate balance of normal bacteria in their gut, so vital for digestion.
Surgery is possible if the abscess if in or under the skin but abscesses in
the middle ear (causing balance problems), in the eyeball (causing blindness)
or in the internal organs, are less easy to treat. Because some form of stress
probably triggers clinical disease, it is important to keep your rabbit as healthy
as possible and this will mean taking him or her your veterinarian at least
once a year for a thorough general examination.
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