Diseases in Rabbits

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Medical Conditions, Parasites, Tumors, Pet Services

What are some common diseases of pet rabbits?

Common conditions of pet rabbits include upper respiratory tract infections (snuffles), internal and external parasites, dental disease, gastrointestinal (GI) stasis, uterine problems (infections or cancer), and pododermatitis (foot sores or sore hocks).

What are the signs of these diseases?

Snuffles is the common name of an infection of the upper respiratory tract often caused by bacteria including Pasteurella multocida. Most commonly, clinical signs are related to the eyes (mucus or pus-like discharge, redness, squinting) or nose and sinuses (sneezing, mucus- or pus-like discharge). The eyes and nose are generally both affected. Crusty, matted fur is often seen on the inside of the front paws from the rabbit’s rubbing its eyes and nose.

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), pneumonia (from bacterial infection of the lungs), and uterine infections (often only diagnosed during exploratory surgery) also may be seen. Sudden death from septicemia (infection in the blood) is rare but can occur.

"Rabbits can become infected with various intestinal parasites, as well as external parasites such as ear and fur mites, fleas, and occasionally ticks."

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 veterinary check-ups, including microscopic fecal examinations (at least once a year), enable early diagnosis and treatment. See specific handouts "Pinworms in Rabbits," "Coccidia in Rabbits," and "Fleas in Rabbits" for more information.

Rabbits’ teeth are continuously growing but the daily act of chewing food, as well as chewing on wooden blocks, branches, and toys, helps them wear their teeth down at a rate equal to their growth. Regular chewing of high fiber food, such as hay, helps keep the teeth at a consistent normal, functional length. Occasionally, tooth or jaw trauma, or disease will change the way the teeth grow, often causing misalignment of the upper and lower jaws and overgrowth of teeth that no longer meet and wear each other down during chewing. Both molars and the incisors (the big teeth at the front of the mouth) can be affected. Rabbits with overgrown teeth may stop eating, grind their teeth in pain, drool excessively, drop food from their mouths, and lose weight. You can easily detect a problem with the incisors simply by lifting up the rabbit’s lips and looking into the its mouth. A veterinarian familiar with rabbits can use special instruments to assess the molars, further back in the mouth, to diagnose problems with these teeth. See handout "Dental Disease in Rabbits" for more information.

Whenever a rabbit stops eating, for whatever reason (dental disease, stress, or respiratory tract infection), the normal bacteria that ferment and digest food in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract can be altered and overtaken by overgrowth of painful, gas- and toxin-producing bacteria that further suppress her appetite, making the problem worse and sometimes leading to death if left untreated. This condition, known as GI stasis, is extremely common in rabbits and can be successfully treated by your veterinarian if diagnosed early, before the rabbit is too dehydrated. Treatment includes fluids (under the skin or intravenously), syringe feeding, and GI motility-enhancing drugs.

"Over 70% of unspayed female rabbits after three years of age develop uterine cancer."

Like dogs and cats, female rabbits should be spayed early in life (by 5-6 months of age) to prevent uterine infections and cancer; over 70% of unspayed female rabbits after three years of age develop uterine cancer. This type of cancer, called uterine adenocarcinoma, should be suspected any time an unspayed female rabbit has bloody urine. Your veterinarian can diagnose uterine cancer by palpating (feeling) an enlarged uterus or seeing one on X-rays. Definitive diagnosis is typically only made during exploratory surgery to remove the uterus. Uterine cancer is completely preventable by spaying the rabbit early in life and is often completely treatable if the diseased uterus is removed surgically before the cancer spreads to the rest of the body (see handout "Spaying Rabbits" for more information on this procedure).

Pododermatitis or ’sore hocks’ or is a common condition in rabbits. The hocks are 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. When this occurs, the skin turns red and becomes ulcerated and painful. The condition is usually prevented by taking the rabbit off wire bottom cages entirely and housing them on smooth-bottomed cages. Rabbits that must live in wire cages should be provided with a section of cage floor that is smooth (such as with wood or Plexiglas) so that the rabbit can take the pressure of its feet.

How can I tell if my rabbit is sick?

Some signs of disease in rabbits may be specific for certain conditions. More commonly, however, signs are vague and non-specific, such as a rabbit with a lack of appetite and lethargy, which can occur with many diseases including GI stasis, 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 your rabbit’s appetite deviates at all from normal and you should take your rabbit to your veterinarian immediately for an evaluation. If a rabbit misses even one meal, this is a cause for concern and should be promptly investigated.

How are these diseases treated?

Many cases of snuffles are mild and, if caught early, can be managed or cured. If left untreated, particularly if the species of bacteria causing the problem is rapidly growing, this disease can be severe, chronic, and potentially fatal. A swab of ocular or nasal discharge for bacterial culture and antibiotic sensitivity testing should be taken to help guide treatment.

Treatment involves either oral or injectable antibiotics, given for a minimum of 2-4 weeks, plus an oral anti-inflammatory drug and syringe feeding if the animal is not eating well on her own. In some cases, treatment may be necessary for months depending on the response to therapy. Certain oral antibiotics, especially oral penicillin and similar drugs, can be fatal to rabbits, as they upset their normal GI bacteria and cause serious diarrhea and dehydration. There are certain oral and injectable antibiotics that can be safely used in rabbits with respiratory tract infections, but none is a sure cure. Eye drops and nose drops may be used in conjunction with oral antibiotics as prescribed by your veterinarian.

"Certain oral antibiotics, especially oral penicillin and similar drugs, can be fatal to rabbits, as they upset their normal GI bacteria and cause serious diarrhea and dehydration."

All rabbits typically carry Pasteurella organisms, but only some manifest disease from them (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 the presence of other disease, may trigger clinical signs from Pasteurella bacteria. Many rabbits become chronically infected with this organism. The disease is easily transmitted by close contact between rabbits, but not all rabbits will manifest disease.

Ideally, new rabbits should be isolated (for a minimum of one month) before introducing them to existing pets. Litter should be changed regularly to prevent ammonia accumulation from urine, which can irritate the eyes and nasal tissue, making them more susceptible to bacterial infection. Relapses may occur if your rabbit is exposed to stressful situations. It is critical to feed your rabbit a balanced diet and keep his environment clean and stress-free to minimize the chance for infection.

"External and internal parasites often occur in rabbits and are usually easily treated."

External and internal parasites often occur in rabbits and are usually easily treated. The choice of medication your veterinarian will prescribe depends upon the type of parasite and the presence of secondary infections, such as with bacteria. Veterinarians check for gastrointestinal parasites by performing a microscopic examination for parasites and for skin and haircoat parasites by performing a microscopic examination of a skin sample or an ear discharge swab. Oral medications are usually given to treat internal parasites. Oral medication, topical medication, shampoos, and/or environmental treatments may be necessary to treat external parasites, depending on the type of parasite.

One skin mite, Cheyletiella or walking dandruff, can be very challenging to eliminate, as it persists in the environment and is transmittable to people (see handout "Walking Dandruff in Rabbits" for more information). The environment and the pet must be treated simultaneously, and anyone who has been in contact with an infected rabbit and who develops skin lesions should seek the advice of a physician.

Overgrown incisors or molars can be managed by a veterinarian who files or grinds down the incisors, usually with the rabbit under anesthesia. Tooth filing 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. Rabbit veterinarians now have special dental burs and drills to safely trim rabbits’ teeth. If your rabbit has chronically overgrown teeth and needs repeated teeth trims, you may wish to discuss with your veterinarian the option of having certain problem teeth removed under general anesthesia.

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 intensive care such as hospitalization, fluid therapy, and force-feeding), early spaying, to prevent the problem from developing, is recommended. Uterine infections may also require spaying in addition to antibiotic treatment.

"Treatment of pododermatitis can be difficult and challenging, especially in the later stages of the condition."

Treatment of pododermatitis can be difficult and challenging, especially in the later stages of the condition, when infection has spread through the skin into underlying muscle, tendons, and bones. Treatment requires antibacterial medications to control the infection, coupled with cleaning and bandaging 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, and the condition can resolve. However, when left untreated, this condition can easily become a chronic, stubborn, deep infection that can be managed but not cured.

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