Fleas in Rabbits

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

What are fleas?

Rabbits can acquire external parasites, including fleas. Fleas are small, insect parasites that may take up residence on your rabbit, especially if your rabbit goes outdoors or lives in a house with dogs or cats that have fleas. Fleas are acquired from other infested animals or environments (e.g., visiting another home with a flea infestation). Fleas can affect a rabbit of any age and sex.

What are the signs of fleas on my rabbit?

Your rabbit may or may not be itchy, depending on its sensitivity to flea bites. You may see the rabbit biting, licking, chewing, or scratching itself. Early in the infestation, there may be no signs that your rabbit has fleas. There may be a history of fleas on other animals in the home, or perhaps other infested animals previously lived in the home, such as a previous tenant in an apartment or home. (Image shows hair loss on a rabbit due to fleas; photo courtesy of Gregory Rich, DVM).

Fleas leave their feces on the skin, in the rabbit’s fur. Flea feces is called flea dirt. Flea dirt is small, comma-shaped, black debris the size of pepper grains. Fleas or flea dirt may be seen on a fine flea comb used for grooming. The fecal material from fleas is digested blood the flea produces by consuming the rabbit’s blood. When placed in warm water, flea dirt colors the water pink or red.Regular veterinary examinations (at least once a year) help with early identification of the problem and proper treatment.

"In severe flea infestations, anemia can become life threatening."

You may find small, red bite marks or sores on the skin, which will occasionally become infected and develop into a secondary bacterial skin infection. Each flea takes a small blood meal, and young rabbits with heavy infestations may, over time, become anemic (lack of red blood cells). In severe flea infestations, anemia can become life threatening.

Regular veterinary examinations (at least once a year) help with early identification of the problem and proper treatment. Your veterinarian will examine the rabbit’s hair/fur and skin for evidence of fleas and other external parasites and determine appropriate treatment.

How are rabbits with fleas treated?

Because fleas also affect dogs and cats, all animals in the house should be treated. There are no rabbit-specific drugs for managing fleas. All products used for rabbits are also used for dogs and cats, and their use in rabbits is described as “off label”. Selamectin is a topical anti-parasite medication that has been used effectively and appears to be safe but should only be used under the guidance of a veterinarian familiar with rabbits. Overdosage can be harmful to your rabbit.

"It is very important to treat the environment as well as the pet."

Topical flea powders, premise sprays (for use around the , or even professional pest exterminators may be used, but consult your veterinarian first. Since flea eggs fall off the animal and adult fleas can live off the rabbit in carpets and other areas of the home, it is very important to treat the environment as well as the pet.

Depending on environmental humidity and temperature, flea eggs may hatch in as little as 14-28 days, producing the next crop of adult fleas looking for a blood meal. Fleas only hop on the pet long enough to take a blood meal and move around for a short period of time. It is postulated that only 5-10% of the fleas in the house are on the pet at any given time. Treatment must be long enough to get the last egg hatched. Consult with a veterinarian familiar with rabbits regarding the proper topical and environmental treatments.

Do I have to worry about being affected by fleas myself?

In heavy infestations, fleas may bite humans and may cause problems in people sensitive to insect bites. Bite marks may be noticed around the ankles. Generally, the problem is self-limiting following elimination of the parasite from the home. However, anyone experiencing skin problems in a flea-infested house should consult with their physician.

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