Rabbit Syphilis or Treponematosis

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, D.V.M

What is rabbit syphilis?

Rabbit syphilis is a sexually transmitted disease caused by a spirochete organism called Treponema cuniculi. It is a different spirochete from the human Treponema pallidum. Humans cannot get this particular organism or disease from a rabbit.

How did my rabbit get syphilis?

Rabbits get syphilis from other infected rabbits through sexual contact, direct contact with the sores of an infected rabbit, or at birth during the vaginal passage. Your rabbit may have had the infection when you obtained him/her.

What are the signs of syphilis in rabbits?

The sores are confined to the mucocutaneous junctions (where skin meets mucous membranes), such as the external genitals, anus, lips, nostrils, and eyelids. They may start in these areas as redness and swelling but will progress to pimple-like sores, then ulcerate, and end up as crusty sores. They may come and go, appear to resolve, then reappear perhaps after episodes of stress. Often, the lesions are seen only around the face from rabbits sniffing each other. Genital sores may be missed, as this is not an area of the body that owners tend to examine on a regular basis.

How is rabbit syphilis diagnosed?

This disease is most often a presumptive diagnosis based on history and/or diagnosed by the physical signs your rabbit is showing. It can also be diagnosed in retrospect by its response to treatment. There are some blood tests available, but it may take up to 12 weeks for results. Skin biopsies sent to a laboratory for analysis can also be used to confirm the diagnosis.

How is rabbit syphilis treated?

Your veterinarian will treat the infection with two to three weekly administrations of injectable penicillin.

Caution: oral penicillin may cause a fatal intestinal condition and should NEVER be used in rabbits.

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