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Disorders and Diseases of Rabbits

By

Diane McClure

, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, Animal Resource Center Veterinary Services

Last full review/revision Aug 2020 | Content last modified Sep 2020
Topic Resources

Rabbits fed a suitable diet and kept in a healthy environment can live as long as 10 to 12 years. The most common diseases of rabbits include digestive system problems, respiratory infections, and skin disorders. These and other medical problems are discussed in this section. Some of these diseases can also be passed from rabbits to people (see Diseases that can be Spread from Rabbits to People).

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Diseases that can be Spread from Rabbits to People

Disease

Organism

  • Dermatophytosis (ringworm)

  • Listeriosis

  • Encephalitozoonosis

  • Mites

  • Tularemia

  • Trichophyton mentagrophytes and Microsporum canis

  • Listeria monocytogenes

  • Encephalitozoon cuniculi

  • Cheyletiella parasitovorax, Sarcoptes scabiei, and Notoedres cati

  • Francisella tularensis

Digestive Disorders

Digestive disorders in rabbits include both noninfectious disorders (for example, hairballs) and infectious diseases. Intestinal infections are common and lead to diarrhea, which can quickly cause serious complications. If you notice that your rabbit has stopped eating or has other signs of a digestive problem, see your veterinarian promptly.

Hair Chewing and Hairballs

Rabbits groom themselves almost constantly, so their stomachs often contain hair. The hair is normally passed through the digestive tract and out through the animal’s droppings. Hair chewing is usually caused by a low-fiber diet and can be corrected by increasing the fiber in the diet or feeding hay along with the pellets. Adding magnesium oxide to the diet at 0.25% also may be helpful. In some cases, hair chewing is a result of boredom. Providing toys and items on which to gnaw often stops this abnormal behavior.

The hair becomes a problem only if too much is consumed or if it builds up in the stomach and causes a blockage (commonly called a hairball). If this happens, the rabbit loses its appetite, loses weight, and dies within 3 to 4 weeks. Diagnosing the blockage before the rabbit dies can be difficult. Hairballs are rarely visible on x-ray images.

Once a blockage has occurred, the goals of treatment are to remove the obstruction, restore the digestive tract’s balance, get the digestive system working properly again, and relieve dehydration and loss of appetite. Treatment includes giving fluids and pain relievers. Probiotic supplements may be recommended to reestablish the natural balance of microorganisms in the animal’s digestive system.

Fresh pineapple juice (which contains the digestive enzyme bromelain) and papaya (which contains the enzyme papain) may help break down the mucus holding the hairball together. Canned pineapple juice is not effective because the canning process destroys the enzyme. However, you should always check with your veterinarian before giving your rabbit juices or enzyme supplements. Mineral oil, cat hairball treatments, and laxatives do not effectively remove hairballs from rabbits. Roughage (hay or straw) should be fed during the treatment to help carry the hair fibers through the digestive tract and out with the feces. Surgical treatment is effective but may be risky.

Prevention is the best option. Providing a high-fiber diet, avoiding stress and obesity, enriching the environment with toys and items to chew, and combing the rabbit daily to remove loose hair help prevent this condition.

Intestinal Diseases

Intestinal disease is a major cause of death in young rabbits. Diet, antibiotic treatment, and other factors disturb naturally occurring gut bacteria and may make rabbits more susceptible to intestinal disease.

Diarrhea in your rabbit for any length of time is a cause for concern. If it occurs, you should promptly take your rabbit in for an examination.

Enterotoxemia causes rapidly developing, severe diarrhea, primarily in rabbits 4 to 8 weeks old. It occasionally affects adults and adolescent rabbits. Signs include lack of energy, rough coat, staining around the hind end, and death within 48 hours. A rabbit may look healthy in the evening and be dead the next morning. Clostridium spiroforme bacteria are the usual cause of enterotoxemia. Little is known about how the organism is spread; it is assumed to be an organism that is normally present in low numbers. Diet may be a factor in development of the disease. Enterotoxemia is seen less often when high-fiber diets are fed. Certain antibiotics—including lincomycin, clindamycin, and erythromycin—seem to cause enterotoxemia in rabbits and should not be given orally. Diagnosis depends on history, signs, lesions, and detection of Clostridium bacteria.

Treatment for enterotoxemia includes fluid treatment and supportive care. There is little evidence that antibiotics are helpful. Reducing stress (such as crowding) in young rabbits and feeding unlimited hay or straw help prevent the disease. Adding copper sulfate to the diet of young rabbits may also help prevent enterotoxemia. Check with your veterinarian regarding this medication.

Tyzzer disease, caused by Clostridium piliforme bacteria, is characterized by large amounts of watery diarrhea. Other signs of illness are loss of appetite, dehydration, loss of energy, staining of the hindquarters, and death within 1 to 3 days in recently weaned rabbits. In severe outbreaks, more than 90% of affected rabbits may die. Some rabbits may develop long-lasting infections that appear as a wasting disease. The infection is spread when rabbits eat contaminated food or droppings and is associated with poor sanitation and stress. The disease causes damage to the intestines, liver, and heart. A veterinarian can perform tests to confirm the diagnosis of Tyzzer disease.

Most antibiotics used to treat this disease in other animals have not been effective in rabbits. However, the antibiotic oxytetracycline has helped in some cases. Following a disease outbreak, thorough disinfection and decontamination of the cage or hutch using either 1% peracetic acid or 3% bleach helps reduce the presence of bacteria.

Escherichia coli bacteria can also cause diarrhea in rabbits; this disease is called colibacillosis. These bacteria also tend to multiply when a rabbit develops diarrhea for any reason. Healthy rabbits do not have E coli in their digestive tracts.

Two types of colibacillosis are seen in rabbits, depending on their age. Rabbits 1 to 2 weeks old develop a severe yellowish diarrhea that is often fatal. It is common for entire litters to die of this disease. In weaned rabbits 4 to 6 weeks old, diarrhea very similar to that described for enterotoxemia (see above) is seen. Death often occurs in 5 to 14 days. Rabbits that survive are not healthy and may not grow to their normal size. A veterinarian makes the diagnosis by testing for E coli. In severe cases, treatment is not successful. In mild cases, antibiotics may be helpful. Your rabbit’s cage and other living areas should be thoroughly sanitized. High-fiber diets appear to help prevent the disease in weaned rabbits.

Proliferative enteropathy caused by Lawsonia intracellularis bacteria may cause diarrhea in recently weaned rabbits. Signs include diarrhea, depression, and dehydration, which go away within 1 to 2 weeks. This disease does not cause death unless it occurs along with infection by another organism that causes intestinal disease. Isolation of sick animals and treatment of symptoms is advised.

Mucoid enteritis is a diarrheal disease of rabbits that causes inflammation, an abnormally high level of secretions, and a buildup of mucus in the small and large intestines. The cause is unknown, and this condition may occur at the same time as other intestinal diseases. Factors that contribute to the disease include recent dietary changes, too much or too little fiber in the diet, antibiotic treatment, environmental stress, and infection with other bacteria. Signs are gelatinous or mucus-covered droppings, loss of appetite, loss of energy, low body temperature, dehydration, rough coat, and often a bloated abdomen due to excess water in the stomach. Your veterinarian may be able to feel an intestinal blockage. The hind end is often covered with mucus and signs of diarrhea. Diagnosis is based on signs and findings of gelatinous mucus in the colon after death. There is no effective treatment, but intensive fluid therapy, antibiotics, and pain relievers may be tried. Affected rabbits may live for about 1 week. Prevention is the same as for any other rabbit intestinal disease.

Rotavirus causes diarrhea in rabbits. It is shed in the droppings of infected rabbits and is probably transmitted by the droppings-mouth route. Young rabbits of weaning age are most susceptible. Rotavirus appears to cause only mild disease on its own, but most rotavirus infections are complicated with disease-causing bacteria such as Clostridium or E coli. The mixed infection results in a much more deadly syndrome. There is no treatment, but the infection appears to be self-limiting if susceptible rabbits are not continually introduced into the population. Stopping breeding for 4 to 6 weeks seems to allow the disease to run its course because affected does do not infect their offspring.

Reportable Diseases Found in Rabbits

Some diseases of rabbits can also infect people and are considered to be public health concerns. Veterinarians or laboratories that diagnose one of these diseases must report it to certain local, state, and national agencies. Reporting a disease allows these agencies to identify trends in disease occurrence.

The following are reportable diseases in rabbits:

  • Rabbit calicivirus disease (viral hemorrhagic disease)

  • Tularemia

Rabbit calicivirus disease, also known as viral hemorrhagic disease, is highly infectious in European rabbits (Oryctolagus). Cottontail rabbits and jackrabbits are not susceptible. Humans and other mammals are also not affected. The calicivirus is highly contagious and can be transmitted by direct contact with infected rabbits or indirectly by inanimate objects. Infection results in fever and causes liver damage, inflammation of the intestines, and damage to lymph nodes, followed by a disorder of blood clotting and bleeding within multiple organs. Rabbits show few signs and die within 24 hours of fever onset. The infection rate in an affected group is often close to 100% and the death rate is 60% to 90%.

Rabbit calicivirus disease was first reported in 1984 in China. From there, it spread through domestic and wild rabbit populations in continental Europe. The first report of the virus in the Western Hemisphere was in Mexico City in 1988. Outbreaks of rabbit calicivirus disease occurred in Australia (1995), New Zealand (1997), and Cuba (1997). Rabbit calicivirus disease was confirmed in a group of 27 rabbits in Iowa in 2000. The source of infection was not determined. The outbreak was contained, the virus was eliminated, and the USA remains free of this disease. This is a reportable disease, which means that any veterinarian who identifies it must notify the appropriate government authorities.

Coccidiosis is a common disease in rabbits across the world. It is caused by protozoa (single-celled organisms). There are 2 forms of the disease: hepatic, which affects the liver, and intestinal, which affects the intestines. Both types are caused by Eimeria protozoa. Transmission of both forms is by ingestion, usually in contaminated feed or water. Rabbits that recover frequently become carriers.

Young rabbits are the age group most susceptible to hepatic coccidiosis. Affected rabbits may have no appetite and have a rough coat. Disease is usually mild, but growing rabbits may fail to gain weight. Death occasionally occurs after a short period of illness.

Intestinal coccidiosis can occur regardless of the conditions in which rabbits are housed. Infections are typically mild, and often no signs are seen. Good sanitation programs that can eliminate hepatic coccidiosis do not seem to eliminate intestinal coccidiosis.

Your veterinarian can perform laboratory tests to confirm the diagnosis of coccidiosis. Treatment is difficult and is aimed at controlling rather than curing the disease. Anticoccidial drugs may be prescribed. Rabbits that are treated successfully for hepatic coccidiosis are immune to subsequent infections. Follow your veterinarian’s treatment program carefully for the best results.

Treatment for hepatic coccidiosis will not be successful unless a sanitation program is started at the same time. Feed hoppers and water crocks must be cleaned and disinfected daily to prevent them from becoming contaminated with animal droppings. Hutches should be kept dry and the feces removed often. Wire cage bottoms should be brushed daily with a wire brush to help break the life cycle of the protozoa. Ammonia solution (10%) can be used to disinfect cages or other equipment exposed to contaminated feces.

Although adult tapeworm infections are rare in domestic rabbits, finding tapeworm larvae in rabbits is common. Rabbits serve as the intermediate hosts for 2 species of tapeworms found in dogs. Generally, there are no signs of infection. Treatment is usually not attempted, but control is accomplished by keeping dogs (the final hosts of the tapeworm) away from the area in which food and nesting material are stored.

The roundworm Baylisascaris procyonis has been reported in rabbits. Infection may cause signs of nervous system disease, such as loss of balance, tremors, and head tilt. No effective treatment is available.

The rabbit pinworm usually does not cause disease but may be upsetting to owners. Transmission of the pinworm occurs by ingesting contaminated food or water. The adult worm lives in the large intestine. Diagnosis is made by finding the eggs during examination of feces. Effective treatments are available. Rabbit pinworms cannot be transmitted to humans.

Eye and Ear Disorders

Corneal ulceration (an ulcer on the front of the eyeball) is the most common eye problem in rabbits. Rabbits are prone to ulcers or trauma to the cornea because of their large eyes and because they do not blink as often as other species, so the cornea is not as moist. Causes of corneal ulcers include environmental factors, trauma, lack of tear production, and disorders (such as those affecting nerves) that make blinking difficult. Corneal ulcers are treated with antibiotic eye ointments and sometimes with surgery.

Conjunctivitis (inflammation of the tissue around the eye)causes redness and discharge from the eyes. It may be associated with eye irritants, eyelid disorders, and dental disease. Dacryocystitis (inflammation of the tear ducts) often occurs at the same time as conjunctivitis in rabbits. Infections can be caused by bacteria or viruses. Conjunctivitis in rabbits is transmitted by direct contact with an infected rabbit or contaminated objects, such as bedding materials. Affected rabbits rub their eyes with their front feet. The condition is usually treated with an antibacterial eye ointment. Follow your veterinarian’s treatment program carefully because many antibiotics are not suitable for use in rabbits. This infection commonly recurs. Your veterinarian may need to flush the tear ducts to treat dacryocystitis.

Otitis media (middle ear infection) and otitis interna (inner ear infection) are caused by bacterial infections. Some affected rabbits have a head tilt. Otitis media and interna are treated with antibiotics. Surgical procedures on the ear may be necessary if medical treatment alone does not resolve the infection.

Bone and Muscle Disorders

Fractures and dislocations of the lower back, causing the spinal cord to be compressed or severed, are common in rabbits. Signs include hind end muscle weakness, paralysis, or inability to control urination or defecation. Initial signs of paralysis may go away within 3 to 5 days as swelling around the cord shrinks. Treatment involves hospitalization for anti-inflammatory medication, pain relievers, intravenous fluids, nursing care, and cage rest.

Splay leg is a condition in which 1 or more legs extend sideways from the body at an abnormal angle. The condition occurs in rabbits as young as 3 to 4 weeks of age and is thought to be inherited. Baby rabbits housed on slick flooring may also develop splay leg. Affected rabbits may have difficulty walking.

Lung and Airway Disorders

Pasteurellosis, a bacterial infection caused by Pasteurella multocida, is common in domestic rabbits. It is highly contagious and is transmitted primarily by direct contact, although transmission by coughing or sneezing may also occur. In rabbit colonies, 30% to 90% of apparently healthy rabbits may be carriers that show no signs of the disease. Pasteurellosis can cause rhinitis (runny nose), pneumonia, abscesses (pus-filled sores), reproductive tract infections, head tilt, and blood infection.

Rhinitis (snuffles or stuffy, runny nose) is inflammation of the mucous membranes of the air passages and lungs. The condition can appear suddenly or it can be long-lasting. Pasteurella bacteria are the usual culprits, but other bacteria may cause rhinitis. The initial sign is a thin, watery discharge from the nose and eyes. The discharge later becomes thicker, like pus. Because affected rabbits paw at the nose, the fur on the inside of the front legs just above the paws may be matted with dried discharge or may have thin fur. Infected rabbits usually sneeze and cough. In general, rhinitis occurs when the resistance of the rabbit is low. Rabbits that recover are likely carriers.

Pneumonia is common in domestic rabbits. The cause is typically Pasteurella bacteria, but other bacteria may be involved. The infection causes inflammation of the lungs and of the membrane surrounding the lungs. Upper respiratory disease (rhinitis) often occurs before pneumonia. Inadequate ventilation, poor sanitation, and dirty nesting material make rabbits susceptible to pneumonia. Affected rabbits lack appetite and energy and may have a fever. Diagnosis is based on clinical signs and laboratory test results. Treatment is difficult and generally involves several weeks of antibiotics. Antibiotic treatment may not cure the infection, however.

Reproductive Disorders

Reproductive disorders of rabbits include bacterial infections and metabolic disorders. Also, see Breeding and Reproduction of Rabbits.

Pasteurella bacteria often cause genital infections, which may also be caused by several other organisms. The typical signs include inflammation of the reproductive tract and are usually seen in adults. Does are more often infected than bucks. The rabbit uterus consists of 2 divisions (horns). If both horns are affected, the doe often becomes sterile. If only 1 horn is involved, a normal litter may develop in the other. The only sign of an infection in the uterus may be a thick, yellowish-gray vaginal discharge. Bucks may discharge pus from the penis or have an enlarged testicle. Longterm infection of the prostate is likely. Because the infection can be passed during breeding, infected animals should not be bred. In pet rabbits, the infected reproductive organs are usually removed surgically and antibiotics given. The contaminated hutch and its equipment should be thoroughly disinfected. Diagnosis of pasteurellosis is based on signs and laboratory tests that detect the bacteria. Treatment is difficult and may not completely get rid of the organism. Antibiotics seem to provide only temporary remission, and the next stress (such as giving birth to a litter) may cause relapse.

Ketosis (Pregnancy Toxemia)

Ketosis is a rare disorder that may result in death of does 1 to 2 days before giving birth. The disease is more common in first-litter does. Possible contributing factors include obesity and lack of exercise. Hairballs in the stomach may also be a factor. Signs of ketosis include loss of appetite, dullness of eyes, sluggishness, and difficulty breathing. To treat ketosis, your veterinarian may inject fluids that contain glucose.

Treponematosis (Vent Disease, Rabbit Syphilis)

Treponematosis is a venereal disease of rabbits caused by Treponema bacteria. It occurs in both sexes and is transmitted through sexual intercourse and from the doe to her offspring. Although the species of Treponema that causes rabbit treponematosis is closely related to the species that causes human syphilis, these bacteria are not transmissible to other domestic animals or humans. The incubation period is 3 to 6 weeks. Affected rabbits develop small blisters or slow-healing sores that become covered with a heavy scab. These sores usually are confined to the genital region, but the lips and eyelids may also be involved. Infected rabbits should not be bred. Diagnosis is based on the signs and laboratory tests. Hutch burn (see below) is often confused with treponematosis because the diseases have very similar signs.

Treponematosis is treated with penicillin injections. Rabbits should not be given penicillin by mouth because oral penicillin can cause dangerous antibiotic-associated diarrhea. All rabbits in a group must be treated even if no signs of disease are present. Sores usually heal within 10 to 14 days, and recovered rabbits can be bred without danger of transmitting the infection.

Mastitis (Blue Breasts)

Mastitis (inflammation of the breasts) affects nursing does and may cause fatal blood infection. It rarely occurs in pet rabbits. Mastitis is usually caused by Staphylococcus bacteria, but other bacteria may be involved. Initially, the mammary glands become hot, reddened, and swollen. Later, they may become a bluish color, hence the common names “blue bag” and “blue breasts.” The doe will not eat but may crave water. Fever is often present.

If antibiotic treatment is started early (the first day the doe stops eating), the rabbit may be saved and damage limited to 1 or 2 mammary glands. Because penicillin often causes diarrhea in rabbits, does treated with this antibiotic should be fed hay or some other high-fiber diet rather than a pelleted ration (see Disorders and Diseases of Rabbits : Intestinal Diseases). Kits should not be fostered to another doe because they will spread the infection. Hand-rearing infected young may be attempted but is difficult.

The incidence of mastitis can be reduced if nest boxes are maintained without rough edges to the entrance, which can traumatize the teats when the doe jumps in and out of the nest box. The nest box should be sanitized before and after use.

Skin Disorders

Skin disorders in rabbits often lead to alopecia (hair loss). Many of these problems are caused by parasites, such as mites, that will require medication from your veterinarian. Regular grooming will allow you to check your rabbit’s skin and identify potential problems early.

Hutch Burn (Urine Burn)

Hutch burn is caused by wet and dirty hutch floors, by bladder irritation from calcium deposits, or by constant urine dribbling because of poor bladder control. The area surrounding the anus and genital region becomes inflamed and irritated. This is followed by infection with disease-causing bacteria. Brownish crusts cover the area and drainage of blood or pus may occur. Keeping hutch floors clean and dry and applying an ointment recommended by your veterinarian speeds recovery.

Hutch burn is often confused with a bacterial disease called treponematosis (see above). Laboratory tests are required to distinguish between these diseases.

Wet Dewlap (Moist Dermatitis)

Female rabbits have a heavy fold of skin called a dewlap on the front of the neck. As the rabbit drinks, this skin may become wet and soggy, which leads to inflammation. Possible causes include dental malocclusion, open water crocks, and damp bedding. The hair may fall out, and the area may become infected or infested with fly larvae (maggots). The area often turns green if infected with Pseudomonas bacteria. If the area becomes infected, the hair should be clipped and antiseptic dusting powder applied. In severe cases, antibiotics injected by a veterinarian may be necessary.

Watering systems with drinking valves generally prevent wet dewlaps. If open water receptacles are used, they should have small openings or be elevated.

Sore Hocks

Sore hocks, also called ulcerative pododermatitis, does not actually involve the hock (the ankle joint) but instead affects the sole of the hindfoot and, less commonly, the front paws. The cause is either pressure on the skin from bearing the body weight on wire-floored cages or trauma to the skin from stamping, followed by skin infection. Several factors, including a buildup of urine-soaked droppings, nervousness, hind-end paralysis after a spinal cord injury, and the type of wire used, may influence development of this disease. Genetics are also involved. Heavy breeds such as the Rex, Flemish Giant, and Checkered Giant are susceptible. Rabbits with sore hocks sit in a peculiar position with their weight on their front feet. If all 4 feet are affected, they tiptoe when walking.

Various agents can be used to clean the sores. Topical and injected antibiotics are also used. X-ray images may be needed to check for bone involvement in severe cases. The rabbit must be removed from the cage or given a solid floor (board or mat) on which to sit or rest. Treatment is difficult and time-consuming. Because big feet and thick footpads are hereditary, selection of breeding stock for these traits has reduced the incidence of sore hocks.

Ringworm

Ringworm is a fungal infection that is common in rabbits. Affected animals develop raised, reddened, circular sores that are capped with white, flaky material. The sores generally appear first on the head and then spread to other areas of the body. Ringworm is generally associated with poor sanitation, poor nutrition, and other environmental stressors. The cause is most commonly the fungus Trichophyton mentagrophytes and occasionally Microsporum canis. Transmission is by direct contact. Objects such as hair brushes, which are often overlooked during disinfection, can play a significant role in spreading infection. Rabbits that carry the fungus without showing any signs are very common. Your veterinarian can do tests to confirm the diagnosis.

Because infected rabbits can spread the disease to humans and other animals, they should be isolated and treated. Owners of infected rabbits should avoid close contact with their pets and use disposable gloves, followed by thorough hand and arm washing when handling infected rabbits, cleaning cages and equipment, or disposing of waste materials. Antifungal drugs are usually effective in treating ringworm. Antifungal creams applied to the skin also may be effective. You must carefully follow your veterinarian’s treatment program to control this infection.

Myxomatosis

Myxomatosis is a deadly disease of all breeds of domesticated rabbits. It is caused by myxoma virus, a type of poxvirus. Myxomatosis is called “big head” and is characterized by skin sores or myxomas (benign tumors composed of mucus and a gelatinous material embedded in connective tissue). Wild rabbits are quite resistant and usually do not get myxomatosis. All other mammals are resistant to the virus. Myxomatosis has a worldwide distribution. In the USA, myxomatosis is restricted largely to coastal areas of California and Oregon. These areas correspond to the geographic distribution of the California brush rabbit, the reservoir of the infection. The virus is transmitted by mosquitoes, fleas, biting flies, and direct contact.

The first sign of disease is conjunctivitis (inflammation of the eye) that rapidly becomes more severe and is accompanied by a milky discharge from the eye. The rabbit has no energy and no appetite, with a fever that may reach 108°F (42°C). In severe outbreaks, some rabbits die within 48 hours after signs appear. Those that survive become progressively weaker and develop a rough coat. The eyelids, nose, lips, and ears become puffy, which gives a swollen appearance to the head. The ears may droop. In females, the vulva becomes inflamed and swollen with fluid; in males, the scrotum swells. Other signs include discharge of pus from the nose, difficulty breathing, and coma. Death usually occurs within 1 to 2 weeks after signs appear. Occasionally, a rabbit survives for several weeks; in these cases, thick lumps appear on the nose, ears, and forefeet.

The seasonal incidence of the disease, signs (especially the swollen genitalia), and high death rate all help veterinarians make the diagnosis.

A vaccine prepared from a myxomatosis virus has protected rabbits from infection, but it is not available in the USA. Because there is no effective treatment, euthanasia is suggested. Preventive measures include protecting rabbits from exposure to insects and ticks that transmit diseases.

Shope Fibromas

Shope fibromas, a type of benign tumor caused by a virus, are found in nature only in cottontails, although domestic rabbits can be infected by virus-containing material. Fibromas may be found in domestic rabbits in areas where these tumors occur in wild rabbits and where husbandry practices allow contact with insects and ticks that transmit diseases.

The fibromas usually occur on the legs, feet, and ears. The earliest physical sign is a slight thickening of the tissues just below the skin, followed by development of a soft swelling with distinct edges. These tumors may persist for several months before regressing, leaving the rabbit essentially normal.

Papillomas

Two types of infectious benign tumors, known as papillomas, occur infrequently in domestic rabbits. Papillomas in the mouth, caused by rabbit oral papillomavirus, are small, gray-white lumps or warts on the bottom of the tongue or on the floor of the mouth. The second type, caused by cottontail (Shope) papillomavirus, is characterized by horny warts on the neck, shoulders, ears, or abdomen and is primarily a natural disease of cottontail rabbits. Insects and ticks transmit the virus; therefore, insect control could be used as means of disease prevention. The oral papillomavirus is distinct from the Shope papillomavirus (which is also distinct from the Shope fibroma virus). Skin tumors caused by the Shope papillomavirus never occur in the mouth. Neither type of papillomatosis is treated, and the condition usually goes away on its own.

Mites and Fleas

Ear mites are common in rabbits and may require veterinary attention.

Ear mites are common in rabbits and may require veterinary attention.

Ear mites are common in rabbits. These parasites irritate the lining of the ear and cause fluid and thick brown crusts to build up, creating an “ear canker.” Infested rabbits scratch and shake their head and ears. They lose weight and may develop infections that can damage the inner ear, reach the central nervous system, and result in head tilt or "wry neck" (a twisting of the neck to one side). Your veterinarian will treat the condition with injectable or topical medication. Ear mite infestations are less likely to occur when rabbits are housed in wire cages than in solid cages. The mite is readily transmitted by direct contact.

Fur mites are also common on rabbits. Because these mites live on the surface of the skin and do not burrow into the skin, they do not cause the intense itching seen with sarcoptic mange. Fur mite infestations usually do not cause any signs unless the rabbit is weakened by age, illness, or stress. The mites may look like dandruff that moves when it is scraped from the skin onto a dark paper or background, leading to the nickname “walking dandruff." Transmission is by direct contact. A diagnosis can be made by looking at skin scrapings under a microscope. Fur mites may cause mild skin irritation or inflammation in humans. Weekly dusting of animals and bedding with permethrin powder can control these mites.

Rabbits are rarely infested with the mange mites that cause sarcoptic mange (canine scabies) or notoedric mange (feline scabies). These mites burrow into the skin and lay eggs. When infestation does occur, the rabbits are extremely itchy. It is difficult to get rid of these parasites on domestic rabbits. The condition is extremely contagious and can be transmitted to humans.

Fleas can affect rabbits and many other animals. Imidacloprid is a drug that kills adult fleas on contact; products containing this drug have been successfully used to treat rabbits infested with fleas. Products containing fipronil, which is part of several products for treating fleas in dogs, should never be used in rabbits. Ask your veterinarian for a treatment recommendation if your rabbit has fleas.

Kidney and Urinary Tract Disorders

The formation of mineral deposits in the urinary tract (sometimes known as kidney or bladder stones) is common in pet rabbits. The condition is generally suspected when blood is found in the urine. Several factors may contribute to the formation of kidney stones, including nutritional imbalance (especially the calcium:phosphorus ratio), heredity, infection, inadequate water intake, and metabolic disorders. Treatment involves surgically removing the stones and reducing dietary calcium. Because alfalfa is high in calcium and is one of the main dietary components of rabbit pellets, switching the diet to grass or timothy hay and rolled oats may help prevent the condition from returning.

Disorders Affecting Multiple Body Systems

Several infectious diseases and other disorders can affect more than one body system in rabbits. The most common of these are described here.

Abscesses

Abscesses (pus-filled and inflamed sores) on the internal organs and below the skin, caused by Pasteurella bacteria, may not be apparent for long periods and then may suddenly rupture. When bucks penned together fight, their wounds often develop abscesses. Your veterinarian will likely drain the abscess and prescribe an appropriate antibiotic. These signs frequently recur.

Heat Exhaustion

Rabbits are sensitive to heat. Hot, humid weather, along with poorly ventilated hutches or transport in poorly ventilated vehicles, may cause death, particularly in pregnant does. Affected rabbits stretch out and breathe rapidly. Outdoor hutches should be constructed so that they can be sprinkled with water in hot, humid weather. Unlimited access to cool water should be provided. When the environment can be controlled, optimal conditions include a temperature of 50°F to 70°F (10°C to 21°C) and a relative humidity of 40% to 60%, with good ventilation. Wire cages are preferable to solid hutches.

If you suspect that your rabbit has heat exhaustion, dampen its ears with cool water and take it immediately to your veterinarian or an emergency clinic.

Listeriosis

Listeriosis, a bacterial infection of the blood that causes sudden death or abortion, is most common in does near the end of pregnancy. Poor husbandry and stress may contribute to the disease. Signs may include loss of appetite, depression, and weight loss. Listeria monocytogenes, the bacterium that causes the disease, spreads via the blood to the liver, spleen, and uterus. It can infect many animals, including humans. Because diagnosis is rarely made before death, treatment is seldom attempted. If your pregnant doe becomes listless, loses weight, or seems depressed, you should contact your veterinarian promptly.

Tularemia

Tularemia (infection with Francisella tularensis bacteria) is rare in domestic rabbits, but wild rabbits and rodents are highly susceptible and have been involved in most outbreaks. The bacteria also can infect people, and up to 90% of human cases are linked to wild rabbit exposure. The bacteria are found widely in the south central United States. Tularemia is highly infectious and can be passed through the skin, through the respiratory tract by way of aerosols, by ingestion, and by bloodsucking insects and ticks. Tularemia can cause a deadly blood infection. Diagnosis is based on findings on postmortem examination (after death), such as signs of bacterial blood infection, spots on the liver, and liver and spleen enlargement. There is no effective treatment for infected rabbits. Tularemia is a reportable disease; your veterinarian is required to report suspected cases to public health authorities.

Encephalitozoonosis

Encephalitozoonosis is a widespread protozoal infection of rabbits and occasionally of mice, guinea pigs, rats, and dogs. It causes kidney disease; sometimes the brain is also affected. In most cases no signs are seen. How it is transmitted is not definitely known, but the organism is shed in the urine. It seems to be mildly contagious in rabbit colonies. Your veterinarian can use laboratory tests to diagnose the disease. Effective treatment has not been established. Prevention requires good sanitation.

Cancers and Tumors

By far, the most common tumor in rabbits is uterine adenocarcinoma (malignant tumor in the uterus). The likelihood of developing this cancer is related to breed. The disease may occur as multiple uterine tumors that often spread to the liver, lungs, and other organs. This cancer is the primary reason for spaying (removing the ovaries and uterus) any nonbreeding female rabbits. Monitoring for the spread of the cancer should follow surgical removal of the uterine tumor. Malignant lymphomas (tumors in the lymph nodes) are relatively common and may occur in rabbits less than 2 years old. Typically, tumors in the lymph nodes cause enlargement of the kidneys, spleen, liver, and lymph nodes.

Papillomas and Shope fibromas are 2 types of benign skin tumors that occur in rabbits (see Disorders and Diseases of Rabbits : Shope Fibromas).

For More Information

Also see professional content regarding diseases of rabbits.

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