This page is designed to provide an overview of the most common health problems of rabbits. If you have any concerns about the health of your rabbit then please do not hesitate to contact us.
The digestive system of the rabbit is quite different to many other animals as they have a large caecum, a sack-like organ which joins the digestive tract between the small and large intestines. The caecum allows microbial fermentation of food particles that are pushed up from the large intestine so that proteins from plant cells are broken down. The level of gut movement will affect which nutrients are available in the caecum. Reduced intestinal movement is a major cause of caecal impaction in the rabbit, this may be caused by physical or psychological stress or an incorrect diet containing insufficient fibre and excess carbohydrates.
Treatment of caecal impaction requires fluid therapy, nutritional support, encouragement to eat normally, intensive nursing and the provision of appropriate medication. Inappropriate food can also cause diarrhoea and obesity, both of which may predispose the rabbit to flystrike. Once again, prevention is better than cure.
Digestive System – Diarrhoea
Diarrhoea is a relatively common problem in rabbits, often caused by a sudden change of diet or feeding unsuitable foods. Sometimes diarrhoea may be a result of infection with a parasite such as coccidia (a protozoan organism) or due to medication such as antibiotics. Often the precise cause cannot be determined, but diet is usually the main suspect.
Flystrike (myiasis, “fly-blow”) is a condition where a rabbit becomes infested with fly maggots. The first larval stage of the maggots ingest dirt, so will generally cause limited damage, however they quickly develop into larger maggots that ingest anything they can, including live tissue. Healthy rabbits are generally not affected by flystrike, poorly rabbits being at risk.
There are three main problems that can lead to flystrike;
- Firstly, a wound to which flies are attracted to lay their eggs is an obvious site where maggots can cause damage
- Secondly (and more commonly) a rabbit which has become soiled with faeces or urine is at risk, this will include rabbits that are unable to groom (e.g. arthritic, overweight, incisor malocclusion, general illness) and rabbits that are suffering from diarrhoea or urinary incontinence
- Thirdly, damp or soiled bedding is an ideal environment for maggot growth and attracts flies
Treatment involves clipping away soiled fur, cleaning damaged tissue and providing supportive medication and fluid therapy. Flystrike is an emergency and if not treated immediately the rabbit can quickly reach the state where the kindest option is euthanasia.
The key factors in preventing flystrike are ensuring a clean environment and a healthy rabbit. For rabbits that are known to be at risk (such as elderly rabbits with arthritis) products such as Rearguard and Xenex are useful aids in preventing flystrike, and are best discussed with a veterinary surgeon or nurse.
Fleas are not particularly common on pet rabbits, but are fairly likely to be encountered if the rabbit is in an area frequented by wild rabbits. These are easily treated with a spot on treatment Xenex. Certainly the most common parasite seen on pet rabbits is the mite cheyletiella, otherwise known as the fur mite.
Cheyletiella generally causes few problems in small numbers and most rabbits will have a small number in their fur, however a large population of cheyletiella will often cause flaky skin and hair loss. A spot on treatment is also available for this condition.
Internal Parasite: Encephalitozoon cuniculi
E. cuniculi is a single-celled protozoal parasite of rabbits that can potentially be very dangerous, but it is thought that at least half of the pet rabbit population is infected. The disease may not show itself for years and may be spread by apparently healthy rabbits.
The parasite targets area such as the nervous system, brain and kidneys. Symptoms of active disease can include urinary incontinence, excessive urination and drinking, head tilt and loss of coordination, weakness and potentially convulsions and death.
Infection can be avoided by not picking greens from wild areas which could be contaminated by wild rabbits. E. cuniculi may potentially infect people with suppressed immune system so people at risk should avoid contact with rabbits.
Rabbits showing symptoms can be treated with supportive medication and a product called Panacur Rabbit which eliminates the parasite, but this won’t necessarily undo the damage caused by E. cuniculi.
Spotting the symptoms early and getting the rabbit treated will significantly improve a rabbit’s chance of recovery.
Bacterial Infection: Pasteurella multocida
Pasteurella is a bacterium that causes abscesses and inflammatory disease in rabbits. It can affect any part of the rabbit, but is frequently seen as an upper respiratory tract infection, commonly referred to as ‘snuffles’.
Antibiotics that are safe for rabbits are not always effective against Pasteurella, so rabbits that have had an infection should not be introduced to new rabbits as they may pass on the infection.
Abscesses caused by the bacterium are rarely resolved with antibiotics, but can easily be removed surgically if in an accessible place.
The bacterium can also affect areas in the tooth roots, behind the eyes and in the inner ear (causing dizziness and circling) which can be much more difficult to treat. Potentially rabbits may carry the bacterium, with it only causing disease when the rabbit’s system is stressed by other physical disease; just another reason to keep your rabbit as healthy as possible.
Bladder and Kidney Stones
Rabbits do not control the amount of calcium absorbed from their diet, so increasing calcium in the food will increase the calcium in the blood. Also, unusually, rabbits get rid of most excess calcium from their blood into the kidneys rather than the digestive tract. This means that more calcium in the diet almost inevitably will lead to kidney or bladder stones.
Kidney calcification may lead to kidney failure, and kidney stones are very painful as are bladder stones. Often bladder stones require surgical removal. Avoiding high calcium foods (such as alfalfa) and sticking to a mainly grass diet will help in preventing stones.