Rabbit Health 101
It is important for new rabbit owners to have a general knowledge of how to fulfill their pet rabbit’s basic needs. By visiting a veterinarian who is knowledgeable in rabbit health at least once a year many common ailments can be avoided. The most common presentations of pet rabbits at the veterinary office include reasons due abscesses, tumors, malocclusion of teeth, elective spay/neuter procedures, and nail trims. A rabbit-savvy veterinarian can also discuss preventative measures the owner should be taking to prevent injury and disease such as proper nutrition, sanitation, and appropriate housing. There are no effective vaccines to prevent specific rabbit diseases.
Below is a brief summary of some of the more common diseases of pet rabbits.
Caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida this respiratory disease is spread from rabbit to rabbit by direct or close contact aerosol. More uncommonly it can also be spread through the venereal route. The bacteria is harbored in the nasal cavity of the rabbit and the most characteristic symptom includes frequent sneezing, giving the disease the nickname “snuffles”. The bacteria can also spread to other parts of the body and cause other symptoms such as conjunctivitis, skin abscess, inner ear infection, pyometra, orchitis, pneumonia, and septicemia. Treatment includes supportive care and antibiotics to improve clinical signs, although the disease is incurable.
Important gastrointestinal pathogens include some strains of E. coli, Clostridium, rotavirus, and coccidian. Most effect young rabbits in poor housing and sanitation environments and can cause diarrhea and in extreme cases death. Treatment includes supportive care, sanitation of environment, and appropriate medication specific to the pathogen.
Occasionally abnormal grooming habits can lead to excessive amounts of fur to accumulate in the stomach forming what is called a trichobezoar. The trichobezoar then has a potential to obstruct the gastrointestinal system. Rabbits who also ingest non-food items such as carpeting or other fabrics have the potential to obstruct. Rabbits lack a vomit reflex and obstruction can quickly lead to chronic wasting and death. Treatment includes surgical intervention. It is important to note that trichobezoars can also be incidental findings in rabbits and should not be considered pathologic unless symptomatic or proven otherwise.
Malocclusion of the incisors, the front teeth, is the most common inherited disease of rabbits. If left untreated rabbits may not be able to eat properly leading to anorexia, chronic wasting, drooling, and oral lesions. Treatment includes periodic tooth trimming and or tooth extraction. Owners with rabbits who possess maloccluded teeth should be counseled against breeding and the benefits of spay or neuter.
Caused by the ectoparastite Psoroptes cuniculi it is spread by direct contact of rabbit to rabbit. Symptoms include pruritis of the ears, head and neck, head shaking, and stress. In advanced cases discharge will begin to encrust the ears and they will become very painful to touch. Treament includes aggressive sanitation of the environment and medication specific to the parasite.
Infection of the feet that is often pressure induced. Other contributing factors include wire flooring, poor sanitation, foot stomping, and large adult size. Ulcers and scabs on the feet can progress, if left untreated, to abscesses or granulomas. Treatment includes topical administration of antibiotics, foot bandaging, improving sanitation and changing flooring.
More common in rabbits that are housed outdoors, maggots can be found anywhere on the body of the rabbit but most commonly in skin folds. Treatment includes removing the maggots, cleaning any wounds, antibiotics, and supportive care.
Vertebral Sublaxation or Compression Fracture
Trauma may occur due to struggling against restraint, improper handling, or overzealous activity by the rabbit. The subluxation or fracture often occurs at L7 or the caudal vertebrae. Treatment may include supportive care however the condition is incurable and eventually requires euthanasia.
Courtesy of Jessica Fritschi, LVT, CPDT-KA