Common Rabbit Illnesses
While most rabbit illnesses are not fatal, there are a number of them that can cause death if left untreated. To ensure that your rabbits stay healthy, it’s good to have a list of the common illnesses that your rabbits might face. This will help identify the signs in time if your rabbits do become ill.
NOTE: The authors and operators at Crossroads Rabbitry are not veterinarians. We are not qualified to give official veterinary advice. The following information is drawn from our own experiences and research, but is not guaranteed. Please consult a qualified veterinarian before perforrming any medical treatment on your rabbit.
Below are some common illnesses that a rabbit may get.
ABSCESSES: Abscesses or cyst are pockets of body tissue which have become filled with pus. They are usually a result from untreated wounds from fighting or cage wire. The size of an abscess can range from the size of a marble to a tennis ball. The assistance of a vet may be needed or the abscess can be opened. After trimming the fur and sterilizing the area, open the abscess with a sanitized razor blade. Remove as much of the infection (the white deposit is pus) as you can and then flush with an antiseptic solution. Vetericyn is a great wound and skin care product for rabbits. It is non-toxic, steroid free and antibiotic free.
BACTERIAL INFECTIONS: The first indication of an infection may be a runny nose or eye. Sometimes a high temperature is present and a rattling sound from the lungs or a coughing is heard. Infections are more easily cured when caught in the early stages. It is important to go to your vet as soon as the first symptoms are noticed. The most common bacteria is called Pasteurella, aka snuffles. With the correct antibiotics, this can often be eliminated or controlled.
However, using the wrong antibiotic to treat an infection can waste valuable time and money. If bacteria are not sensitive to the antibiotic, the bacteria will continue to grow and cause illness, or hide in the body to cause later infection; so make sure the correct antibiotic is used. A limited number of antibiotics are safe to use; Trimethoprim sulfa, which interferes with bacterial fol-ate metabolism and Chloramphenicol are effective antibiotics that works on bacterial ribosomes. Another commonly used drug is enrofloxacin (Baytril) but it is expensive. Antibiotics to avoid for rabbits include penicillin, cephalosporins, and clindamycin. These antibiotics will usually kill the bacteria causing infection, but may cause internal problems. A veterinarian’s assistance is highly advised. Also: see PASTEURELLA below.
BLADDER OR CALCIUM STONES: Can occur when the rabbit is not processing calcium through its kidneys correctly. Calcium in a rabbit’s diet is important but too much of it can lead to a build up in the urinary tract and kidneys. This may then form into bladder stones or calcium stones; also called bladder sludge. Bladder stones or sludge may be diagnosed by physical examination, urine analysis or X-rays.
BLOAT: Is a condition where the stomach becomes stretched by excessive gas content, caused by the bacteria in a rabbit’s stomach multiplying excessively as a result of incorrect feeding. This may be because the rabbit has eaten wet green food, grass clippings, leafy vegetation, moldy hay etc. or simply as a result of irregular feeding.
CONSTIPATION: This occurs when there are hard feces which are difficult for the rabbit to expel. There is a much higher risk of constipation when a rabbit is molting. Rabbits groom and as they ingest hair which passes into their intestinal tract, it sometimes forms blockages. Constipation can generally be prevented by feeding a good grass hay which helps keep the digestive tract running smoothly.
DIARRHEA or Digestive Problems: Diarrhea in rabbits can be fatal. It is caused by sensitivity to certain foods. It often occurs in the young or recently weaned rabbits as they are switching from milk over to feed. Diarrhea is a common killer for juvenile rabbits. Your rabbit may require antibiotics and may need to be taken to your vet immediately. Veterinarians, however, often misdiagnose this problem as being a hair ball. If noticed early, the young may be saved by giving them hay, blackberry leaves, cooked carrots, drywall or willow bark.
E. CUNICULI: (Encephalitozoon Cuniculi) is a parasite or a small protozoan. It lives in the rabbit’s body cells. This parasite is absorbed into the intestines and causes lesions on the kidneys, brain and other areas. It is estimated that over 50% of domestic rabbits carry this parasite but only a small percentage of these go on to develop problems. It can be passed down from a doe to her young or through contact with other infected rabbits, humans and birds. Problems occur when the parasite attacks the rabbit’s nervous system. Panacur (rabbit wormer) can be used as a preventative.
ENTERITIS: is the cause of death in approximately 15 percent of weaning rabbits. This killer is simply an infection of the intestines that occurs through a chain of events possibly from switching from milk over to feed. The most common cause of enteritis is incorrect feeding and also stress. To help prevent enteritis make sure you use a high quality feed and provide hay.
FLY STRIKE: Fly strike is a rare condition which mostly affects rabbits kept in extremely unsanitary conditions and is more likely to occur during summer months. The most susceptible animals are those living in unsanitary housing, older rabbits who do not move much, and those who are unable to clean their bottom areas carefully. Rabbits raised on solid floors are more susceptible than rabbits raised on wire floors.
Fly strike is where flies lay their eggs in the rabbits anal or genital area which in turn hatch into maggots and eat the rabbit alive. To prevent it, clean the rabbits genital area regularly. Treat it with a safe insecticidal disinfectant. Check your rabbits anus and genitals regularly for feces that have become stuck to the fur, as this attracts the flies. Always try to keep your building clean and free of flies. Again, the most dangerous animal in the world is the common housefly. Because of their habit of visiting animal waste, they transmit more disease than any other creature.
GAS: This can lead to ileus if severe and/or left untreated. Gas is caused many times by vegetables given to your rabbit. Signs of gas include glassy eyes, hiding, lethargy, a decrease in appetite or sitting hunched up with eyes half-closed. It can be treated with belly massage and simethicone, if you choose to use medicines. If there’s no improvement after a few hours, take the rabbit to a vet.
GI STASIS: When rabbits stop eating their digestive system shuts down: this is called ileus or gastro-intestinal stasis. Rabbits in ileus must be treated by an experienced vet. This is very difficult to cure. It is recommended that the rabbit be replaced to prevent suffering.
HAIRBALLS: This is a common factor in many rabbit deaths. Rabbits shed their hair every three months. Rabbits also groom themselves and will ingest all of the loose hair. For this reason, they should be fed fresh hay weekly, as the fiber helps the hair pass through the digestive system. You can also give your rabbit Petromalt or Laxatone once a week when not shedding and then daily during their molt. Providing weekly hay or putting plain meat tenderizer in the rabbit’s drinking water every day during molting will help dissolve the ingested hair. Adding pineapple or papaya to the rabbits diet can also help with digestion.
HEAD TILT / WRYNECK: Head tilts, also known as “wryneck”, are caused by:
- Middle or inner ear infection
- Neurological problem
- Parasite infection
- Head trauma
- Abscess or tumor in the brain
Wryneck can be a slight tilt like a quizzical look or it can be a total tilt with the bunny’s eye on the cage floor. Slight tilts are more likely to be an ear infection and significant tilts are usually from injury, internal parasites or a variety of diseases. Rabbits with an extreme case of wry neck are dizzy, roll and are usually unable to eat properly.
Sometimes they cannot hold their head upright or even stand. Head tilt is very hard to cure. When attempting to treat wryneck, be very careful and handle the rabbit delicately and slow. Fast or quick movement may worsen the condition. To treat middle and inner ear infections, if caught early on, the ears may be flushed with a saline solution to loosen debris and pus and then can be treated with an antibiotic ointment in both ears. They can also be treated with oral or inject-able antibiotics such as Pen B, chloramphenicol, enrofloxacin, and trimethoprim-sulfa for several weeks or months. Treatment can also include Safeguard and Ivomectin (use only 4 drops per pound). Antibiotics must be used with care; the wrong type or dose can be dangerous. A relatively recently “rediscovered” therapy that has proven highly effective in cases of head tilt, jaw abscesses and other infections of the head is treatment with Bicillin, a rabbit-safe combination of injectible Penicillin-G, Procaine and Benzathine. This has been used on rabbits who were deemed terminal and untreatable, and produced miraculous cures. It is something to consider if conventional antibiotic therapies are not effective. My advice to you is to see a veterinarian who may provide the required antibiotics, steroids or surgery.
HEATSTROKE: Most commonly occurs when temperatures are 82° or above. High humidity (over 70%) can also increase the likelihood of heatstroke. Other risk factors include inadequate shade and ventilation, overcrowding, and other forms of stress. Signs of heatstroke include: panting, bright red tongue, slobbering, thick and sticky saliva, depression, weakness, reluctance to move, convulsions.
To predict the possibility of heatstroke, add the value of the temperature (ºF) and the humidity. If the sum is greater than 150, the situation is dangerous. For example, 80ºF plus a 70% humidity = 150, and is a recipe for disaster. To treat for heatstroke: lower the rabbits temperature by wetting his ears, feet, and fur with cool (not cold) water. NOTE: Cooling must take place gradually. Cooling too quickly or allowing his body temperature to become too low can cause other life-threatening medical conditions.
HUTCH BURN: is simply when the vent area gets scabby and dirty. Hutch burn is often confused with Vent disease because many people have never seen the actual lesions, ulcerations, and scabs caused by Vent disease (see information below on Vent disease). Hutch Burn can be cured by using an antibiotic ointment and sterilizing the cage; Vent disease, however, can not.
KETOSIS: This disease is more common in first-litter does and is a rare disorder that may result in death of does at or 1-2 days before kindling. Lactating does may appear dull and listless and may have diarrhea. It is the result of excessive fat and lack of exercise. Other signs are dullness of eyes, sluggishness, respiratory distress, prostration, and death. There is no satisfactory cure but it can be prevented by proper feeding or restricting feed, if necessary, to prevent excessive fattening. Injection of fluids that contain glucose have been known to help in correcting the disease.
MALOCCLUSION: Also referred to as “buck” teeth or “wolf” teeth, is a dental disease. Malocclusion is where the teeth do not align correctly resulting in such ailments as overgrowth of teeth or sharp spurs on the molars, and curling of the incisors. If teeth with malocclusion are allowed to grow, the rabbit loses its ability to eat, or to eat with comfort. Malocclusion is caused by three possible factors: genetic/heredity, facial trauma, or bacterial infections.
If left untreated malocclusion can cause the teeth to curl; result in biting of the lips, cheeks, tongue, and gums. Most growers choose to cull the rabbit. Treatment may involve removal of the incisors in certain cases. Filing, trimming, clipping or grinding down the teeth is another option that is sometimes performed. The quickest method of getting the majority of excess teeth clipped is to use wire cutters or nail clippers. With a quick motion, clip the scissor-like tool together and the teeth will snap off; make sure the rabbit’s tongue is out of the way. This will give you a rough cut and filing the teeth may be required. Use a fine metal file or use a Dremel tool with a sanding disc to smooth out the edges.
MANGE: is caused by contagious, parasitic mites, which burrow into the skin and ears of the rabbit and then lay their eggs. Mange causes a great deal of itchiness and discomfort. Mites may spread rapidly from rabbit to rabbit in severely over-crowded conditions. For treatment give your rabbit Ivermectin orally or you may use Revolution that is applied on the back of your rabbit’s neck.
MASTITIS: Lactating does (usually on commercial farms) are highly susceptible to Mastitis. This is an extremely painful condition affecting the mammary glands. It is usually caused by poor hygiene or surroundings. Bacteria enters and infects the teats which become red, hot, sore, swollen and full of pus. Treatment consists of bathing the affected parts with warm water containing an antiseptic. Antibiotics may need to be used to cure but veterinary advice is advised.
MITE INFESTATION: Also known as Cheyletiella Parastovorax or “walking dandruff”. Infestations of ear mites can cause severe damage to the ear canals of rabbits if left untreated. They generally do not cause significant disease but do cause skin irritation, usually along the back of the rabbit. Infested rabbits may have slight hair loss, scales (dandruff), itching and possibly some thickening of the skin.
Be sure to use an insecticide approved by a vet. Rabbits should NOT be treated with Permethrin or Fipronil. Dips in lime sulfur and injections of ivermectin have been used to treat an infestation with these mites. Mites can live for several days and spread from one rabbit to another, so the entire environment needs to be cleaned and cleared of mites as well. VetRx Rabbit Remedy can also help with ear mites and ear cankers.
MYXOMATOSIS: is a viral infection of rabbits. It is usually transmitted by insects and is usually fatal. Blood-sucking insects, including mosquitoes, fleas, lice, ticks, and mites, are the main method of spread. This is a terrible disease related to eye problems that may lead to blindness or death. Symptoms include a swollen head, crusty eyes with discharge, and general signs of depression. It’s almost impossible to treat here in the US. In the UK, rabbits are vaccinated for it. A vaccine has been developed (an attenuated modified-live virus) against myxomatosis, but is not available in the US. Replacing the animal is recommended to prevent suffering.
OVARIAN CANCER: Many female rabbits may contract ovarian cancer. Does older than 4 years are at higher risk. The doe may be taken to a vet but replacing is also recommended to prevent suffering.
PARASITES: Rabbits are intermediate hosts for two tapeworms of the dog and the cat. Dogs and cats should never be allowed near the rabbits’ feed, water and bedding as they may transmit tapeworm eggs in their feces. Dogs and cats should never be allowed to eat the intestines of rabbits because they may become infected and continue the cycle of infection.
PASTEURELLA: One of the most common disease in pet rabbits is an upper respiratory infection caused by a bacteria called Pasteurella multocida (Snuffles). Pasteurella is usually spread by mating, through general contact (especially resiratory), or through wounds from fighting. It is easily transmitted from one rabbit to another by sneezing and coughing, but can also cause abscesses to develop in the skin and especially in the face area.
Symptoms that lead to the laymen’s name for this disease, snuffles:
- Cold-like symptoms
- Nasal discharge or runny nose
- Yellow paws (from wiping nose and eyes)
- Facial fur missing
- Sneezing, congestion, and conjunctivitis.
- Head Tilt aka “Wryneck”
- Clogged tear ducts causing excess tearing
This disease very often becomes chronic and is very difficult to cure even with aggressive antibiotic therapy. VetRx Rabbit Remedy can help with snuffles and pneumonia if caught in time and early on. The used antibiotics usually must be given for weeks or months and prescribed by a experienced vetrinarian. Replacing or culling the rabbit may be the correct or humane thing to do. This prevents any suffering or the chance of the infection spreading to other rabbits.
Minimizing stress, heat and overcrowding can help in preventing Pasteurella. A clean enviroment, fresh water and proper diet also helps minimize the chance of this infection occuring. Also: see BACTERIAL INFECTIONS above.
PINWORMS: are small intestinal worms and generally do not result in significant health issues. Pinworms may cause moderate to severe itching, skin inflammation, and redness, especially in the genital and anal areas. Rabbits with this infection will also have poor reproductive performance. Transmission is through the ingestion of infected feces; when eggs are passed in the feces and ingested by the same or other rabbits in the environment. It may also spread through contamination of the environment and water. To get rid of the worms you can use Revolution or Ivermectin which can be gotten at most feed stores. You have to be careful when using it as it is designed for larger animals.
POISON: Rabbits are unable to vomit, so when something bad is eaten, it has to work its way through their entire system. Take the rabbit to a vet immediately or you might try vitamin E. Snip the top off of one gel capsule and squirt it into the rabbit’s mouth. This can sometimes help remove toxins or poisons from the rabbit’s body but a vets care is still advised.
SPLAY LEG: This is usually caused by housing conditions in intensive rabbit farms. It is caused by the kits inability to gain traction on the cage bottom. Some experts, however, believe that the condition is congenital (possibly due to genetics resulting in weak connective tissue). Regardless, avoid using surfaces that are slick in your nest boxes.
SORE HOCKS: also referred to as “bumblefoot” or Pododermatitis, is an infected ulceration of the foot pad. It is often caused by prolonged pressure of the rabbit’s feet against the cage floor. It usually affects the bottom of the hind feet and hocks (the lower part of the back leg that touches the ground when the animal is sitting). Sore Hocks can be prevented by providing floor mats, resting boards or ceramic tiles so that your rabbits have a comfortable place to sit or rest. Treatment can include antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medications. Ointments, such as Neosporin or Preparation H also work well.
SPINAL TRAUMA: The bones in a rabbit’s body are very delicate, especially the spine. If a rabbit is held wrong or squirms when held, damage is possible. Many rabbits have been known to injure or even break their own back by jumping too hard or fast when alarmed. You should try to be very careful with a panicked and struggling rabbit.
TYZZER’S DISEASE: Tyzzer’s disease is usually a fatal disease that is seen in young rabbits, most often recently weaned rabbits. The disease was named after Ernest Tyzzer in 1917. When an outbreak occurs in a group of rabbits, less than 10 percent may survive and death can occur within days of being infected. Tyzzer’s disease is caused by the bacteria Clostridium Piliforme. It is believed that the bacterium is spread when a rabbit consumes contaminated fecal matter.
The disease is most often seen in young rabbits that are are kept in unsanitary living conditions or stressed by overcrowding, poor hygiene, extreme environmental temperatures and humidity, or malnutrition. Rabbit’s with Tyzzer’s disease often have watery diarrhea, staining around the anal area, depression, dehydration, lethargy, and scruffy hair coats. Treating Tyzzer’s disease in rabbits is seldom successful. Since rabbits typically have adverse reactions to many antibiotics, the treatments available for other animals cannot be used for rabbits. In rare cases, the antibiotic oxytetracycline has shown to be effective. If an outbreak of any disease should occur, the environment will need to be thoroughly sanitized with bleach and water. Bedding and any accessories that cannot be sanitized properly should be disposed of, preferably by burning.
VENT DISEASE: is a venereal disease and also known as rabbit syphilis. It is caused by the bacteria (Treponema cuniculi) and will most often result in ulcerations and crusty scab like conditions near the anus, vulva and entire genital area. Vent disease is a highly contagious organism and can be spread either by direct contact and during breeding. If not treated, the rabbit will spread the condition to its mouth, nose and eyes while cleaning itself.
Any rabbit showing signs of vent disease should be removed from your breeding program until they have been properly medicated. Isolate the rabbit, remove scabs and apply antibiotic ointment daily. Ointments may relieve the area of its soreness but will not rid the rabbit of this disease. It is said that Vent disease can be effectively treated using Pen BP-48, which is a combination of Procaine Penicillin G and Penicillin G Benzathine.
VIRAL HEMORRHAGIC DISEASE: VHD is highly contagious, hardy, and deadly. There are very few early symptoms for this deadly disease. You usually just discover your rabbit dead in its cage one morning. Although it does not infect humans or other animals, it moves swiftly among rabbits with deadly results. VHD is an infectious viral disease that attacks the internal organs of rabbits, particularly the liver.
Most rabbits infected by VHD typically die within the following 24 hours, due to massive hemorrhaging of one or more internal organs. Sanitation and disinfection are imperative to halting or limiting the spread of VHD. It’s almost impossible to treat here in the US. In the UK, rabbits are vaccinated against VHD. If you do witness unexplained and suspicious rabbit deaths (especially in groups of rabbits in a short period of time), notify your veterinarian immediately.
WEEPY EYE: also known as sore eyes is similar to what we call conjunctivitis or pink eye in humans. Infected rabbits will have watery, milky discharge around the eyes; usually due to a vitamin A deficiency, infection or injury. It may also be caused by bacteria. Remove the rabbit as it is contagious. It can sometimes be treated with Terramycin Opthamolic Ointment.
You might also try washing the eyes with warm boric acid solution and then use an antibiotic ointment of 5 percent sulfathiazole. Many breeders will use herbal remedies to correct weepy eye. Some of these remedies include agrimony, chamomile, eyebright, meadowsweet or walnut leaves. Occasionally salt water solutions used as an eyewash have been successful. NFZ Puffer can also be used for eye infections and works well, however, Federal law prohibits the use of it in food producing rabbits, so avoid using it unless a pet.
NOTE: The authors and operators at Crossroads Rabbitry are not veterinarians. We are not qualified to give official veterinary advice. The above information is drawn from our experiences and research, but is not guaranteed. Please consult a qualified veterinarian before performing any medical treatment on your rabbits.