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Common Health Problems
The following is a list of common bunny ailments: it is not exhaustive, and if you have any doubts as to the health of your rabbit, you should seek advice from your veterinary surgeon. The most common initial signs of illness are a decrease in appetite and a decrease in faecal output: if your bunny is exhibiting any of these signs, you must take it to the vet.
Dental Problems: overgrown teeth due to malocclusion is a very common problem in rabbits. Their teeth grow continually, so unless they are worn down in an even manner, they can develop spurs on the inside or outside of their molars (cheek teeth) which dig into the tongue or cheeks respectively. The incisor teeth (front teeth) can also become overgrown and in extreme cases will curl and grow into the roof of the mouth or lower jaw. Rabbits can also get dental caries (rotting teeth) if they are fed a diet high in simple sugars (i.e. too many treats, too much fruit, bread etc). Signs of dental problems include selective eating (i.e. preferring to eat certain foods, usually the softer ones), saliva dribbling/staining around the chin, a decrease in faecal output, an accumulation of caecotrophs around the anal region, and matted fur. Ensuring that your rabbit has a proper diet, high in hay and low in fruit and treats, will help to prevent dental problems: a gnawing block can help to keep the incisors nicely trimmed, and a varied environment will help to stop your rabbit damaging its incisors by chewing at the bars of its cage. Dental problems should be dealt with as soon as they are recognized: if the teeth become too overgrown, your rabbit will not be able to eat properly and will therefore not be getting a complete nutritious diet. It may lose a significant amount of weight, and the longer the teeth are left, the worse the chances of being able to correct the problems. In extreme cases, abscesses form at the tooth root: these are very difficult to treat and carry a poor prognosis. Your vet will be able to see your rabbit’s front teeth with it awake, but it is not always possible to get a good look at its cheek teeth: this may require anaesthetizing your bunny.
Flystrike: generally a problem in summer, it is caused by flies laying eggs in the rabbit’s fur: these eggs hatch within 12-24 hours into maggots, which bore into the rabbit’s flesh, eating away at it. The rabbit will soon go into shock, and will ultimately die. It is absolutely imperative to check your rabbit at least twice a day during the warm months. If you notice any soiling around the rabbit’s back end, you should clean this off immediately and dry your rabbit thoroughly: the combination of soiling, moisture and the warmth from your rabbit will encourage flies to land on it and lay their eggs. The fly eggs look like very small grains of rice and are laid in clutches: they can be easily missed, and unfortunately sometimes the first sign of flystrike is when the maggots have started to cause severe damage to your rabbit. Flystrike requires IMMEDIATE veterinary attention. The best cure for this horrible condition is prevention. Checking your rabbit regularly is the first step: make sure that there is no soiling, and check regularly for fly eggs and maggots. Using insecticides such as Rearguard or Xenex spot on is also advisable: ask your veterinary surgeon for advice, if they do not stock these products, they will be able to order them in for you. Placing netting over the front of your rabbit’s hutch could help to prevent flies from entering.
Obesity: many rabbits are clinically obese. The most common causes of this are lack of exercise and being fed an excess of concentrated food. Rabbits should have no more than one tablespoon of concentrates per kilogram of bodyweight per day: for most rabbits this will mean about two tablespoons a day. Obesity can lead to many other health problems: overweight rabbits are unable to reach their back ends to clean themselves or to eat their caecotrophs, which means they are prone to flystike and to gastrointestinal problems. As with humans, being overweight will put a lot of pressure on the heart, and increases the risk of anaesthesia. To help your rabbit lose weight, reduce its food intake and increase its daily exercise until the right bodyweight is achieved.
Encephalitozoon cuniculi: this is a protozoan infection which targets the nervous system of the rabbit. It is transmitted via urine and causes a wide variety of clinical signs, depending on which nerves have been affected. The most common signs are ataxia (uncoordinated movement), head tilt, urinary incontinence: if your rabbit displays any of these signs, seek veterinary advice as soon as possible.
Ectoparasites: rabbits can be affected by fleas, lice and mites. A common sign of these is scratching and/or fur loss. Mites can also affect the ears, generally causing a build up of scaly discharge and redness of the inside of the ear canal. Your vet can treat these problems in your rabbit and give advice on preventing them. Please also note that fleas can transmit the deadly myxomatosis virus.
Respiratory Problems: the most common cause of breathing problems in rabbits is a bacterium called Pasteurella multocida. Many rabbits carry this bacterium and have what is called a ‘subclinical’ infection, which can become a full blown infection in times of stress. Clinical signs include snuffles, sneezing, coughing, nasal discharge and pneumonia. Immediate veterinary care should be sought.
- Constipation can be a simple dietary disorder, cured by feeding more greenstuff: if it persists or is combined with other symptoms, it may be due to something more serious, e.g. a blockage due to furballs: this needs to be detected early so it is very important to check your rabbit’s faeces.
- Diarrhoea may be cured by withholding greens for 24 hours and feeding only hay and water. If the diarrhoea persists more than 24 hours, it is important to seek veterinary advice as it may be a symptom of something more serious: baby rabbits with diarrhoea should always be seen immediately.
- Coccidiosis is a very serious disease which has two forms: one attacks the intestines and the other the liver. Symptoms include loss of appetite, dullness, persistent diarrhoea and a yellow jaundiced look: suspected cases should be isolated immediately and have prompt veterinary care. If diagnosed early, the disease can be controlled, otherwise death is inevitable.
- Gut Stasis, a condition in which the guts stop moving adequately to push the ingesta (food) downwards, is a fairly common condition in rabbits. It is often secondary to other problems, such as painful teeth or infections, which stop the rabbit from eating properly and decrease the throughput of the guts. It is an incredibly dangerous condition, and if left untreated will inevitably lead to death. It is also a common post-operative complaint.
- Pododermatitis: this is an extremely painful condition of the skin covering the metatarsal region of the foot. It is usually caused by spending too much time on an abrasive surface and overweight rabbits are more prone. It is an extremely difficult condition to treat, and if left too long, carries a very poor prognosis. It is important to check the underside of your rabbit’s feet regularly: the sooner this problem is treated, the more hopeful the outcome. Rex rabbits are particularly prone to this condition.
- Abscesses: these can occur after fighting or, more commonly, around the jaw line due to severe dental problems. Rabbit pus is very thick and these abscesses form a very thick wall which can become calcified: immediate veterinary attention is required to ensure the best outcome.
- Myxomatosis: caused by the Myxoma virus and transmitted by biting insects, this is a deadly disease of rabbits. Clinical signs include swelling of the eyelids and genitalia, with a profuse purulent ocular and nasal discharge. This disease has an extremely high mortality rate, with death occurring within one to two weeks. Vaccination is available, but relies heavily on the rabbit’s individual immunity to the disease, and is therefore not always 100% effective. Checking your rabbit regularly for fleas, and placing a mosquito net over your rabbit’s hutch can help to prevent this disease.
- Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD): this deadly disease has claimed the lives of several thousand rabbits since 1992. It causes severe internal haemorrhaging and by the time the owner realizes there is something wrong, it is often too late. Symptoms range from a loss of appetite to sudden death. Direct contact is not needed to infect your rabbit: the virus can be transported via people, clothing, accommodation and animals which have been in contact with the disease.
Vaccination is available against both these diseases: see the vaccination section for more information.