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Summer Risks to Rabbits

With summer finally here (apparently!), it’s important to make sure your bunnies are as safe as possible. There are three major disease threats that you need to be aware of at the moment.

Informative image: rabbit awareness

Myxomatosis

Probably everyone has seen myxi rabbits - the poor creatures are miserable to see. This is a really nasty disease because although it is almost always fatal, it doesn’t kill quickly - affected rabbits may suffer for days or even over a week before finally succumbing.

Why do we think about this disease now? Well, the main route of transmission for the virus is via biting flies and fleas - and in the warmer weather, these insects are much more active! They will happily bite a wild rabbit one day, then hop (or fly) off carrying the virus in their mouthparts - ready to infect a pet the next. It’s important to remember, though, that this isn’t the only possible way that the infection can be spread - the discharge from the eyes and nose of an infected rabbit is full of virus particles, and there is a (small) risk that these particles could be carried (e.g. on contaminated bedding or food) into a hutch or home, infecting even house-rabbits.

The initial symptoms to watch out for are swollen eyelids, progressing to skin swellings, inflammation and further swelling of the mouth, nose, anus and genitals, and then a mucky-looking discharge from the eyes and nose. The damage to the eyes usually renders the rabbit essentially blind, but they can still eat and drink - for a while.

Fortunately, there is an effective preventative for the condition - a vaccine that will protect rabbits against myxi for 12 months. Once vaccinated, the risk of infection is massively reduced, even if the rabbit is exposed to a highly virulent strain of the disease.

The incubation period of the disease is a little over a week, and some strains have a mortality rate as high as 99%. Because of the intense and severe suffering of infected rabbits, it would normally be considered inhumane to treat them - putting them to sleep is usually the kindest option. The exception is in a bunny who is (or was) vaccinated - because their immune system has been primed to give them some level of protection, the survival rate with intensive care treatment is much better.

Viral Haemorrhagic Disease

VHD, also known as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD); this is a lethal disease in almost all cases. The virus is spread on shoes, clothes, feed and bedding, and can remain stable in the environment for many months. The most common symptom, sadly, is sudden death. Although some rabbits will show clinical signs briefly (being off colour, high temperature, convulsions and abnormal bleeding), death usually occurs within 36 hours. This is not really a seasonal disease, but with the new VHD2 strain now present in Devon, it can strike at any time, at any rabbit who has not be vaccinated with the new vaccine

Because it is present in our area, we advise boosting the VHD2 vaccine every 6 months.

Informative image: newton abbot rabbitFlystrike

This is one of the biggest summer killers. The main trigger factor is rabbits who have a mucky back end - this may be because their bedding isn’t changed often enough; because of some dietary or digestive problem; or because they cannot groom themselves properly (often due to obesity, arthritis or dental disease). In any case, the mucky bottom is an invitation to blowflies, which descend and lay their eggs in the fur. These eggs hatch into maggots, which eat the muck. So far, so bad - but the trouble with blowfly maggots is that if they run out of muck to eat before they’re full, they’ll start eating healthy tissue too. Essentially, they eat the poor bunny from the inside out.

The initial signs are of itchiness round the back end (caused by the maggots wriggling); they then become listless and if not treated very rapidly, will lapse into shock and die. Treatment involves the physical removal of all the maggots under anaesthesia - although sadly, we often find that these rabbits are too badly injured to survive.

Although we tend to think of flystrike as a problem for outdoors rabbits, it only takes one or two flies inside the house to cause symptoms, so don’t be complacent!

There are two approaches to preventing the problem - firstly, help your pets keep themselves clean. If they have dental disease or arthritis, see one of our vets and get it treated; likewise, if they are a bit podgy, see one of the nurses for a weight-loss clinic. If they are getting dirty, groom and bath them to keep them clean - a clean rabbit isn’t attractive to the flies.

Secondly, there are medications that can be applied to the skin that will kill the maggots before that can cause any harm - in the summer, most rabbits are likely to need regular dosing to keep them safe.

So, to protect your rabbit this summer - vaccinate them, groom them, and apply safe and appropriate insect repellents to them - our vets can help with all of this!