Like with any pet, rabbits are prone to some diseases and illnesses. Many of these health problems are preventable with proper care of the rabbit. To keep your rabbit healthy, always provide him with a clean, stress-free environment and supply your rabbit with a proper diet. But before you bring a rabbit into your life, you should make yourself aware of some of the common health problems that can affect rabbits.
An abscess is a small pocket often found under the skin. These pockets are referred to as “pockets of infection” and contain bacteria. In rabbits, the thick fluid contained inside the abscess can lead to serious health complications and even death. Treatment depends upon the size and seriousness of the abscess.
Most commonly found in the intestines, coccidia are tiny parasites that can make a rabbit quite sick. Because many rabbits do not exhibit symptoms of being infected with coccidia, treatment is rarely sought. If the parasites infest the liver, the rabbit may show signs of stunted growth and young rabbits may get diarrhea. Death typically occurs when a rabbit is heavily infested and/or if the coccidia prevent normal functioning of the liver.
Just like with cats, dogs, and other animals, ear mites can become a problem for rabbits. However, the ear mites that are found in a rabbit’s ear are generally not the same type of mite. A rabbit with ear mites typically shake the ears and head and there may be flaking around the ears. Rabbits will also scratch at the ears which can lead to secondary conditions including infected lesions.
A big word for such a small mammal, encephalitozoonosis is caused by a parasite known as Encephalitozoon cuniculi. The parasite can infect the kidneys and brain which can lead to head tilt, paralysis of the back legs, and even death. The parasites are past from doe to kits or through infected urine.
Enteritis is the number one cause of death among weaning kits. It has many causes including an improper diet, stress, and bacteria. The symptoms can include loss of appetite, bloat, weight loss, increased thirst, and even teeth grinding.
Foreign Bodies or Obstruction
Because rabbits are known for their gnawing, they are prone to obstructions. Rabbits are also self-groomers which can lead to hairballs. A rabbit with a foreign body or hairball in their intestine or an object stuck in their mouth usually will stop eating. Some rabbits may continue to eat but will not have any stools.
Sometimes referred to as wool block, hairballs can become a problem since rabbits cannot vomit. Rabbits groom themselves regularly but they may also pull out their hair when under stress or if they are bored. Rabbits should be provided with a high-fiber diet and should receive regular grooming to help prevent hairballs.
The most common cause of head tilt is an ear infected with Pasteurella multocida. In smaller rabbits like dwarf breeds, head tilt is often caused by encephalitozoonosis. Head tilt can also occur from trauma to the head. A rabbit with this disorder will have a tilted head to one side but it can be as extreme as having the neck twisted.
Rabbits are not heat-tolerant animals. Temperatures that reach over 85 degrees Fahrenheit can be extremely dangerous to a rabbit. Symptoms of heatstroke include breathing heavily and a body temperature of about 102 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Rabbits should be provided with a cool environment during the hot summer months to help prevent heatstroke.
Fly strike is a common problem with rabbits especially those housed outdoors. This disease is fairly simple to spot – owners generally will notice moving fly larvae in or on the rabbit’s tissue. Fly strike occurs when flies lay their eggs on a part of the rabbit. The flies prefer moist areas which can include a lesion or wound on the rabbit or even their perineal area. The flies hatch and become maggots which then feed on the rabbit’s body. If left untreated, fly strike can lead to the death of a rabbit.
Malocclusion is when the top front teeth do not align properly with the bottom. Rabbits with this disorder generally have overgrown teeth because they are not able to wear down properly. Rabbits with malocclusion need their teeth trimmed regularly to prevent secondary health problems.
Myiasis (also referred to as warbles) is similar to fly strike but myiasis is caused by the Cuterebra fly. The larva of the fly live under the skin and a small hole will be visible from the lump where the larvae breathe. The larvae have to be removed by a veterinarian – if the larva are crushed, it can cause toxins to go into the rabbit which can lead to death.
This problem often occurs in obese rabbits or those that stand on wire bottomed cages for long periods of time. The hocks become inflamed and ulcerated which can lead to infection. Sore hocks can be prevented by supplying a rabbit a solid surface to rest and not allowing the rabbit to become overweight.
Diarrhea can be caused from anything that bothers the intestines. This can be from an improper diet or from bacteria. Diarrhea can usually be prevented with a proper diet, clean environment, and not switching a rabbit’s diet too quickly.
A rabbit spoiled on treats can quickly turn into an overweight rabbit. Rabbits are known for their sweet tooth and some owners are known to give in to their rabbit’s desires. However, obesity in rabbits is dangerous. To prevent a rabbit from becoming overweight, supply a proper diet and provide only occasional treats. Rabbits should also be given ample exercise to wear off that extra slice of apple.
While there are other serious diseases known to affect rabbits like cancer and kidney disease, these aren’t common in rabbits that are well cared for and have a good genetic background. It is always recommended to buy a rabbit from a reputable source and always quarantine a new rabbit for at least 2 weeks prior to introducing to other rabbits and pets. If you suspect any of these illnesses in your rabbit, seek qualified veterinary care as soon as possible.
THE RABBIT HANDBOOK, by Karen Gendron, copyright 2000.