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Preventative Health Care - Rabbit Welfare Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund

Like every responsible pet owner, you want your bunnies to live a happy, healthy life - so you must have them vaccinated against Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD). This chapter also includes information on preventing two other dangerous conditions, "Flystrike" (which is not an infectious disease so it cannot be immunised against) and the brain and kidney parasite Encephalitizoon cuniculi.

Myxomatosis
Often referred to as "myxi" or "myxo", myxomatosis decimated the wild rabbit population when it arrived in Britain in the 1950s and 60s. It is still deadly today. Myxomatosis starts with severe conjunctivitis. Next, affected rabbits develop swellings around the head and genital regions, become increasingly weak, go blind, and eventually die.

If an unvaccinated pet rabbit catches myxomatosis, it is probably doomed. Most vets advise euthanasia as soon as the diagnosis is made because the outlook is so bleak, even with intensive treatment.

How can pets catch myxomatosis?
The main route of infection is via insect "vectors" (e.g. fleas and mosquitoes) that have previously bitten an infected rabbit. Midges and mites have also been suspected of passing on the disease. Direct contact with infected rabbits can also spread the disease, particularly respiratory secretions and direct mucosal contact.

All pet rabbits - indoors or outdoors - are at risk. Rabbits living outside (especially if wild rabbits enter the garden) are at especially high risk.

How can I protect my rabbits from myxomatosis?
Vaccination is the keystone of a package of measures you should take to protect your rabbit. Rabbits can be vaccinated from 5 weeks of age. The first UK myxomatosis vaccine (there are different products elsewhere in Europe) was a single injection, part of which had to be given into - rather than under - the skin. Boosters were needed every 6 months. However, this was superceded by a combined Myxomatosis and Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease vaccine in early 2012.

Vaccination cannot guarantee absolute protection: vaccinated rabbits do occasionally catch myxomatosis. However, in vaccinated rabbits, the disease is usually milder, sometimes just a single skin lesion, or a transient illness. Vaccinated rabbits with myxi usually survive with proper care, whereas unvaccinated rabbits nearly always die.

Vaccinate your rabbits

Vaccinationcan protect pet rabbits from two killer diseases. Crossing your fingers won't.

As well as regular vaccination:

  • If you buy your hay and straw direct from the producer, try to use farms where the farmer hasn't seen any rabbit with myxomatosis on the land.
  • Feed dust-extracted hay or kiln-dried grass.
  • Fit insect screens to outdoor enclosures.
  • Eliminate standing water (where mosquitoes might breed) from your garden. If you have a garden pond, put a small amount of cooking oil into the water. This will form a film over the surface that won't kill fish or frogs, but will suffocate mosquito larvae.
  • Treat your cats and dogs for fleas, otherwise they may bring rabbit fleas home. Talk to your vet about flea control: some products are toxic to rabbits.
  • Try to stop wild rabbits from getting into your garden. If this isn't feasible, make it impossible for wild visitors to have nose-to-nose contact with your pet.
  • Make sure there's nothing to attract vermin and wild birds to hutches/runs; use small-hole mesh on hutches/runs to keep unwelcome creatures out!

Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD)
What it does

RHD arrived in Britain in 1992. It is a swift and efficient killer - almost all unvaccinated rabbits who catch RHD die within a day or two. The virus causes massive internal bleeding. Some rabbits bleed from the nose and back passage before death, others die so quickly there may be no outward sign of disease at all. Owners often think their rabbit has died of "fright", a "heart attack" or (in summer) "heatstroke". Most cases are never diagnosed: RHD is often only suspected when several rabbits die in quick succession.

...some bunnies are quiet for a day or two after vaccination

Beware of infectious diseases

How can pet rabbits catch RHD? RHD is spread by direct contact with infected rabbits, or indirectly via their urine/faeces. The virus can survive for months in the environment, and is terrifyingly easy to bring home to your pets. For example:

  • Hay may have been in contact with infected wild rabbits as grass growing in the field.
  • Birds or insects may transport the virus on their feet (or in their droppings) to your rabbit grazing on the lawn.
  • The virus may be blown on the wind.
  • You might bring the virus home on your feet, or your pets' feet (or car wheels) from infected wild rabbit droppings.
  • You could bring the virus home on your hands or clothes.

RHD has been recorded all over the UK: all pet rabbits should be vaccinated. There is no way of predicting where the next outbreak will strike, and no practical way of shielding your pet rabbit from all the possible sources of infection.

How can I protect my rabbit from RHD?
RHD vaccines are incredibly effective. Your rabbit can currently be protected with a single injection anytime from 5, or 10-12 weeks of age, depending on vaccine type, then a booster every 12 months. This vaccine may be a vaccine offering protection only against RHD, or, more recently, a vaccine combining the 2 diseases.

If you are about to obtain a young rabbit that hasn't yet been vaccinated:

  • Follow the advice given above, in the Myxomatosis section.
  • Don't use second-hand hutches or equipment without finding out what the previous occupant died from.

Vaccination FAQs
I'm thinking of having my rabbit vaccinated, but there's no RHD or Myxomatosis in the area. Is vaccination really necessary?
We would still recommend vaccination:
It's impossible to predict when and where diseases will strike.
If you wait for a local outbreak of RHD or myxomatosis:

  • Your rabbit might be the first to die.
  • Many boarding establishments and insurance policies require rabbits to have up-to-date vaccinations

My rabbit has chronic health problems. Can he still be vaccinated?
You need to discuss this with your vet. In general, vaccines should only be given to healthy animals, whose immune system can mount a proper response to the vaccine. However, if your rabbit's condition is stable, it may be possible to vaccinate him.

Do RHD and Myxomatosis vaccinations have side effects?
Like all drugs, vaccines can have side effects, although problems in rabbits are very unusual. Skin reactions are sometimes reported at the site of injection (especially with some brands of older RHD vaccine), and some bunnies are quiet for a day or two after vaccination. Although this is not desirable, it's a whole lot better than death from a preventable disease.

Fly Mmaggots

Flystrike
What is "Flystrike"?

Rabbits are said to have "flystrike" (myiasis) when flies lay eggs upon them and the eggs then hatch into maggots. Some species of fly (e.g. blue bottles and green bottles) produce maggots that can very rapidly mature and eat into the living flesh within 24 hours. This is often rapidly fatal for the rabbit.

Are my rabbits at risk?
All rabbits are at risk from flystrike so you should never be complacent, but certain factors increase the risk:

  • Time of year - flystrike is especially common during the summer, but can occur at any time of the year.
  • Rabbits who cannot keep their bottom clean.
  • Rabbits with a dirty bottom, most likely because of poor diet, or who have wounds or wet fur, are at very high risk of flystrike.

What to do if you find your rabbit has maggots
Firstly, keep calm, but telephone your veterinary practice immediately. Flystrike is a true emergency - day or night – and treatment cannot wait.

Rabbit

So long as it does not delay your trip to the vet, pick off any visible maggots with tweezers. Do not dunk the rabbit in water: fur in the affected area may need to be shaved and wet fur clogs the clippers.

Flystrike is a very serious condition and is, sadly, often fatal. However, rabbits can make a full recovery if the condition is found and treated quickly. Flyblown rabbits are usually in pain and severe shock, and need skilled veterinary and nursing care.

How is flystrike treated?
The vet will usually sedate or anaesthetize the rabbit to perform a very thorough examination. After clipping away the fur, the vet can find and remove all external maggots. This usually requires sedation or general anaesthesia, which carries a much higher risk than normal because flyblown rabbits may be in shock. If the vet finds that maggots have already eaten into the rabbit's body, euthanasia may well be recommended.

Infected rabbit

Supportive care
Affected rabbits usually need intravenous or subcutaneous fluids, antibiotics to try to prevent infection, and plenty of pain relief. Some vets also use anti-parasitic drugs in the hope that it will penetrate the tissues and kill any remaining concealed maggots.

How to prevent flystrike from happening again
Once a rabbit has been lucky enough to recover from flystrike, it's important to prevent the same thing happening again. The vet will need to find and treat any underlying health problems, and the owner must take every possible step to protect their rabbits from flies.

  • Check that your rabbit is eating a healthy diet (See the feeding section).
  • Remove soiled bedding every day and disinfect hutches weekly.
  • Check your rabbit at least once a day: "high-risk rabbits" need twice-daily bottom checks especially in warm weather.
  • Don't forget that houserabbits can also be at risk!
  • Physical barriers such as adding flyscreens to hutches and runs.
  • Speak to your vet about specific preventative measures: "Rearguard" is a liquid that is applied by sponge to the rabbit and helps prevents flystrike for up to 10 weeks. It stops maggots maturing to a stage where they become dangerous.

FLY KILLERS & NATURAL REPELLENTS
As well as the steps listed above, you can also try to reduce the number of flies coming near your rabbit.
Old-fashioned sticky papers may be used in the home or shed.
A number of plants are said to repel insects and flies. Some may be dried and hung in the home, or the rabbit shed; others may be planted in pots to sit on top of outdoor hutches, or planted in half baskets and hung on the sides of the run. Just make sure they are well out of reach of your rabbits.

Treatment

Encephalatizoon cuniculi
What is "E cuniculi"

E cuniculi is a microscopic brain and kidney parasite of rabbits (less commonly, some other species are also affected such as Artic foxes and some small primates).

Are my rabbits at risk?
It's believed that the time around weaning is the most common time for infection and it comes from the rabbits' mothers.However, rabbits can certainly catch the disease later in life, typically after being introduced to an infected newcomer, or sharing pasture with one. Your newly aquired rabbit may already be infected, or may have met the infection and its immune system may have overcome it.

How do I know if my rabbits have been infected with E cuniculi?
There are some typical but not guaranteed signs of infection. Your rabbit may develop a head tilt to one side. His eyes may track from side to side or up and down. He may shuffle or develop weakness on one or both back legs, or even become paralysed. He may spin or roll without being able to control it. He may develop seizures, deafness, cataract or unexplained behavioural changes. He may start to drink and urinate more than usual.

Testing for this disease is complicated. There are blood tests which can reveal antibodies to the disease, but many rabbits have antibodies and it does not necessarily indicate current infection. High levels, or "titres", are more useful in pointing to current disease. The spores of the organism may be found in the urine, using microscopic tests or DNA fingerprinting, but they are only found intermittently, and false negative results may lead to a false sense of security. Biopsy of affected tissues is possible, but this is potentially invasive.

$How is E cuniculi treated?
Routine prevention

There are several components to preventing EC infection. The first is preventing exposure to the disease in the first place, by testing all of your rabbits, and testing any new arrivals before mixing them. This may be prohibitively expensive, however, and blood tests may not reveal rabbits recently exposed to infection. Some vets advocate treating all new arrivals, and this helps to reduce the spread of infection between individuals, as well as aiming to prevent them developing the disease. Fenbendazole is a drug commonly used for worming cats and dogs and is also available for use with rabbits. Give it to all contact animals continuously for 28 days. E cuniculi may be harboured in the environment, so you need to thoroughly clean cages, surfaces and all equipment, especially litter trays. The RWAF does not advocate the regular use of worming products for rabbits, i.e. every quarter, as is recommended for cats and dogs. However, there are times when the use of 9 day courses might be helpful. Please see our website for more details.

The role of wild rabbits is not fully understood, but testing of wild rabbits has shown only low levels of infection in the UK, and so it does not seem a very significant route of infection, although more work is needed.

He may develop seizures, deafness, cataract or unexplained behavioural changes.

Treating suspected or confirmed Ec problems
If you suspect EC, you should speak to your vet about a specific treatment course, as many other problems (including ear infections and spinal damage) may mimic Ec infection. Treatment is likely to be as above, but may also involve other drug treatments to support your rabbit, reduce inflammation, or help with the disorientation that affected rabbits may have.

Is E cuniculi infectious to me or my other animals?
Ec is potentially zoonotic, ie it can be transmitted to humans. However, only humans with severe immune compromise (typically those with HIV/AIDS, or on chemotherapy), are vulnerable. If you are concerned about the risk of infection,you should speak to your doctor.Other species are not believed to be generally susceptible to the rabbit strain of Ec, although if they are immune suppressed, this is equally possible.

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