Common Rabbit Diseases

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An essential aspect of successful rabbit management is knowing the common rabbit diseases that can impact your animals and how to spot them.

Below are the most common diseases in rabbits that you should be aware of, along with their symptoms. In addition to these diseases be aware that nitrates in the drinking water can also pose a problem to rabbits.

Pasteurella multocida: This respiratory disease, commonly known as “snuffles”, can become endemic in a rabbitry. The acquisition of infection in young rabbits is related directly to the prevalence in older rabbits. Transmission is mainly by direct contact with nasal secretions from infected rabbits and may be greatest when rhinitis induces sneezing and aerosolization of secretions. The bacteria can survive for days in moist secretions or water. P. multocida gains entry to the respiratory tract primarily through the nares, and once infection is established, may colonize also the paranasal sinuses, middle ears, lacrimal ducts, thoracic organs and genitalia. Occasionally rabbits harbor chronic infections of internal tissues or organs, such as middle ears or lungs, without any signs of rhinitis and are negative for P. multocida by nasal culture. There are many strains of this bacterium which result in disease of varying severity.

Standard treatment involves antibiotic therapy, sometimes for months if the bacteria have become well- enriched in abscesses or other hard-to-access tissues. Abscesses often must be treated surgically. Rarely is the disease cured.

Bordetella bronchiseptica: This is another respiratory disease that is transmitted via direct contact, aerosol or contact with nasal secretions of infected animals. There is the possibility for human-to-rabbit transmission. It produces snuffles-like symptoms and is commonly a co-infectant with P. multocida. Antibiotics will treat symptoms but will not remove the carrier state. This organism is fairly fragile in the environment and is easily killed with sanitizing compounds. Dogs and guinea pigs can be carriers. Once a rabbit contracts this pathogen, it will be a carrier forever.

Staphylococcus aureus: There are many different strains of this nasty pathogen which range in virulence from low to extreme and can cause mastitis, pododermatitis (sore feet and hocks), endocarditis (inflammation of the endocardium of the heart), conjunctivitis (pink eye) and subcutaneous abscesses. Antibiotic treatment must be tailored to the specific strain. Transmission is via a variety of vectors.

Moraxella catarrhalis: Another common respiratory pathogen in rabbits, this bacterium can also cause eye infections. This pathogen is often found in conjunction with other respiratory pathogens. Cleanliness and moisture management are key tools in controlling the occurrence and manifestation of this parasite. Symptoms include diarrhea, loss of appetite, weight loss and bloating. Stress is another causative factor. When rabbits are alarmed, hormones are released which slow the movement of food through the digestive tract and block cecotrophy (consumption of night feces). This results in alkalinization of the cecum, which can lead to explosions of populations of “bad” bacteria like clostridia, corynebacteria, pasteurella or E. coli. This process can take 5 to 7 days, so sleuthing out the cause of an enteritis attack means considering everything that has happened in the last week. Given that rabbits are sensitive prey animals and have a “high-alarm” response to perceived threats, almost anything can be a stressor – other animals, noise, unfamiliar people, changes in routine, being transported somewhere, extreme temperature variations, etc.

Parasites that can cause enteritis include trematodes (flukes), cestodes (tapeworms), nematodes (intestinal worms) and coccidia (protozoa). It is wise to establish a health care program with a veterinarian that includes regular checks for various parasites and a through prevention program. Coccidia are particularly ubiquitous in animal facilities and the environment in general, and outbreaks are common and can be very devastating, especially in young animals. Many common antibiotics and other compounds can cause enteritis and other problems, often with a high mortality rate. Keep in mind that only two pharmaceuticals – sulfaquinoxaline and lasalocid – are actually approved for use in rabbits. Rabbits should never be medicated without the supervision of a veterinarian.
With all these pathogenic vectors out there waiting to impact your rabbits, it’s small wonder that we sometimes encounter frustrating disease outbreaks. Implementing proper biosecurity protocols may help limit exposure and spread of costly diseases, while feeding your rabbits a diet with a high-plane of nutrition may help support their immune systems, preparing them to fight off disease when exposure does occur.
  • Mycoplasmas: There are a number of mycoplasma pathogens that cause everything from pneumonia to reproductive failure. M. pulmonis is very common and is often endemic in rodent colonies. Rabbitries with rodent problems often have a high incidence of infections with this pathogen.
  • Coccidiosis: Coccidiosis is a highly contagious, very common sporozoal infection in rabbits. There are many different variants of coccidia, and they primarily infect the intestine or the liver. The oocysts are shed in the feces and can contaminate the food, water and environment. This disease is especially prevalent in intensively managed animals.  
  • Enteritis: This is a catch-all term that means inflammation of the intestinal tract. There are many, many forms and causes.
    • Mucoid enteritis: True mucoid enteritis is primarily a disease of young rabbits 7 to 14 weeks of age. It stems from a change in cecal pH that disrupts the developing microflora population. Research indicates that dysautonomia (malfunction of the autonomic nervous system) may play a role. This disease is often accompanied by pneumonia and has a high mortality rate.Mucoid enteritis in adult rabbits is more likely to be part of the enteritis complex of causative factors and while it is definitely a serious condition, mortality is generally lower.
    • Non-mucoid enteritis: The primary symptom is watery diarrhea. Causes can range from infection with any number of bacteria or parasites, a diet that is too high in starch/sugar and/or too low in fiber, lack of water or a rapid diet change or consumption of feed the rabbit is not used to. 
  • Epizootic Rabbit Enteropathy: This relatively new and highly contagious disease is an import from Europe, where it has caused much havoc in rabbit farms. Symptoms include a rumbling noise, distended abdomen, mucous excretion, watery diarrhea and sometimes cecal impaction, along with decreased feed intake and high mortality. The causative agent is as yet unknown, though it is likely bacterial, not viral. Curiously, this disease does NOT involve inflammation of the intestines.
  • Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD’s): Sexually transmitted diseases can reduce conception rates, increase abortion and cause infection, often without obvious symptoms. New bucks should be tested before being used for breeding if they have been in a previous breeding program.  Rabbits can also transmit several diseases to people: ringworm, listeriosis, tularemia and common fur and mange mites can all be passed from rabbits to people.