Recognising the signs of potential ill health in your rabbit is important in helping keep your pet in peak condition.
Knowing when to call your vet for advice and treatment could also help save your rabbit’s life in an emergency. Your vet will also be able to advise you on how regular check-ups and vaccination can protect your pet against potentially fatal disease.
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD), also known as Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) is a very serious infectious disease which first emerged in China during the 1980s that can affect rabbits. Within a few years this disease was seen virtually worldwide and it is now an endemic disease in wild rabbits in the UK. The disease is extremely sudden in onset in many cases with the only sign often seen in an infected rabbit is that is found dead. All rabbits are potentially at risk of RHD.
How is Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease spread?
RHD is spread by direct contact between rabbits (both wild and domesticated) and but also via indirect contact. Possible sources of indirect transfer are people, clothing, contaminated hutches and bedding, as well as insect vectors such as fleas and flies.
What causes Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease?
RHD is caused by a calicivirus and has an incubation period of just one to three days. The virus itself is very stable in the environment and can survive for up to 105 days.
What are the signs and symptoms of Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease?
Signs include depression, collapse, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, high body temperature, lethargy and bleeding from the nose. Death usually occurs within 12-36 hours after the onset of fever and the mortality rate can be as high as 90-100%.
Can I stop my rabbit getting Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease?
RHD vaccination can be given to provide effective protection against this disease from as early as five weeks of age. A dual vaccine for rabbits covering both myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease has recently been launched in the UK. This new vaccine provides efficient protection of rabbits against both diseases and as with existing RHD vaccines an annual booster is sufficient to maintain immunity.
Myxomatosis is caused by the Myxoma virus, a type of pox virus that only affects rabbits. It was first discovered in 1896 in Uruguay and was imported to Australia in 1951 to control its large rabbit populations - initially having the desired devastating effect.
The disease was illegally introduced to France in 1952 and it appeared in Britain the following year. It quickly spread to both wild and domestic rabbit populations and within a few years had spread throughout Europe. Myxomatosis has been a threat to wild and domestic rabbits ever since. All rabbits, whether wild or domestic are at risk of Myxomatosis.
How is Myxomatosis spread?
Myxomatosis is typically spread by blood sucking insects, and in particular the rabbit flea, Spilopsyllus cuniculi. This flea is frequently found on wild rabbits and transmission in the absence of bites is unusual. All breeds of domestic rabbit can be affected, with little to suggest that one breed is more susceptible than another, and whatever the lifestyle of your rabbit there is a potential risk of this disease. Mosquitos and other biting insects are also potential sources of disease transmission.
What are the signs and symptoms of Myxomatosis?
The incubation period varies depending on the strain and its virulence and is typically at least five days. Along with the classic bulging eyes that most of us associate with Myxomatosis, localised swellings develop around the head, face, ears, lips, anus and genitalia. Severe swellings can lead to blindness and distortion around the face within a day or so of the onset of symptoms, leading to difficulty with feeding and drinking. Bacterial respiratory infection often complicates the disease resulting in a fatal pneumonia.
How can Myxomatosis be prevented?
You can protect your rabbit against Myxomatosis with an annual vaccination.
Always keep a regular check on your rabbit for any signs of fleas and consider the regular use of an insecticidal treatment from your vet.
Mosquitoes and other biting flies may also transmit Myxomatosis in the UK, so nets and insect repellent can be used to combat this threat in warmer weather.
Your vet will be able to advise you further on these measures, since not all products are suitable or safe for rabbits.
How can Myxomatosis be treated?
Progress of the disease may be slower in well cared for pet rabbits and recovery is sometimes possible with intensive care however this disease is usually fatal. There is no specific treatment for the virus and any treatment offered is merely supportive. Treatment is occasionally contemplated but would not usually be recommended for rabbits with the full-blown disease since affected individuals have a low chance of survival and they remain a source of infection for other rabbits. The occasional individuals with milder disease may, however, recover with appropriate care.
Recovery in the wild occasionally occurs but for animals with severe signs, death usually occurs about 12 days after initial infection.