Common Non-Infectious Diseases of Pet Rabbits

pet rabbitWhat are some of the common diseases of pet rabbits?

Common conditions of pet rabbits include snuffles, gut stasis, abnormal caecotrophs, parasites, dental disease, uterine cancer, and sore hocks.

What are the signs of these diseases?

"Snuffles" is the lay term given to upper respiratory infections. These may be related to Pasteurella bacteria but not always. Most common clinical signs are related to the eyes (discharge, redness, squinting) or nose (sneezing, discharge). Often the eyes and nose are affected at the same time. Bacteria can infect other areas of the body as well. Ear infections (resulting in a head tilt) and abscesses (seen as lumps on the body), are also seen. Sudden death from septicaemia (infection in the blood) is rare but can occur. While some infections are mild and easily treated, others are much more difficult with dental disease and allergy/irritation being frequent underlying causes making management very difficult.

Gut stasis is extremely common in rabbits. In the past this has been referred to as “hairballs” as large bodies of food and hair may accumulate in the stomach. However, rather than representing overgrooming or a physical obstruction, it usually demonstrates gut hypomotility. The most common reason for this is pain. Dental, spinal, abdominal or post-operative pain will all cause the problem. Some cases may be dietary –related to low fibre diets being at fault causing changes in gut pH and altered gut flora. Some may result from disease of the nerves to the gut. A lethargic and/or anorexic rabbit with reduced or absent faecal pellets should arouse suspicion. Radiography of the abdomen is confirmatory and will distinguish from true intestinal impactions.

"A lethargic and/or anorexic rabbit with reduced or absent faecal pellets should arouse suspicion."

Another manifestation of gut motility changes is altered caecotrophy. This is where the caecotroph (the “edible” faecal paste produced then reingested by the rabbit) builds up around the hindquarters. Low fibre diets and pain are frequent causes of this syndrome as are problems that cause the rabbit difficulty in turning and prehending the caecotroph – eg. obesity, cramped hutches, back problems, and molar spurs

Therapy for gut stasis and caecotroph alterations involves correction of the underlying cause and pain relief. Agents to stimulate gut motility may also be used along with fluid therapy and assisted feeding of the sick rabbit.

Internal parasites are a rare cause of disease in pet rabbits. Ectoparasites are, however, very common. Fleas, ticks and fur or ear mites can all cause problems. Antiparasitic agents are available and the need for prophylaxis should be discussed with your vet.

overgrown incisors in rabbitRabbit teeth grow continuously through life. This applies to both incisors (front teeth) and molars and premolars (back teeth) as they are adapted to continuously grind high fibre foods. Failure to provide adequate fibre or calcium in the diet predisposes to dental disease as teeth continue to grow in spite of not being worn down. Problems may result from molar spurs sticking into the tongue and/ or cheeks or from root pain. Short-nosed breeds may be at greater risk of dental disease due to molar “overcrowding”. Incisor overgrowth is sometimes seen due to jaw malformations or injury, but usually reflects molar overgrowth. It is extremely difficult to adequately examine the molars in the conscious rabbit and radiography may be required to diagnoses dental disease. Therapy requires anaesthesia and the burring of overgrown teeth. Dietary corrections will slow down progression of disease but, once started, it is likely that lifelong dental management will be required.

Like dogs and cats, female rabbits should be spayed early in life (by 4-6 months of age). Whereas un-spayed female dogs and cats often develop malignant breast cancer, and un-spayed female ferrets die of fatal anaemia, un-spayed female rabbits often develop uterine cancer. The type of cancer is called uterine adenocarcinoma. This is a relatively common condition of older female rabbits. It should be suspected whenever an un-spayed female rabbit becomes sick. Diagnosis may sometimes be difficult and exploratory surgery may be needed. Ovariohysterectomy is curative as long as the cancer has not already spread.

"Sore hocks" is a condition that is fairly unique to rabbits. The hocks are essentially the ankles of rabbits. When a rabbit is sitting, which it does most of the time, its hocks are in contact with the floor of its cage. Wire-floored cages are often to blame. However, other substrates that allow retention of urine or are directly caustic may also be a problem. Obesity may result in increased pressure on the hocks and giant breeds also have increased problems. Hair from these regions should never be clipped as it is the main protection. Therapy involves antibiosis coupled with correction of underlying causes and foot dressings.

How can I tell if my rabbit is sick?

Signs of disease in rabbits may be specific for a certain disease. Most commonly, however, signs are vague and non-specific, such as a rabbit with anorexia (lack of appetite) and lethargy, which can be seen with many diseases. ANY deviation from normal should be a cause for concern and requires immediate evaluation by your veterinarian.

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