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Rabbits - Medical Conditions

Dog with scarf

Rabbits are often our least well looked after pets so we are really keen to help with any problems you might have. Remember, like all ‘predated upon’ animals, that they may not show signs of disease until they are very unwell. Feel free to pop into the surgery and collect our fact sheets on proper diet (NOT the muesli type!), anaesthesia, neutering and dental problems. Alternatively, you can download them from our information page.

A basic check list of important factors:

Avoid obesity! Proper diet and exercise are important.
Hay! Should be available al the time.
Rabbits need to chew! Constantly to wear their teeth down.
Hygiene! They need to be clean and dry.
Bottoms! Should not have faecal staining, which attracts maggots in summer.

Rabbit Dental Disease

Rabbits have incisors, premolars and molars, all of which grow continuously throughout life and normally wear against the opposing teeth.rabbit1.jpg (24873 bytes) When the teeth do not wear against each other they overgrow and will require trimming. The picture on the left shows a rabbit with very overgrown lower incisors. Abnormal tooth growth results in inability to eat properly causing weight loss and malnutrition. The front incisors are easily trimmed with a dental burr. The molars are more difficult to diagnose and trimming will require sedation. The first indication of overgrowth is often problems eating or poor appetite. Sharp edges can cause laceration and ulceration of the tongue and cheek. A secondary problem often related to dental malocclusion is the development of tooth root infections and abscesses. This can be serious as the infection is usually seated in the jaw bone (osteomyelitis) and is difficult to clear with antibiotic therapy.

Fly Strike

Flystrike is a common, extremely distressing and often fatal disease which predominantly occurs in warm weather. It most commonly occurs when the rabbits rear end becomes soiled with faeces and/or urine. This attracts flies which lay eggs on damaged skin or on the soiled fur. These eggs then hatch into maggots that eat away at the tissues in the surrounding area and release toxins which makes the rabbit very poorly and can be fatal. If you spot any signs of flystrike on your pet, such as eggs or maggots you must bring them into the surgery urgently for treatment. You can prevent flystrike by:

  • Keeping housing clean and dry.
  • Feeding the correct high fibre diet to make sure they eat all of their caecotrophs.
  • Checking your pet thoroughly for signs of illness, injury or abnormal behaviour every day, and in warm weather checking the fur and skin around your pets’ rear end and tail area, at least twice a day.
  • Removing any wet or soiled bedding every day.
  • Keeping rabbits active and healthy - obese rabbits may be too big to clean themselves effectively or to eat their caecotrophs (which then build up around their rear end).
  • Using suitable insecticides and insect repellents (Contact us for more information).
Ear Mites

Ear mites are common in rabbits, the mite Psoroptes cuniculi can be easily transmitted through contact with other rabbits. The mites irritate the lining of the ear canal and cause thick waxy crusts to accumulate. Rabbits with ear mites shake their head, scratch and flap their ears. Cleaning the ear canal to remove the waxy crusts will help to settle the irritation and your vet will prescribe ear drops to break down the wax and kill the mites. Hutches should be cleaned out and thoroughly disinfected. Ivermectin is an effective treatment, although not licensed for Rabbits.

Skin Mites

Two types of skin mite are found in rabbits, Sarcoptes scabei and Notoedres cati. These burrow into the skin and lay eggs, these mites cause constant itching and scratching with hair loss and often severe self inflicted skin damage. Secondary bacterial infection of the skin can complicate the situation. The picture on the left shows skin mites on the outer surface of the ear flap. The crusting and hair loss is typical of this condition.

Fur Mites

Cheyletiella and Listrophorus species of mites can live on the surface of the skin and hair. Serious infestations can develop spontaneously when the rabbit is debilitated by another disease problem. Occasionally scabs and sores develop. These mites are transmitted by direct contact between rabbits. Ivermectin is an effective treatment, although not licensed for rabbits.

Hairballs and Hair chewing

Rabbits constantly groom themselves, so hair is normally ingested and passed through the gastrointestinal tract. It only becomes a problem if excess amounts are consumed and collect in the stomach as hairballs. Most rabbits with hairballs initially lose weight and are anorexic, over 3-4 weeks their condition declines and can eventually be fatal. Daily combing to remove loose hair is helpful along with feeding plenty of hay.

Pineapple juice contains a digestive enzyme that can help to breakdown hairballs, an adult rabbit can be given 10ml of fresh pineapple juice twice daily. Canned juice is ineffective since the canning process destroys the enzyme. A high roughage diet should be fed during treatment to carry hair fibres through the gastrointestinal tract.

Hair chewing can occur as a result of a low fibre diet and can be helped by feeding plenty of hay. It can also be a vice associated with boredom.

Intestinal Disease

Many rabbits suffer from intestinal disease at some point in their life, usually this is manifest as diarrhoea. There are several different conditions and/or infections that present in a similar manner. These are briefly listed below, trying to differentiate between them clinically can be extremely difficult.

Dysbiosis; the normal function of a rabbit's bowel relies heavily on the population of beneficial bacteria to break down ingested plant material. If this population is disrupted then enteritis can develop.

Mucoid enteritis; this affects young rabbits generally between 7 and 14 weeks of age. They develop diarrhoea and produce an excessive quantity of mucus. The cause is not fully understood.

Bacterial enteritis; E.coli, Clostridia, Salmonella, and Campylobacter are all known to cause diarrhoea in rabbits.

Viral enteritis; several viruses cause diarrhoea in rabbits, including rotavirus, coronavirus, and viral haemorrhagic disease.

Treatment of enteritis in rabbits involves trying to treat infection with antibiotics, provide fluid and nutritional support if required, and attempting to help the re-establishment of the normal bacterial population.

Viral Haemorrhagic Disease

This is a fatal, highly contagious disease of domestic rabbits. The disease takes 24-72 hours to develop after infection with the virus, some cases may be rapidly fatal without prior indication of illness. Breathing difficulty, swelling of eyelids, rapid heart rate, convulsions, and blood stained discharges have been reported prior to death.

No treatment is effective. We recommend vaccination of domestic rabbits against this disease. 


This is a fatal disease of all breeds of domestic rabbit. The virus is transmitted by fleas, biting flies, and direct contact with infected rabbits. All ages of rabbit are susceptible. The disease can occur as an epidemic or as sporadic cases.

Initially a conjunctivitis develops, the rabbit becomes listless, inappetant, and feverish. The cases that do not die within 48hrs progressively become more depressed, with poor coat, and the eyelids, lips, eyes and ears become swollen. A purulent nasal discharge appears followed by laboured breathing, coma and then death. Occasionally an individual will survive for several weeks.

Treatment is often ineffective but fluid therapy, nutritional support, antibiotics and intensive nursing care may help.

Protection through vaccination is strongly recommended, vaccines are given at 6 month intervals, please ask your vet for more information.


Pasteurella multocida is a bacterial organism that is frequently responsible for respiratory disease in rabbits. Infection can result in nasal discharge and snuffling, pneumonia, conjunctivitis, darcocystitis (infection of the tear ducts), ear infection, and sinus infection. Abscesses and even septicaemia can also develop. Many rabbits can carry Pasteurella organisms without developing clinical disease, and act as a source of infection of other healthy rabbits.

Your vet may wish to take samples from an ill rabbit to try to confirm that Pasteurella is involved. Treatment is with antibiotic therapy, usually for 7-14 days, but occasionally up to 3 months. Antibiotic treatment will control the infection but it is not always successful in eliminating it from the body.

Any abscesses will need to be lanced and drained, tear ducts may need to be flushed out and antibiotics instilled locally. Fluid therapy and nutritional support will be required if the rabbit becomes anorexic.