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Common diseases in rabbits

There are a number of diseases that can affect our beloved rabbits. In order for you to be able to take care of your rabbit in the best way, it is important to keep an eye out for the most common ones.

Female rabbits

The most common cause of death in female rabbits is cancer of the uterus, called adenocarcinoma. This is a malignant disease, and once diagnosed, it has usually spread to other areas of the body.

In breeding rabbits, the disease often initially manifests itself as various problems with pregnancy and abortions. In other female rabbits, bleeding from the vagina is can be seen. This can often be misinterpreted as blood in the urine.

This form of cancer can be prevented by neutering the rabbit between six months and two years of age. Castration involves surgically removing the rabbit's uterus and ovaries. The procedure also prevents cancer with mammary tumours later in life.

Male rabbits

Some male rabbits, especially pygmy rabbits, can exhibit strong territory-holding behaviour when they reach sexual maturity. They can bite and spray urine outside the litter box. The urine often has a very strong and unpleasant smell due to the presence of male sex hormones.

These males can also be bad at grooming, and develop discoloured and sticky behinds. They can start attacking other rabbits and cause serious bite wounds. The best solution is castration (surgery to remove the testicles), which should be done after about five months of age.

Overgrown teeth

Overgrown teeth are caused to some extent by "hereditary predisposition" - due to humans breeding rabbits with shorter and shorter noses, which means narrower jaws and a greater risk of problems - but above all because rabbits are increasingly misfed.

Too little hay and grass causes the rabbit to chew too little and in the wrong way, which leads to teeth growing. Once the fit between the teeth is lost, it can be very difficult to correct the problem. Most often, it is bad wear of the cheek teeth that causes serious problems. In some cases, the rabbit may also have problems with the front teeth.

Overgrown teeth can cause mouth infections, sores on the lips or tongue, and inability to pick up and eat food. Early signs of dental problems are difficulty chewing and swallowing properly, increased salivation, and wetness under the chin and on the chest. Increased drinking, slight diarrhoea and the fact that the rabbit begins to select its diet, i.e. only eats what is easy to chew, are early signs of dental problems. Eventually the rabbit loses weight and then stops eating altogether. If nothing is done, the rabbit may starve to death. 

The most common treatment for overgrown teeth is to have a veterinarian saw off the teeth periodically. This is something you should not attempt on your own, Rabbit teeth break easily with cracks deep below the gums, which in turn can lead to infections. If the molars are involved, or if the rabbit is nervous and fearful, they may need to put the rabbit to sleep for the procedure.

Unfortunately, it is rarely enough to have a tooth cut, but the problem almost always comes back, the only question is how soon. If the problem returns after a month, it is conceivable that that particular rabbit needs anaesthesia and teeth clipping every month. In these cases, one should carefully consider whether it is right for the rabbit with such frequent treatments, maybe euthanasia is a better option.

A permanent solution to underbites and overgrown incisors (if the cheek teeth are not causing problems) is to simply operate on these teeth under general anaesthesia. Rabbits can eat completely normally afterwards, and no longer have to go away to have its teeth cut from time to time. If your rabbit has problems with its teeth, you can discuss different treatment methods with your veterinarian.

Remember that what you, as an animal owner can do, is to prevent the problem by providing plenty of hay and grass.

Reduced appetite

There are a number of possible reasons why a rabbit loses its appetite. The most common reason is that the rabbit is on a diet that contains too little fibre and too many calories. This combination can lead to obesity, fatty liver and poor motility in the gastrointestinal tract.

Dental problems can also cause decreased appetite. Overgrown cheek teeth with sharp edges can cause sores on the tongue, and abscesses at the root of a tooth can cause the rabbit to stop eating due to pain.

A less common, but very serious condition, that can lead to loss of appetite can be uterine infection, abscesses, respiratory tract infection, gastrointestinal infection, middle ear infection, ingestion of toxic products, and infection of the bladder or kidneys.

If a rabbit stops eating, it can be as fast as 4 hours before the rabbit dies. A rabbit that has not eaten for 24 hours should always go to the vet immediately. A rabbit that does not want to eat should be hand-fed every 2-3 hours so that intestinal motility does not stop completely.

The liver is affected if the rabbit has not eaten for a long time, but the acute problem is usually that the gastrointestinal motility ceases and this leads to the stomach filling with gas, which is very painful and can lead to death if treatment is not instituted.

Decreased appetite in a rabbit is a very serious condition. If your rabbit stops eating, always contact a veterinarian.

Pasteurellosis

A large percentage of rabbits carry a bacteria called Pasteurella multocida in their sinuses. This bacteria does not cause problems in rabbits with a healthy immune system. Under certain stressful situations, such as poor feeding, high ambient temperature, poor ventilation, crowding, etc., this bacteria can multiply quickly and cause serious illness.

The bacterium can cause infections in the upper respiratory tract, uterus, skin, kidneys, bladder, tear ducts, middle ear and lungs. See a veterinarian if you observe discharge from the eyes, nose, vulva, or if the rabbit loses its appetite, becomes depressed, has diarrhoea, tilts its head to one side, loses its balance, or has laboured breathing. Never try to start antibiotic treatment yourself without prior veterinary contact.

Your rabbit's gastrointestinal tract is a very sensitive organ that depends on normally occurring bacteria breaking down the food. If antibiotics are introduced without thinking, this can lead to the death of the rabbit because the antibiotics kill the normal bacteria in the intestine, after which deadly bacteria take over.

Diarrhoea

True diarrhoea is uncommon in rabbits. This is a condition where all stool comes out in liquid form. It is usually a very serious medical condition and should be checked by your vet immediately. Some serious gastrointestinal infections that cause diarrhoea can lead to death in less than 24 hours.

What most people call diarrhoea is the occasional passing of soft liquid or pudding-like faeces by the rabbit. Occasionally, normal shaped stools are also seen. The soft droppings are sometimes mostly seen at certain times of the day (often during the night), can have a strong odour and accumulate in the rabbit's fur. The loose stool is actually appendix stool which is not well formed.

There are several reasons for this, but clearly the most common is a lack of sufficient fibre in the diet, as well as obesity. By excluding pellets, bread, fruit and other junk from their diet, and feeding with good quality grass hay, and continuing this way for 1-3 months, you can usually solve the problem. Consult your veterinarian if your rabbit has this problem, before making any changes to the diet.

Sores on the buttocks

These sores are seen on the weight-bearing part of the rear sides of the hind legs. The sores can occur for a number of reasons, for example:

  • Standing on hard and/or uneven surfaces
  • Poor hair growth on the hind legs
  • Drumming of the hind legs when it is startled
  • Overweight
  • Poor hygiene in the cage so that the hind legs are exposed to soiling with urine or faeces.

The wounds often become deep and infected, and require antibiotic treatment and bandaging. In addition, the cause must be determined and corrected.

Impaired gastric motility - "sickness of the stomach"

A very common problem in rabbits is that the movements in the gastrointestinal tract suddenly stop. This is often perceived as constipation as no faecal lumps come out anymore. Sometimes the condition is complicated by gas formation in the stomach or intestines.

The swollen organs press on surrounding organs and cause pain to the rabbit. Often, the rabbit's general condition deteriorates quite quickly, and it also stops eating.

The movements of the stomach can slow down for many different reasons. Sometimes this is seen as a direct result of the rabbit having stopped eating for some reason. The cause of the lack of appetite can be various medical conditions or that the rabbit is stressed by changes in the environment, such as being housed away from home.

It is more common, however, for the movements of the stomach and intestines to stop spontaneously because the rabbit has been eating low-fibre and high-fat food for a long time.

In the past, this medical condition was called "hairballs in the stomach", because it was believed that hairballs blocked the passage from the stomach. However, it has been shown that these hairballs only form when the stomach has already become stagnant, due to the fluid being drawn out of the stomach, leaving hairs and food particles that cake together into large tangles.

The treatment consists mainly of giving the rabbit large amounts of liquid, so that the "hairballs" in the stomach dissolve again, and of trying to stimulate the stomach's motility with feeding and medication. This is often a very time-consuming and labour-intensive treatment over many days, which sometimes requires the rabbit to be admitted to an animal hospital or clinic. Many times the course has gone so far that the rabbit's life cannot be saved.

Impaired food sac motility is a very serious condition for a rabbit. If your rabbit shows symptoms or if you suspect this, contact a veterinarian immediately.

Ear infections

Rabbit breeds that have drooping ears are easily affected by ear infections. The drooping ears contribute to the disease because the ear canal is compressed and entails a greater risk of bacterial infections.

Mild cases are treated with cleaning the ears and ear drops, but in more serious cases general antibiotic administration may be necessary. The problems often become chronic because the cause of the problem remains (the anatomy of the ears). In really severe cases of wart formation in the inner ear, surgery may be necessary.

Ear scab

Ear infections lead to the accumulation of a brown, dry material that can fill the entire ear canal. Underlying tissue is often very irritated and sore. In severe cases, these sores can also be seen on the head. The treatment may consist of cleaning followed by ear drops. This often hurts the rabbit a lot so an alternative could be to treat ear mange with injection treatment.

Rabbit scabies, Cheyletiella

This is a mange that lives in the outermost layers of the skin, usually on the rabbit's back. It manifests itself initially as an increased amount of dandruff. Eventually, it can lead to hairless patches, sores and crusts.

Often, but not always, intense itching is seen. The parasite is treated with injection therapy with an antiparasitic agent. However, the parasite is quite resistant, and it can sometimes take up to 6 treatments to get rid of it. Cleaning up the rabbit's immediate environment is also an important part of the treatment.

Susceptibility to antibiotics

Rabbits are very sensitive to certain types of antibiotics. For this reason, you should never attempt to treat the rabbit at home without consulting a veterinarian. Many antibiotics that are harmless to other animals have been shown to be fatal to rabbits, whether given orally or by injection. In addition, even some local treatment preparations (for example, ointments) can cause serious damage.

The main mechanism behind this dangerous effect is that antibiotics dramatically alter the normal microbial balance in the gastrointestinal tract. In addition to the drug affecting the disease-causing bacteria in the body, it also affects the normal, "good", bacteria in the rabbit's digestive system.

Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive system, any changes in this can cause a cascade of events leading to serious illness or death. As well as causing an imbalance in the bacterial flora, these changes can lead to the formation of harmful chemical products in the rabbit's body. Other antibiotics cause direct toxic effects to the rabbit without first disturbing the digestive system.

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