Diseases in Rabbits
Rabbit Farming in South Africa

© Judy Stuart
A rabbit with a sore eye

South Africa is one of the few countries in the world free of two major rabbit diseases that can kill large numbers of rabbits very quickly. These are myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease. For this reason, the importing of rabbits from anywhere else in the world is completely banned. There is no cure for either of these diseases and both diseases are spread by insects like mosquitoes and on the air.

In South Africa, we have a very endangered rabbit called the riverine rabbit. There are very few of these indigenous rabbits left and if either disease were to reach them, they have no immunity and will die. Not only would the indigenous rabbit and hare population die, domestic rabbits would also be in danger of contracting an incurable illness.

The secret to happy healthy rabbits is cleanliness and good feeding. Cages that are dirty, with a build-up of urine and manure will result in an outbreak of coccidiosis. Coccidiosis is a natural microbe that is present in the gut of all rabbits, but only in a dirty environment will it become a problem.

Coccidiosis can be spotted by the rabbit sitting hunched up, with a swollen belly and dull eyes. It will also have a very smelly jelly-like runny tummy. A soluble sulphur solution can be added to the drinking water (read instructions on product pack). If treated early enough coccidiosis can be cured.
Move all sick rabbits to an area away from healthy stock and clean cages very well.

If the sick rabbit was in a wire hutch, clean the hutch with a blowtorch. Wooden hutches can be cleaned with a Jeyes Fluid solution (or similar disinfectant) and left in the direct sun to dry. Remove all concentrate feed, lucerne and greens and give only clean hay until the rabbit is well. Ensure that fresh water is available.

Bloat is usually the result of wilted greens or a sudden change in feed. Once again, remove all feed with the exception of good hay and water. Encourage the rabbit to move by putting it in a run. A bit of sunshine will also make the rabbit feel better and move more readily. This will result in gasses blocking the gut to move and relieve any pressure.

Enteritis can kill very quickly. It often hits many animals in the herd simultaneously and kills within 24 hours. It shows as a very smelly runny slime and the rabbit usually lies on its side with its head back, breathing very unevenly. Quick intervention is essential. Try feeding wild strawberry leaves immediately when the illness is identified, and if that fails call a veterinarian.

Abscesses can be caused by small wounds or bites from another rabbit. Abscesses start as a lump under the skin that is quite hard to the touch initially. After a few days, a black spot becomes visible on the lump and it softens up. Wash the area with a disinfectant and with a sharp blade, cut across the black spot.

Thick pus with come out and this must be firmly squeezed until it no longer flows. Fill a 10 cc syringe with a 1% hydrogen peroxide solution and squirt into the wound. This will cause the last of the pus to bubble out and clean the area. Check for a few days to ensure that it does not redevelop.

Snuffles (colds) in rabbits are common. Keep the rabbit in a wind-free area away from all other rabbits. Treat with an antibiotic if the cold persists. Vet advice would be a good idea if there is a mass outbreak.

Pasteurella manifests in the same way as a cold but the rabbit will sneeze hard and thick mucus will be stuck to its nose. The inside of the front feet will be coated with mucus from wiping the face to clear the nostrils. Pasteurella is contagious and the best solution is to cull the individual before it infects the rest of the herd.

Malocclusion of the teeth is a serious problem and can be due to an injury or genetic. A rabbit's teeth grow continuously and if they do not meet properly (the top and bottom teeth must fit on each other), they simply keep growing. This results in the rabbit not being able to eat and it will be in terrible pain. The teeth can be clipped, but this will not solve the problem. Cull any rabbit found with a malocclusion. It is the kindest thing to do.

Ear canker is caused by a mite that lives in the rabbit's ear. It causes great pain and can be seen as a brown crust in the base of the ear, which, if left, can fill the entire earlobe. Canker can either be treated with an application of baby oil into the ear, or with Ivomec (Ivomec is a sheep dip and can be bought from a vet or co-op. Apply as per instructions). All rabbits should be regularly checked by looking deep into the ear and treating immediately.

Sore hocks are sores under the feet. These sores can be on the front or back feet and are usually caused by flooring that is too rough on the feet. Rexes (a dual purpose breed) are very prone to sore hocks and must always have a rest pad and grass bedding. Solid floors are best for Rexes. Gentian Violet can be sprayed on the wounds to dry them out.

Runny or infected eyes can be treated with chamomile tea or a Terramycin eye powder, obtainable from a co-op or vet.

Stress is a major cause of rabbits becoming susceptible to disease. Happy contented rabbits seldom become ill. Keep your rabbits away from predators and sudden noises and all should be well. If they are stressed for any reason, a few drops of rescue remedy in their water and a quiet environment will help. In extreme cases, add a drop of whiskey in a teaspoon full of warm milk.

Heat stroke is a major killer. If your rabbits are too hot (over 25℃) they will quickly fail. Breathing will be difficult and they will get very wet around the muzzle. Spray down with cold water and supply a bottle filled with frozen water for the rabbit to rest against.

© Karoline Steenekamp