Skin Diseases in Rabbits
Rabbits can get a variety of skin conditions, ranging from fungal, viral, bacterial, and parasitic infections such as fleas and lice. Even a certain sexually transmitted disease can cause skin issues in rabbits! Some of these conditions are potentially contagious to other mammals like dogs, cats, and people, but some are rabbit specific diseases. Continue reading to learn about the potential risks to your rabbit.
Bacterial Skin Infections in Rabbits
Staphylococcus aureus is a normal skin bacteria present on most mammals. It also lives in the conjunctiva (tissue around the eyes) and the nasal cavity. If a break in the skin barrier occurs, such as a scratch from rough play or a sharp item in the home, the bacteria can penetrate the deeper tissue leading to an abnormal infection.
With severe infections, the bacteria can enter the bloodstream and have fatal consequences. If you see a moist, red, painful, or swollen area on your rabbit, be sure to bring them to the vet immediately. Testing may be necessary to confirm the cause and begin appropriate antibacterial treatment. Staphylococcus and Pasteurella bacteria can also cause mastitis (infection of the mammary glands) leading to pain, heat, and swelling.
Treponematosis, also called Rabbit Syphilis, is caused by a bacteria called Treponema. This is a rabbit sexually transmitted disease that is passed by direct contact. The mother rabbit can even pass to the babies during birth. This STD causes crusted lesions to form around the mouth, nose, eyes, and genital area. There are various tests available to help diagnose this disease, and treatment is typically a course of injectable penicillin. NOTE: Rabbits should NEVER be given penicillin orally as it can be fatal!
Pasteurella multocida is typically an upper respiratory pathogen that causes Snuffles in rabbits. However, it can also cause abscesses to form under the skin which can be very difficult to treat. Abscesses can form anywhere on the body and are usually soft to firm swellings that gradually enlarge over a few days to a week. Abscesses in rabbits are encased in a thick capsule and treatment is intensive. This could include surgical removal, lancing and draining and implanting antibiotic beads into the area, or frequent debridement and flushing of the area once the capsule has been removed. Since the abscesses are so hard to treat, a bacterial culture should be performed to identify the bacteria and better select antibiotic treatment.
Viral Skin Infections in Rabbits
Myxoma virus is a poxvirus. In the US, this virus is most commonly found on the West Coast along California and Oregon. Wild rabbit populations seem able to tolerate the virus, but it’s often fatal in pet rabbits.
Myxoma is spread by mosquitos, ticks, and fleas. In pet rabbits, this virus causes bloody skin lesions, seizures, fever, lethargy, anorexia, and death. In wild rabbits, it causes swelling to the face, eyelids, testicles, mucoid skin nodules, fever, and milky white eye discharge. No treatment is available, but there is a vaccine to help prevent infections.
Shope Fibroma Virus and Shope Papillomaviruses are also present in wild rabbits and can potentially infect pet rabbits. Both viruses cause wart-like lesions on the skin or even on the tongue. There is no treatment.
Rabbit Poxvirus is highly contagious, but luckily, it’s a rare disease. This virus can cause crusted skin lesions, nodules, and small papules to form. It can also cause swelling to the face, scrotum, and vulva, fever, and enlarged lymph nodes. There is no treatment.
Fungal Skin Infections in Rabbits
Trichophyton mentagrophytes and Microsporum canisare common ringworm infections in rabbits that can also potentially infect people and other mammals like dogs and cats. Ringworm is a fungal infection and causes crusted areas of hair loss around the body and may be itchy. Ringworm is often diagnosed with a fungal culture and treatment involves lime-sulfur dips and may also need an oral antifungal such as griseofulvin, itraconazole, or terbinafine.
Parasitic Causes of Skin Disease in Rabbits
Cuterebra larvae are the immature form of the bot fly. The larvae burrow under the skin and leave an open hole through the skin so they can breathe. You may see moist, matted fur around the hole in the skin. This is most commonly seen in rabbits that are housed outdoors. Treatment consists of careful removal of the larvae and cyst, often with sedation and incision over the hole to allow the entire larvae to be removed. The larvae should not be killed during removal as this can cause the rabbit’s body to overreact and cause potential anaphylactic shock which can be fatal.
Flystrike, also called myiasis, is also most common in rabbits housed outside. This occurs when the rabbits are obese and cannot groom themselves well and are housed in dirty, moist cages. The fly will lay larvae, also called maggots, on the rabbit’s skin and open wounds. Treatment consists of pain control, ivermectin to kill the maggots, wound care, and possibly antibiotics to treat secondary infections.
Fleas that typically prefer dogs and cats will also feed on rabbits. You may be able to find the live fleas between the shoulders or above the tail region. Fleas are small and move quickly, so it’s often easier to look for the flea poop, aka “flea dirt”. This looks like small black debris or ground pepper on the skin. Rabbits will fleas are often itchy. There are prescription flea medications for cats that can be safely used on rabbits but be sure to get a proper dose from your vet. Do NOT use Frontline on rabbits as this can cause fatal liver issues. Be sure the cage is thoroughly cleaned frequently to remove the flea eggs and larva from the environment and reduce reinfection risks. It can take months to resolve a flea infestation and all pets in the household should be on good flea control.
Ticks will also feed on rabbits and other mammals. The ticks can lead to anemia if a large number are feeding and sucking the blood from the rabbit. Ticks can also transmit other diseases, such as myxomatosis, papillomatosis, tularemia, Lyme disease, and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which can also infect people and dogs.
Cheyletiella parasitovorax is a skin mite that is also called Walking Dandruff. Rabbits are often itchy, have fur loss, oily areas of fur, and large white flakey lesions on the limbs and neck. These can be diagnosed with a skin scraping test or tape test. Treatment typically involves injections of ivermectin or lime-sulfur dips. This mite can also infect people, dogs, and cats!
Psoroptes cuniculi is the rabbit ear mite. The ear flap and canal become crusted and itchy. Do not remove the crusts as this can be very painful. It’s best to treat the mites themselves with ivermectin or Revolution. Many rabbits need 2 or more treatments to break the life cycle of the mites. Pain medications may also be needed to keep your rabbit comfortable as the mite treatment is working.
Sarcoptes scabiei and Notoedres cati, both scabies mange mites, cause crusty, itchy lesions on the face, nose, lips, and around the genitals. Diagnosis is made by a deep skin scraping and looking or the mites or eggs under the microscope. Treatment often includes multiple injections of ivermectin or lime-sulfur dips. Be sure to thoroughly clean the cage and home. These mange mites can also infect people and other mammals.
Obesity, Dental Disease, and Poor Living Conditions
Obese rabbits cannot groom themselves well and often develop skin infections from urine being trapped in skin folds around the genitals, and moist skin infections in the skin folds of the dewlap and rectal area. The fur may need to be shaved and topical or oral antibiotics may be indicated. Improving the diet and increasing exercise will help your rabbit lose weight and lead a healthier life.
Dental disease can lead to drooling and moist dermatitis around the mouth and chin, often with secondary bacterial infections. The oral disease, such as malocclusion of the teeth, will need to be treated or this will be a chronic problem. Eventually, your rabbit will not be able to eat, drink, or groom themselves well.
Ulcerative pododermatitis, also called Sore Hocks, is a painful condition of the rear feet. Obese rabbits, rabbits housed on hard surfaces, lack of exercise, and the Rex breeds are more predisposed to this condition. Treatment can be difficult and take time, the environment needs to be improved (softer surfaces) and your rabbit may need pain control medications, antibiotics, and wound care.
Alopecia, or areas of hair loss, can be from behavioral issues and not an infection. Boredom, stress, and aggression from other rabbits or housemates can lead to rabbits chewing or pulling out their fur in patches. This can look very similar to infectious or parasitic diseases and these often need to be ruled out first.
When should I take my rabbit to the vet?
Contact a vet if your rabbit is itchy or pulling out clumps of hair. Veterinary advice should also be sought if your rabbit has crusted or moist skin lesions of any kind. Your vet will be able to perform specialized tests to diagnose your rabbit’s skin condition and prescribe appropriate and safe treatment. Never attempt to give your rabbit medication (oral or topical) without consulting a vet first.