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WEEKEND WEB: Guard your rabbit against fatal viral infections

Meeting Princess the rabbit are Freya Holden, Olivia Holden, Gracie Joy and Kaylie Baxter
Meeting Princess the rabbit are Freya Holden, Olivia Holden, Gracie Joy and Kaylie Baxter

Animal Magic - our weekly column by Alder Veterinary of Spalding and Bourne

We’ve all seen one. That poor rabbit sitting at the side of the road oblivious to passing traffic and you know that if you could see it’s face it has the classic signs of myxomatosis, a horrible, slow inevitable death for that animal.

It was exported to Australia in 1950 as a form of biological warfare against rabbits there, reached the UK in 1953 and has been in rabbit populations since.

Myxomatosis is a viral disease transmitted between rabbits, usually by biting insects such as fleas and mosquitos, although it is now thought that midges and mites may pass on the disease.

Rabbits can also become infected by encountering infected animals which spread the disease through secretions from their noses.

All pet rabbits – indoors and outdoors – are susceptible and as the disease is viral there are no drugs to kill the infection.

Initially, it starts as red and swollen eyelids and lethargy, then the genitals become swollen. There is a thick creamy eye discharge and a very sick rabbit.

By that stage, death is pretty much guaranteed and other rabbits nearby have probably caught the infection.

However, we can protect rabbits in various ways. Vaccination from five weeks of age with boosters every year is the key preventative. No vaccine is 100 per cent effective, but vaccinated rabbits will survive myxomatosis infection with just a short illness. Now the warmer weather and the insects have arrived it is important you vaccinate as soon as possible.

You can help protect your rabbit in other ways too. Fitting a fly screen around the outdoor run and preventing direct contact with wild rabbits is easy for the DIY-er. Treat your dogs and cats for fleas to prevent them picking up rabbit fleas and bringing them home. You can also use flea treatments on your rabbit so, talk to your vet about the best products (never use a dog or cat product on a rabbit though, as they are toxic to them).

Hopefully, you have never seen Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (RVHD) and if you have you may not know about it.

This viral disease appeared in the UK in 2013 and often the first symptom is a dead rabbit – it is so, so lethal. You may find blood at the nose and anus, but often there are no initial clues and owners think their pet has died from fright or a heart attack.

There are two strains of the virus, RVHD 1 and RVHD 2, and again vaccination is the only prevention. The virus can survive in the environment for a long time and can be carried home in hay, by the wind and on shoes and clothes.

Vaccination is carried out from five weeks of age again and RVHD1 is incorporated into the myxomatosis vaccine. A separate vaccine protects against RVHD2. Annual booster injections are required too. Consult your vet for the best protocol at your practice. Regularly clean your rabbit’s accommodation with disinfectant including the bowls and water bottles and tell your vet of any sudden deaths.

Rabbits make wonderful pets. Often as children they are our first pet, so protect them just like you would your dogs and cats and prevent these diseases making your first experiences of owning a pet your saddest ones.


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