Dr Lauren Witter is a practising small animal Veterinarian working full-time in Northwest England and she is a freelance writer for VetTutor. She adores clinical work including surgeries and consultations, she loves sharing her passion for the profession and this is what makes her spark. Her clinical work involves working with a variety of small animals including some exotics/wildlife and she even shares her home with three exotic species, a guinea pig, a green-cheeked conure, and a python! Before entering the world of Veterinary, she studied a Degree in Zoology, and it was here that she was first introduced to many species of the animal kingdom.’
While your Exotics University lectures and notes will have likely covered the most common infectious diseases of rabbits, you may be wondering if this information is relevant to general practice. As a first-opinion small animal Vet, I can assure you that rabbit infectious diseases are a relatively common presentation and thankfully we now have the opportunity to vaccinate against some of them.
You could (and most probably will!) be presented with a sick rabbit early on in your new grad Veterinary career and it is important that you feel comfortable with the recognition of some of the more common infectious diseases including Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD). My aim is that the following information will provide you with the foundations and confidence in diagnosing and managing these two conditions.
Once you’ve seen a Myxomatosis case in practice, you will never forget the presentation as the clinical signs are often pathognomonic with this disease. Myxomatosis is tragically a highly contagious fatal viral disease affecting only rabbit species, both domesticated and wild populations. It is spread via close rabbit to rabbit contact or via insect/parasite vectors including fleas and mosquitos. Affected rabbits will more commonly display signs of high fever, swellings around their eyes, face, genital regions and respiratory issues. Unfortunately, there is no specific treatment and euthanasia is recommended. Additionally, because rabbits are prey species, they usually do not display clinical signs of illness until they are severely unwell.
- Rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD), also known as viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD)
RHD is a highly infectious viral disease which is also fatal to infected rabbits. This virus attacks their internal organs and causes internal bleeding. In the UK, there are currently two recognised strains of RHD (RHD1 and RHD2). RHD has a similar transmission route as Myxomatosis. RHD is highly virulent and the virus can remain in the environment for a few months, therefore making it more challenging to control and eradicate. The most common clinical sign of RHD in rabbits is sudden death and there may be no other visible signs. In rare cases where clinical signs occur include bleeding from the mouth, nose or back end, fever and breathing difficulties. Definitive diagnosis is often achieved via post-mortem. As above, there is no specific treatment for rabbits infected with RHD and euthanasia is recommended.
Sadly, the prognosis is poor for both Myxomatosis and RHD cases in rabbits, however, due to the wonderful advancement of Veterinary medicine we are now able to vaccinate against both diseases, protecting both individuals and the wider population. Recognising the clinical signs of these two diseases is key to ensuring a rapid diagnosis. Whilst we often focus on the affected individual, population medicine and biosecurity measures are vitally important to minimise the spread of these highly contagious diseases.
Vetlexicon. (n.d.). Viral hemorrhagic disease in Rabbits (Lapis). [online] Available at: https://www.vetlexicon.com/treat/lapis/illustration/viral-hemorrhagic-disease [Accessed 14 Oct. 2023].
Vetlexicon. (n.d.). Myxomatosis: ocular discharge 02 – wild rabbit in Rabbits (Lapis). [online] Available at: https://www.vetlexicon.com/treat/lapis/illustration/myxomatosis-ocular-discharge-02-wild-rabbit [Accessed 14 Oct. 2023].
Vetlexicon. (n.d.). Myxomatosis: ocular discharge 01 in Rabbits (Lapis). [online] Available at: https://www.vetlexicon.com/treat/lapis/illustration/myxomatosis-ocular-discharge-01 [Accessed 14 Oct. 2023].