What is it?
Coccidiosis is an infectious disease caused by a type of single-celled protozoal parasite known as coccidia. The most common types of coccidia in rabbits are the Eimeria species. These parasites are passed from rabbit-to-rabbit via the droppings, with rabbits becoming infected by ingesting the droppings of an infected rabbit directly or in contaminated food, water or bedding.
Any rabbit can become infected however disease is mostly seen in young rabbits around the time of weaning, especially associated with poor hygiene, stress and overcrowded conditions. Signs of illness result from damage to the intestines and liver due to the presence and migration of the parasite in these organs.
What are the symptoms?
Not every rabbit infected with coccidia will show obvious clinical signs. Many healthy adult rabbits can carry coccidia in their gut and shed it in their droppings without developing any signs of illness, however they are still able to infect other rabbits.
If a rabbit does become unwell with coccidiosis, the symptoms can vary in severity and may include some or all of the following:
- Watery diarrhoea, sometimes with mucus or blood
- Poor growth or weight loss
- Abdominal pain
- Reduced food intake
The condition can be life-threatening in rabbits that develop severe disease, especially if treatment is not attempted at an early stage.
How is it diagnosed?Droppings can be collected and used to diagnose coccidiosis by preparing a sample of faecal material to be viewed under a microscope. When present, it may be possible to see the mature parasites themselves or the infective cyst stage of the parasite known as oocysts. In some cases, the parasite may not be found in the sample taken even if the rabbit is infected, leading to a false-negative test result. If your vet is highly suspicious of coccidiosis, they may advise treatment for coccidiosis despite a negative test result.
Can it be treated?
Mild cases in otherwise healthy rabbits can often be treated successfully with a combination of supportive care, supplementary feeding and oral medications effective against coccidia. It is vital that unwell rabbits continue to eat and assisted feeding must be initiated if they refuse to eat voluntarily. This involves using a syringe to administer a liquid herbivore recovery diet directly into the rabbit’s mouth on a regular basis until they are eating adequately by themselves. An extended period without eating can result in gut stasis, otherwise known as ileus, a condition characterised by the absence of normal gut movements which is life-threatening in rabbits.
Severely affected rabbits may require hospitalisation to correct dehydration due to fluid losses and provide ongoing veterinary care during their recovery. More chronic cases or those involving the liver can be more difficult to treat and sometimes impossible to cure completely.
The enclosure, water bottles, food and water bowls should be cleaned thoroughly using an effective, rabbit-safe anti-coccidial cleaning solution and the bedding should be kept especially clean and dry during recovery. This helps to prevent re-infection from the environment following treatment.
How can I prevent it?
Adopting or purchasing your rabbits from a reputable breeder or rescue centre with strict hygiene and quarantine policies helps to minimise the chances of your new rabbit arriving with coccidiosis. Quarantining and testing any new additions before introducing them to your existing rabbits can reduce the risk of the disease being brought into your group.
Maintaining good hygiene by cleaning out your rabbits’ enclosure on a regular basis, providing a hay rack to reduce contamination by droppings and purchasing feed and bedding from trustworthy suppliers helps to minimise the risk of infection and disease.