What is it?Conjunctivitis is a common eye disease in the rabbit. The conjunctiva is a membrane which covers the surface of the eye and the inside of the eyelids. In conjunctivitis the membrane becomes pink and inflamed, hence the names ‘pink eye’ and ‘weepy eye’. One or both eyes can be affected.
What causes it?
There are a number of possible causes of conjunctivitis in the rabbit:
Bacteria live on the surface of the eye and skin. These bacteria can multiply and cause infection if there is trauma or damage. This happens more readily if the eye becomes dry. It may also be the result of the rabbit being unwell and having a suppressed immune system.
Some viruses cause conjunctivitis in the rabbit. The most severe of these viral infections is myxomatosis. This virus causes conjunctivitis, as well as head and genital swelling. Fortunately, rabbits can be vaccinated against myxomatosis, as it is usually fatal.
A rabbit parasite called Encephalitozoon cuniculi can cause conjunctivitis. Some rabbits carry this infection without illness but others develop inflammatory disease affecting the brain, kidneys and eyes. This condition can be easily treated once identified.
Rabbits need to eat a lot of grass and hay to prevent dental disease. Unfortunately, seeds can become stuck on the eye or under the eyelids. They can cause discomfort and damage, by the foreign material or by the rabbit rubbing at the eye.
Dusty hay can cause inflammation which can lead to infection. Some rabbits may have an allergy to certain hay varieties causing conjunctivitis.
Overlong tooth roots can block the tear ducts which run from the eye to the nose. This results in tears running onto the face, causing irritation and inflammation of the skin of the lower eyelid. This skin can become inflamed which spreads to the conjunctiva. Infected tooth roots can also cause inflammation and abscess formation around and in the tissues of the eye.
Some rabbits are born with blocked tear ducts or abnormal eyelids. One common deformity is entropion. In this condition the eyelids are rolled inwards so the eyelashes constantly irritate the eyes causing inflammation and infection.
Why is it important?
Although conjunctivitis may start as a mild infection, unfortunately it can progress quickly. The eye or eyes can be severely damaged, resulting in loss of sight. In some cases, infection spread to the brain and rest of the body.
Conjunctivitis is often highly infectious so it will spread quickly to both eyes and other rabbits. It will spread very quickly within any group of rabbits and can particularly damage a litter of young rabbits.
How do you know what’s going on?
When rabbits are uncomfortable they usually hide, become lethargic and eat less. They may not groom themselves. These signs may reveal early disease.
A closed or partially closed eye indicates discomfort in the eye. This may be constant or when the rabbit emerges from a dark area into bright light. The white of the eye will appear pink or red.
There may be discharge in the corner of the eye. The discharge can be thin and clear with tear overflow or thick and coloured green, yellow or white. You may notice discharge on the front legs where the rabbit is rubbing at the eyes.
There may be fur matting or fur loss on the lower eyelids and red, inflamed skin.
What can be done?
Conjunctivitis is painful and carries a serious risk of eye damage and complications. Prompt veterinary treatment is essential. If the eye is closed and sealed by discharge you can gently clean it with cooled boiled water and soft tissue, gauze or cotton wool. However, it will be painful and rabbits become stressed very easily so do this with great care.
The vet may use a local anaesthetic eye drop to numb the eye before gently examining it. The eye or eyes will be checked for foreign bodies in the eye or scratches to the surface. Any foreign bodies will be gently removed or flushed out.
A dental check will explore whether overlong roots or a dental abscess are causing the conjunctivitis. An x-ray may be necessary to check the tooth roots are not blocking the tear duct or infecting the area under and around the eye.
The discharge from the eye may be sampled and sent to the laboratory to identify the organism causing conjunctivitis so that it can be treated specifically. In most cases, treatment involves managing any underlying cause and using antibiotics and anti-inflammatory medication when necessary. These may take the form of eye drops, oral medication or injections.
What can I do to protect my pet?
As rabbits hide discomfort very well, it is important to be familiar with your rabbit’s behaviour. If they appear to be hiding or less active or eating less this will alert you to a problem. So, check and spend time with them often.
Ensure their eyelids are not wet or partially closed and the white of the eye is white rather than pink.
Check the inside of their front legs are not stained and wet, as rabbits will rub their eyes when they are irritated.
Isolate any rabbit showing signs of conjunctivitis as it is highly contagious to other rabbits. Observe new rabbits for a few days before adding them to your group.
Conjunctivitis is a distressing condition for you and your rabbit. However, it responds well to prompt treatment of the underlying cause and any infection and inflammation present. .