What is it?A crusty, painful ear disease known as ‘canker’ caused by the rabbit ear mite, Psoroptes cuniculi
Why is it important?It is a significant cause of pain and distress.
What is the risk?Ear mites are highly contagious between rabbits. The skin disease may be worse if the rabbit is otherwise unwell.
What happens to the rabbit?
Mites may be carried with no outward signs.
Mites infest the ear canal and feed on tissue fluid. Crusts form from dead skin cells, mites and debris especially on the underside of the ears and around the ear canal – so called ‘canker’
One or both ears may be affected, and the rabbit may hold the ear horizontally.
Affected skin is very itchy and painful – ears may be rubbed and scratched to the point of self trauma. Some rabbits may be hypersensitive to mites causing severely affected skin
Secondary infection is common.
Mites may spread to the skin around the neck and back end of the rabbit with associated skin damage, especially if the rabbit is sick for other reasons. May be fatal if the rabbit is severely affected.
Intense itching may cause seizures (this may happen after treatment as well).
How does the vet know what is going on?
The vet will check inside your rabbit’s ears and mites may be seen using the otoscope (tool used to look inside ears). Mite infestation is often suspected from the appearance of the skin. A sample of skin crust can be gently removed and examined under the microscope and ear mites and their eggs can be observed.
There is a test called the ‘pinch test’ where the rabbit’s ear canal is gently massaged from the outside. If the rabbit has ear mites their reaction is to shake their head and show signs of discomfort.
What can be done?
The mainstay of treatment is medication to kill the mites. However, pain relief normally needs to be part of the treatment plan as affected rabbits have painful ears. Sometimes antiinflammatory drugs are needed to help with the itching. Antibiotics may also be given if secondary infection of the skin is present. The rabbit should be weighed to ensure accurate dosing.
Ivermectin-based medications are often prescribed. It is normal to give one dose, then to repeat two weeks and four weeks later. Some eggs may remain on the hairs or within the environment and may not be killed by the first treatment, which is why follow up and repeat treatment is important.
DO NOT USE Frontline (fipronil based) flea products for cats and dogs on rabbits – these are not safe for use in rabbits, and deaths have been reported. Flea shampoos and powders are not effective.
Do not attempt to remove the skin crusts yourself – they are very painful for the rabbit. Removal by force will cause bleeding ulcers and pain. Once the mites have been killed using appropriate treatments, the crusts will fall off by themselves.
The rabbit’s hind claws can be trimmed to reduce damage to skin by scratching.
Sadly, rabbits who are severely debilitated may require humane euthanasia.
These mites are highly contagious, so all in contact rabbits must be treated. If the affected rabbit is in a group, they should all be presumed to be affected.
Mites are able to survive off the rabbit for 21 days. They can live in bedding and debris from the rabbit’s environment, so called ‘fomites’. If an ear mite infestation is identified, the rabbit’s environment must be thoroughly disinfected and treated for mites. Make sure you follow your vet’s advice as some area treatments are toxic to rabbits if used improperly.
How can I protect my pet?
Ear cleaning is not normally needed in a healthy rabbit. However regular inspection of skin and ears should be done to check for any scaly, crusty or damaged skin.
Keep your rabbit’s environment clean.
Quarantine and treat all newly adopted bunnies, so that if they are carrying mites, the parasites don’t spread to the other rabbits.