Although it’s no longer Rabbit Awareness Week, we thought we’d cover some extra rabbity things this month!
Rabbits are quite fastidious creatures. They love to groom and will have the odd scratch. It is important to know what is normal for your rabbit, so you are able to spot potential problems quickly. Scratching more than normal, overgrooming, dandruff, or fur loss may be signs of a parasite infestation. Mites and fleas are the most common parasites affecting rabbits.
What is normal skin for a rabbit?
Your rabbit’s fur should be smooth and silky most of the time. However, rabbits do moult (shedding) regularly. Their baby coat is replaced at around 5 months by a transitional coat. After this, the adult coat develops and rabbits generally moult twice a year (spring and autumn). As domestic rabbits are kept in very different conditions to wild rabbits they can have variable moulting patterns. House rabbits may appear to moult almost constantly. A moult usually starts at the head and spreads down the bunny. Some rabbits do not follow this pattern, losing fur in random patches. It’s a good idea to get your rabbit used to grooming, so when they are going through a moult you can help them by grooming them.
What mites do rabbits suffer from?
These are very small parasites that live on, or burrow into, the skin. The two most commonly affecting rabbits are ear mites (Psoroptes) and fur mites (Cheyletiella).
Fur mites (Cheyletiella or ‘walking dandruff’)
The fur mite, Cheyletiella, is often called ‘walking dandruff’. They measure 0.5mm so may be visible with the naked eye, but are made more obvious because, as they move on the skin surface, they carry dead skin with them, making the dandruff appear to walk. Other signs include scabs, clumps of hair loss and itching.
They are transmitted from other rabbits or via infested bedding but it’s also quite normal for rabbits to carry a few mites. Individuals vary in their response to mites and it’s when numbers get out of control that signs show. This can occur without an underlying reason, but is frequently linked to obesity, arthritis, or dental disease. These issues affect grooming habits, allowing numbers to increase. Poor immune system function may also allow mites to flourish. It is important to look for general signs such as weight loss, poor appetite and changes in faeces. As rabbits are prey animals it is in their nature to hide weakness, so these signs can be subtle.
Treatment is via a spot-on treatment or injection as advised by your vet. There are many spot-on treatments sold that are ineffective, so always seek veterinary advice before applying anything yourself. Some spot-on treatments for other pets are very dangerous to rabbits (such as Frontline and its equivalents), which if applied may be fatal. A vet examination is recommended to confirm the mite and to examine for any underlying health issues.
Although these mites cannot live on humans they can cause irritation and skin signs in some people, so care must be taken when handling affected rabbits.
Ear mites (Psoroptes cuniculi)
Ear mites can cause rabbits to scratch their ears intensely, causing hair loss around the ears and head, and thick painful crusts within the ear. Sampling and examining under a microscope may be needed to differentiate from other causes of ear disease. The thick crusts may lead to ear infections, causing more pain and signs such as head tilt.
Treatment is via a veterinary spot-on or injection. Again, it’s really important never to use a preparation without discussing it with your vet first. The crusts formed can be intensely painful so your vet may also prescribe pain relief. They should not be removed as this will only expose raw, ulcerated tissues. If they do not resolve naturally then softening agents may be advised further down the line. The mite is very infectious, so all rabbits should be treated and the environment disinfected.
Harvest Mites (Neotrombicula autumnalis)
The larvae of harvest mites can affect rabbits’ ears, the skin around the eyes, the feet, and anus. As the name suggests it’s seen in the autumn, usually in rural areas. They can be extremely irritating so lead to self-trauma. Although spot-ons and injections can be used, data on efficacy is sketchy. Removal from the source is best. The mite can be seen by the naked eye as a small orange speck and confirmed under a microscope.
Very rarely, rabbits suffer from other mites such as the sarcoptes mite.
Do rabbits get fleas?
Yes, but fleas do not stay on the body long. They jump on to bite and feed, then jump off again laying eggs in the environment, only going back to the host when they need another blood meal. Although rabbit fleas exist it’s more commonly the cat flea, or sometimes the dog flea, that affects them. Individual rabbits vary in how irritating and itchy they find the presence of fleas.
As much of the problem is in the environment, this must be treated too. Spot-on treatments used for dogs and cats can be lethal in rabbits, so always seek advice from your vet about these and safe treatments for the environment. Always remove the rabbit while treating the environment and change their bedding. If household dogs and cats are treated regularly, fleas are often less of a problem in rabbits.
Fleas and biting insects like mosquitoes can spread a fatal disease called myxomatosis. Fortunately, this disease can be prevented by vaccination. Speak to your vet about getting your rabbit protected.
Do rabbits get lice?
Lice are uncommon, seen usually in large colonies, young rabbits, or in ill and run-down rabbits. They may cause no signs at all, but may cause itching. They are visible with the naked eye so your vet can confirm the diagnosis and provide treatment, as well as look for any underlying issues.
Do rabbits get ringworm?
Ringworm, which is a fungus, may also cause itching alongside hair loss. It’s rare in pet rabbits but can be seen in young rabbits, especially living in poor environments, or secondary to other health issues. Ringworm can affect people so it’s important to handle infected rabbits with care.