!Rabbit Awareness Week might be over, but the Protect and Prevent motto is still just as important! Rabbits are great pets, however, looking after them is not as simple as just carrots, hutches, and hugs. Vaccinations are as important for rabbits as they are for dogs and cats – like all pets, rabbits can get ill, and there are a few dangerous diseases that you should always vaccinate against. In the UK, we most commonly vaccinate against two rabbit diseases: myxomatosis (or myxi) and rabbit haemorrhagic disease, RHD.
What are the diseases?
Myxomatosis is a viral disease of both pet and wild rabbits, and highly infectious – it is spread by direct contact between infected rabbits, or via a flea or mosquito bite. This means that it will be impossible for your rabbit to avoid the myxi virus entirely, particularly pet bunnies kept outside.
It is important to recognise the symptoms of myxomatosis, so that any infected rabbits can be isolated. These include runny eyes or conjunctivitis, high fever, anorexia, lethargy, and general depression, ultimately leading to death. This can happen very rapidly, within 48 hours, or more commonly over several weeks. In either case, there is no cure.
Should a rabbit sadly get myxi, they will usually have to be put to sleep. This is why the vaccine is so crucial – it cannot provide perfect protection (no vaccine can) but it heavily reduces the chance of catching myxi. And if a vaccinated rabbit still does, the symptoms will be a lot milder and the chance of survival much higher. The myxomatosis vaccine used in the UK protects against myxi for a year, so a booster will be needed every year for the rest of your rabbit’s life. It is important to remember this so your bunny is always covered.
Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease
Rabbit haemorrhagic disease, RHD, is also a viral disease found in both wild and pet rabbits, though it is only spread via direct contact with other infected rabbits. The symptoms of RHD can be much harder to spot than myxi, but include fever, anorexia, lethargy, difficulty breathing, blood around the nose, mouth and anus, seizures, and a quick death within 48 hours. Sometimes there are no symptoms at all, until the rabbit dies.
There are actually two strains (forms) of RHD; RHD1 and RHD2. Both are slightly different, so different vaccines are needed. Many myxi vaccines protect against RHD1 too, so there is protection when you vaccinate for myxi. There are also, now, vaccines available against RHD2 as well, but they usually need to be given separately. Again, though, these vaccines only give immunity for about a year.
When can we vaccinate?
All rabbits can be vaccinated from 5 weeks of age. We’d advise scheduling a first appointment as soon as possible after this, to ensure your rabbit will not catch either disease before they can be vaccinated. However, both vaccines will need to be spaced out, to leave time for your rabbit’s immune system to respond to the first one – most commonly, one would be given at about 6 weeks of age, followed by a 2 week break, and then the second.
What happens in a vaccination appointment?
When you bring your rabbit into the practice for the first time, a nurse or the vet will usually check that they are healthy and fit, and give some advice on their care. After this, the vet will do a deeper exam to make sure all is well, and may check the bunny’s teeth too, before giving the first vaccination. This is a very simple and quick procedure, and your rabbit will likely not even feel the injection. However, the new environment, lights and noise can be distressing for your rabbit, so make sure your travel container is dark and warm. The calmer it is during the procedure, the safer it will be.
Anything else to remember?
Remember, there will need to be another vaccine 2 weeks later. If you can, most vets will advise booking the boosters for a year’s time. The vaccines may seem expensive, but the protection they provide is priceless.
If you are planning to get a friend for your bunny, it is important to check its vaccination history. Make sure that the new rabbit is fully covered for myxomatosis and RHD first, before you introduce them to each other. This is also a good time to check your rabbit is fully covered, as infection can pass both ways.
Are the vaccines safe?
As with all vaccines, there are some risks. Sadly, no vaccine is perfect, and there is still a very small risk that your rabbit could still catch disease. But with a vaccine, this chance is much lower and the consequences of infection are usually much less dangerous. Your rabbit may be slightly quieter for the next few days too, as their body processes the vaccines. Very rarely, the skin can become inflamed at the site of injection. But overall, the vaccines are very safe and used every day, with little ill effect. Feel free to ask your vet if you have any more concerns.
Keeping pet bunnies can be a wonderful experience, and a healthy rabbit can live for 10 years or more. With even the greatest of care, no rabbit can be safe from all harm, but you can do your part! Vaccinating will dramatically reduce the risk from two of the worst rabbit diseases there are. Please do not forget vaccination to ensure that your rabbit will be happy, healthy and bouncy for years to come.