Yes they do! Ear mites cause a disease called ‘ear canker’ in rabbits. The mites cause inflammation, irritation and discharge that can lead to infection spreading into the middle and inner ear. To prevent this, early identification and treatment is essential.  

What exactly are they?

A mite called Psoroptes cuniculi causes ear disease in rabbits. This mite is brown or black in colour. It is just large enough to be visible to the naked eye. The saliva and faeces of the mite cause damage and inflammation in the sensitive skin of the ear. There may be up to 10,000 mites in a single infected ear so the damage can be very severe. 

Yuck! How do they get them?

A rabbit can contract the disease from contact with an infected rabbit or food, bedding or objects that carry the mites or eggs from one rabbit to another. People cannot contract the disease but can transmit it by carrying mites or eggs on hands or clothes after handling infected rabbits.

What does it do to the rabbit?

Ear mites cause painful inflammation so the rabbit scratches and rubs at the ear or ears, this can spread the infection over the body. In these cases, widespread fur loss and skin infection occurs. The infestation can become very painful and debilitating. This can stop a rabbit eating and result in ileus or gut stasis. This condition makes the rabbit very unwell and can be fatal. 

Local spread of the infection in the ear can result in a ruptured eardrum leading to middle and inner ear infection. The visible part of the ear is called the outer ear. The middle and inner ear contain structures which affect balance and are close to the brain. Infection of these areas can lead to hearing loss, loss of balance and seizures. 

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What rabbits are at most risk?

Ear mite infestations are highly contagious. Care is required to contain the infestation by isolation, it can be particularly damaging to litters of young rabbits.

Lop eared rabbits, particularly Dwarf Lops can be affected more severely as the dropped ear flap provides a warm, moist environment for the mite.  

How do you know a rabbit’s got them?

There are a number of characteristic signs that, together, point to an infestation.

Skin inflammation 

Initially, you will see scaly, peeling skin in the ear.

This progresses to scratching ears with hindlegs and overgrooming. Ultimately, this leads to fur loss, skin inflammation and wounds. The forelimbs may become covered with discharge and inflamed from rubbing at the ears. 

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Head/ear shaking

As the mite bodily fluids irritate and inflame to skin. A rabbit cannot scratch their ears, so they shake their heads to try and ease the discomfort.

Thick discharge around the ear base

The yellow or brown discharge sticks closely to the skin and fur. Eventually, dueto pain and the weight of the discharge as it increases, their ears start to droop.

Head tilt

This serious sign may be present if secondary bacterial infection occurs. If very sick, or the rabbit is severely affected, they may stop eating and hide. 

What can be done about it?

Early treatment of ear mites will prevent any serious consequences. Isolation of the affected rabbit will prevent infection in other rabbits.

So what should I do?

Visit your vet as soon as you see signs of disease. Your vet will examine the ears to ensure that this is an ear mite infestation. There are other causes of ear inflammation including bacterial, parasitic and fungal infections. Ear mites may be visible with an otoscope. Alternatively, a sample of wax may be checked under a microscope to confirm the presence of mites and/or eggs. 

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Once ear mite disease is confirmed, the rabbit can be medicated to kill the mites. Rabbits have severe toxic reactions to some drugs, so your vet will prescribe a medication safe for rabbits, usually an ivermectin.  

What medication is used?

Medication is generally topical, in the form of a spot-on. It kills mites but not eggs so it is important to kill the new larvae as they hatch. This means treating fortnightly for six weeks. 

The crusting discharge around the ear makes the skin very sore. However, it is essential that you do not try and remove the crusts manually. This will cause ulceration of the skin beneath and is exceptionally painful. When the infection is treated the crusts will dry out and fall off, allowing the skin beneath to heal slowly and without discomfort. 

The rabbit may need oral or injectable antibiotics if there is a secondary bacterial infection. If eardrum rupture, inner or middle ear is suspected, they may need sedation and x-ray to examine those structures. Pain relief in the form of anti-inflammatory drugs may also help.

In some cases, nails can be clipped to reduce the trauma associated with scratching. 

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Is there any nursing care I need to do?

During the course of treatment, all bedding and food must be disposed of and fresh provided daily. Shredded paper bedding may be used as it is easy to destroy and renew each day. Hutches, brushes, toys, food bowls and drinkers should be disinfected daily and thoroughly rinsed so that the rabbit is not affected by the cleaning agent. Wash any blankets or fabric toys at 60 degrees. In this way any mites or eggs will be destroyed so the rabbit cannot be re-infected. Mites can survive off the rabbit for 21 days so keep these measures in place for a month.

All in-contact rabbits should be treated. This includes any handled by anyone who has handled the infected rabbit – these mites are really infectious.

After treatment ends, your rabbit should be checked to ensure there is no sign of disease remaining. 

What can I do to protect my rabbit?

Check their ears regularly for any dry skin, scaling or peeling. Be alert for any increase in scratching or head shaking. An early sign could be scratch marks and wounds around the ears or ear affected.  

Observe your rabbit’s behaviour, be aware of their normal activity levels, appetite, temperament so that you can pick up changes quickly. 

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Check any new rabbits carefully before introducing them to your rabbit or group of rabbits. 

Keep their enclosure clean and source your hay and bedding from a reliable source. Be especially vigilant if they have any contact with wild rabbits.

Ear mite infestation can become serious disease, fortunately if it is identified and treated early the outcome is excellent.