Surface attraction: Skin problems in rabbits
Luckily, most rabbit skin problems are not particularly serious.
However, they need prompt veterinary attention, not only to
save unnecessary discomfort to the rabbit, but also because
some are zoonotic (can be transmitted to humans).
Moulting is normal for rabbits. A twice yearly moult is most common,
although some rabbits may moult more frequently and some
(particularly house rabbits), seem to moult almost constantly.
There are a couple of moult related problems rabbit owners should
be aware of, apart from the usual grumble of finding rabbit hair in
every nook and cranny of the house!
Many moulting rabbits have a noticeable "tide mark", and if you blow
into the fur at the moult line the skin appears dark in colour where
the new hairs are growing through. Some of the long or fluffy-coated
breeds may even develop transient bald patches during their moult.
All this is perfectly normal.
Moulting rabbits require daily grooming to reduce the amount of hair
passing through the gut. Constant access to hay is vital to keep the
guts moving normally. Be alert to signs of a sluggish digestive
system - droppings that are getting smaller and dry, or strung
together with hair, should ring alarm bells. If you find them, but
bunny is behaving normally, try and encourage them to eat more hay
and grass to keep the fibre throughout at a high level and encourage
the rabbit to move around more since activity will help with
gastrointestinal speed. However, if your rabbit is subdued in any
way he may be developing gastro-intestinal stasis (gut slowing)
which needs urgent veterinary attention. For more information on GI
stasis, read our article on gut emergencies in pet rabbits.
The moulting process can get "stuck" usually on the flanks, justabove the tail, and on the tummy. Use a cat moulting comb toremove the dead undercoat.
Ringworm (dermatophytosis) is not a worm at all, but a fungal
infection. Trichophyton mentagrophytes
and Microsporum canis
the species that are found on rabbits.
Ringworm gets its name from the ring shaped lesions seen on the
skin of infected humans. In rabbits, ringworm causes hair loss and
crusty lesions that are usually itchy and found around the eyes, nose
and extremities (e.g.toes). . Ringworm must be differentiated from
other causes of scabs and sores, such as ordinary wounds.
Ringworm can be treated in two ways. The first option is antifungal
ointment applied directly to the affected area. Secondly, antifungal
medicine can be given by mouth. This works by becoming
incorporated into the developing hair so that the fungus cannot
survive. Treatment may take several weeks.
Ringworm is a zoonosis (a disease that can be transmitted from
animal to human) so care should be taken when handling an infected
rabbit until the lesion has healed. If you think you may have caught
ringworm from your rabbit then you will need to book an appointment
with your GP for treatment
Ringworm can be transmitted by direct contact with an infected
animal, or contact with an item (e.g. grooming brush, bedding) that
is contaminated with the spores from an infected animal. The
incidence of infection varies with geographical area and environment.
Young animals and those under stress (e.g.; overcrowding, high
humidity, poor sanitation, illness etc) are often at an increased risk
of developing ringworm.
It is possible to diagnose ringworm through several different
methods. A popular but not always accurate way to diagnose thedisease is through the use of a specialised black light called aWood's lamp. However, it is estimated that up to half of the mostcommon species of M. canis
do not fluoresce, and T. mentagrophytes
does not fluoresce, so this is not always a good diagnostic tool inrabbits.
The best and most accurate way to identify a ringworm infection isby collecting scales and crusts from the lesion and performing aculture. There are special culture mediums designed specifically foridentifying ringworm infections. Your vet will be able to arrange thisfor you.
is probably the most common skin problem
in rabbits. It is a non-burrowing mite that is just visible to the naked
eye, so is sometimes known as the “walking mite” or “walking
dandruff” since you can often see them moving.
Many rabbits carry the mite with no clinical signs. Problems and
infestations occur when the rabbit is unable to keep the mites
numbers under control, which can be for a variety of reasons. If your
rabbit has any condition that restricts their ability to groom (dental
problem, arthritis, sore hocks, poor balance, obesity), or during other
illnesses when their immune system is under more strain, or at times
of stress (bonding, loss of a companion, house move, sudden change
in environmental temperature etc) check particularly carefully for
mites and seek veterinary advice about tackling the mites and the
The hallmark of Cheyletiella
infection is areas of dense, flaky,
encrusted skin particularly on the back, either above the tail, in the
nape of the neck or down the spine, although occasionally it can
become much more extensive.
The sources of Cheyletiella
infection are often debated by thecommon consensus is that most rabbits have low grade infestationsthat are not detectable until either something triggers the mitepopulation to flare up from time to time, or the rabbit can no longerkeep the mite population in check by effective grooming. Cheyletiella
mites can travel on hay, and can potentially act as a Myxomatosisvector.Cheyletiella
infestations can be treated with a course of Ivermectininjections given at 7 to 10 day intervals and repeated for 3 -5 weeksdepending upon the severity. Spot On topical Ivermectin treatmentsare also available. It is important to finish the course of treatmenteven if the condition seems to have disappeared. AlthoughIvermectin isn't licensed for use in rabbits, it has been widely usedfor a number of years without any reported problems, and can beused under the veterinary “Cascade” regulations.Cheyletiella
can affect humans, especially those with compromisedimmune systems. If you are worried you should speak to your GP.
Cleaning of the rabbit’s environment, consisting of removing andchanging all substrate, washing bedding etc is also recommendedafter each Ivermectin treatment.
Leporacus gibbus (formerly called Listrophorus gibbus) is a different
mite to Cheyletiella
, although it is also a non-burrowing mite and
can just about be seen with the naked eye.
The empty eggs can be seen attached to the hair shafts, much like
louse eggs, and even persist after treatment has killed the live
In severe infections were clinical signs are apparent; these may
include fur loss and an abnormal moulting pattern. The treatment is
Ivermectin injections or spot on treatments.
is responsible for ear mite infestations in rabbits.
Sometimes this is referred to as ear canker.
The condition is highly contagious and generally spread through
rabbit-to-rabbit contact, although environmental transmission is
Initially the only clinical symptom may be excessive head shaking or
ear scratching, but as the mites multiply and spread up the ear onto
the pinna, the crusts become noticeable.
By this stage the rabbit is often extremely itchy and irritated.
Sometimes rabbits will scratch their head and ears to the point of
self-trauma, making them bleed.
Secondary bacterial infections of the skin can occur if the condition is
left untreated, and often the infection can spread and invade the
middle and inner ear resulting in vestibular disease (head tilt,
nystagmus (eye rolling) and loss of balance etc).
Ear mites require treatment by a vet. This will consist of Ivermectin
injections or spot on Selamectin to kill the mites. If a secondary
bacterial infection is present then antibiotics may also be prescribed.
The condition is often very painful, so non-steroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID’s), such as meloxicam, are also
You should never attempt to pick off the crusts, since this will be
immensely painful and damage the delicate skin on the rabbit’s ears.
The most common flea found on rabbits is Spillopsyllyus cuniculi
European rabbit flea) which is a common vector for Myxomatosis. The
cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis
) is also frequently found on pet
Common signs which you may notice include black flecks in the fur,which when dampened and placed onto a wet piece of cotton wool,will turn red. These are the flea droppings, which are dried bloodfrom where the fleas suck the host’s blood. It is uncommon to seelive fleas unless the infestation is in an advanced stage.
You may also observe bald patches, which may appear irritated andscabby if the rabbit is scratching at the area.
Fleas are rarely life-threatening unless the rabbit is very young orsmall, or has a substantial infestation, since anaemia has thepotential to occur.
The main concern with fleas is that they are also a vector forMyxomatosis (have the potential to transfer the infection from onerabbit to another). For this reason, all rabbits must be kept up todate with their Myxomatosis vaccination.
If you have dogs and cats within your household, then prophylactic(preventative) flea prevention treatment should be implemented atall times, and all wild rabbits must be kept out of gardens and awayfrom pet rabbits.
Products containing Imidacloprid are licensed, effective and deemedsafe to use on rabbits. Flea powders, sprays, shampoos, etc., aren’tgenerally effective and do little to get rid of the infestation since theeggs of the adult fleas will hatch out after the rabbit has beentreated, and the infestation will continue. Products containingFipronil (commonly Frontline) must never be used on rabbits, sincedeaths have been attributed to these.
Where appropriate, other products, containing avermectin drugs (e.g.
Selamectin and Ivermectin) may be prescribed by your vet, butbecause it is licensed, Imidacloprid (Advantage) is the first choice forinfestations of fleas alone.
Ticks are not common on domestic rabbits, but the most commonlyseen is Haemaphysalis leporis-palustris.
Ticks can act as vectors of Myxomatosis and in heavy infestationscause anaemia, especially in young rabbits.
When removing ticks it is important to remove the whole tick and notleave the head embedded in the skin since this will set up aninfection. It is therefore wise to get your vet or vet nurse to showyou how to do this before attempting it at home.
In severe cases, Ivermectin injections may be required, especiallywhen the ticks are very small and easy to miss or in areas hard toaccess.
is the rabbit louse, and it is a sucking
louse. It is rare to find lice on pet rabbits, but when found they are
commonly located down the spine, on the rump area and down the
sides of the rabbit.
The clinical signs of lice infestations include intense scratching and
irritation, thinning of the fur and/or bald patches. In very young
rabbits, anaemia may also present in advanced infestations.
Ivermectin injections are the treatment of choice, again at 7-10 day
intervals for 3-5 treatments. Imidacloprid may also be used.
It is potentially possible for the rabbit louse to act as a vector for
Myxomatosis, although this is thought to be an extremely rare risk.
Any wound on a rabbit carries the risk of developing into an abscess,
so it's important that wounds are carefully cleaned and treated by a
vet where necessary.
Minor scrapes and cuts can be treated by bathing with salt water (1
teaspoon to a pint of boiled, cooled water) bathed twice daily for a
few days, but more significant wounds will need veterinary attention.
Large wounds may require suturing (often under general anaesthetic)and antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection.
Lumps and masses
There are a variety of causes for rabbits developing lumps. These
may include abscesses, tumours (malignant and benign), vaccination
reactions and old scar tissue. Some may be perfectly harmless and
will not require treatment. Others may require veterinary attention.
If you find a new lump on your rabbit, it is always wise to get it
checked out by a vet.
Often a fine needle aspirate (FNA) is needed to take a sample of the
cells in the lump for a laboratory to examine them and determine
what they are. This is normally possible to do with the bunny
conscious and involves inserting a needle into the lump to obtain the
sample. This should be no more painful to the rabbit than having an
Abscesses in rabbits tend to develop a thick fibrous wall and the
whole thing, wall and all, may need to be surgically removed. This
can be serious or impossible undertaking if the abscess extends into
vital areas such as the inner neck or skull.
Full identification and treatment of other lumps may also require
surgery, but this depends upon factors such as age of the rabbit;
their general health, and whether the lump is causing any problem or
likely to in the future.
Rabbits who are stressed, bored or in pain may chew at themselves.
These rabbits need a thorough veterinary assessment to rule out
skin disease and other health problems before attributing to a
behavioural problem. Identifying and correcting the underlying
cause/s is essential to altering the behaviour.
Rabbits need mental simulation, as well as company of anotherrabbit and opportunity to display normal rabbit behaviours, such asdigging, foraging, running and grazing in order to live a happy andfulfilled life.
This article originally appeared in Rabbiting On (journal of the British Houserabbit Association) in Spring 2000. It
was written by Dr Linda Dykes and Owen Davies BVSc MRCVS. This version was revised by Linda Dykes in
February 2002, and revised and edited again by Claire Speight RVN in December 2012. Reviewed by Richard
Saunders BSc BVSc CBiol MSB CertZooMed DZooMed (Mammalian) MRCVSin Feb 2013.
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