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Rabbit Diseases/General

Viral Diseases affecting pet rabbits are rarely identified. Fortunately, such devastating viral diseases as myxomatosis are very uncommon in pet rabbits in the United States. Rabies is virtually unknown in pet rabbits.

Hairballs: Like cats, rabbits (especially Angora rabbits) frequently develop hairballs within their stomachs. But unlike cats, rabbits cannot vomit. As a result, hair that is swallowed from frequent grooming passes into the stomach and remains there. Over time, the hair develops into a solid mass. As the hairball increases in size, it begins to occupy more and more of the stomach, leaving less room for food. Initial signs of a hairball problem include reluctance to eat pellets and more interest in eating greens and treat items. Later signs include inappetence, smaller fecal pellets or none passed at all, weakness, weight loss and, eventually, death from starvation. Surgery is often necessary to remove the hairball from the stomach. Some cases can be successfully managed more conservatively with judicious use of fresh pineapple or papaya products and intestinal lubricants. For this reason, conservative treatment is usually attempted before resorting to surgical intervention. Recurrence is common. Prevention involves vigorous daily brushing of the rabbit and daily use of intestinal lubricants (Laxatone, Evsco Pharmaceuticals, Buena, NJ 08310) formulated for cats. Many rabbit fanciers and veterinarians believe that feeding fresh: (not canned) pineapple juice, pineapple chunks and papaya, which contains the digestive enzyme papain, may help prevent stomach hairballs in rabbits. The suggested daily dosage of pineapple juice is 1-2 tsp. per 2 LB body weight.

Comments about Hairballs: The House rabbit site states that there is no such thing as hairballs in rabbits per say. The hair in the GI tract is a result of GI problems, not the other way around. This site indicates that rabbits, like cats, get hairballs for the same reason, ingestion and lack of movement. In rabbits, the lack of movement is not due to the hair, it is due to serious GI problems.

Overgrown Incisor Teeth: Malocclusion (improperly aligned teeth resulting in abnormal tooth growth and wear) in rabbits usually results in overgrown incisor (front) teeth. Occasionally, misdirected premolar and molar teeth are noted. Many rabbits with a malocclusion probably have a genetic deficiency that causes an abnormally short upper jaw. This structural defect prevents the continuously growing upper and lower incisors from meeting each other as the rabbit chews. Consequently1 the overgrown incisors cause considerable trauma to the tongue and lining of the mouth. A rabbit's 'bite' must be absolutely perfect so that its continuously growing teeth wear down, properly. Infections of the jawbone in the area of the incisors can also result in misalignment of these teeth. Many cases of overgrown incisors result from previous injury to the area of the jaw responsible for growth of the incisors, with subsequent uneven tooth growth. Initial signs of this disorder include failure to properly chew and swallow food, salivation and a wet dewlap. In appetence and weight loss soon become noticeable. Death from starvation can occur if the problem goes untreated. Treatment involves periodic clipping of the incisors and attention to any wounds within the mouth caused by the overgrown teeth. The clipping procedure should be carried out by an experienced veterinarian or veterinary technician and must be done periodically for the remainder of the rabbit's life. Rabbits with this condition should never, under any circumstances, be bred.

Overgrown claws are easily torn when caught in fabric or wire mesh. A panicked rabbit can also inflict painful scratches with them. Clipping claws requires experience and judicious restraint of the rabbit, and should be done as needed. Declawing of rabbits is not recommended.

Heat Stress (Heat Stroke): Rabbits are especially susceptible to heat stroke, particularly those that are overweight and/or heavily furred. Environmental temperatures above 85 F, high humidity (above 70%), inadequate shade and ventilation, crowding and other forms of stress are additional predisposing factors. Signs of heat stroke include panting, salivation, ear reddening, weakness, refusal to move, delirium, convulsions and, eventually, death. Heat stroke can be successfully treated if recognized early. Heat-stressed rabbits should either be sprayed or bathed with cool water. Another very effective way to rapidly lower the body temperature involves applying cold running water to the ear flaps. Once these first-aid measures are undertaken, a veterinarian should be contacted immediately. Prevention of heat stroke involves providing adequate shade from the sun (if the rabbit is housed outdoors) and ventilation (if the rabbit is housed indoors or with many other rabbits). A continuous light mist or spray of water and/or a fan operating over a container of ice and directed at a rabbit within its enclosure can help lower the air temperature, whether the rabbit is housed indoors or outdoors.

Trauma to the Spine: An interesting fact is that a rabbit's entire skeleton comprises only 8% of its total body weight. In comparison, a domestic cat's skeleton comprises 13% of its body weight. The rabbit's fragile lumbar spine (lower back) is surrounded by powerful muscles and is particularly susceptible to fracture. Back injuries most often occur when rabbits are dropped, or improperly picked up or restrained. Closely confined rabbits that become excited and thrash about excessively are very prone to back injuries. Signs of back injury may include in coordination, urine-soiling and uncontrolled defecation. Paralysis of the rear quarters is the most serious consequence of this type of injury. Any rabbit exhibiting any of these signs should be examined by a veterinarian at once. A thorough physical examination and radiographs (x-rays) are usually necessary to make the diagnosis and predict the eventual medical outcome. Spinal injuries are considered very serious and, generally speaking, the outcome is often unfavorable. To avoid injury, rabbits should be picked up and restrained very carefully. A panicked, struggling rabbit should never be forcefully restrained. Instead, such a rabbit should be immediately released and re-approached when it has calmed down.

Uterine Cancer: The most common tumor of domestic rabbits involves the uterine lining. In breeding rabbits, the early signs of this tumor involve decreased fertility, smaller litter sizes, abortions and stillbirths. In pet rabbits, the most common clinical sign of a uterine tumor is intermittent bleeding from the vulva. This vulva bleeding is often mistaken for blood in the urine. The volume of hemorrhage can be substantial and alarming, If bleeding is intermittent, the results of a urinalysis may be normal between bleeding episodes. Though this type of tumor can spread to the lungs, spaying of affected does is strongly advised. Because this type of tumor is so common, all pet female rabbits should be spayed after 4 1/2 months of age to avoid difficulties with the reproductive tract later in life.