Whilst pet rabbit owners may think that their pets have little in common with those in a commercial meat or fur rabbitry, it may come as a surprise to know that there is a very important link – that of biosecurity. Bio-what I hear you say? Biosecurity is basically a system of best management practices designed to reduce the introduction and spread of infectious disease, and whether you own one little pet bunny or several pedigree show rabbits this issue is of great importance.
The three main ways that disease can be transferred to your rabbit
- Physical transference from owner or visitors via footwear and clothing, or other animals or birds. Insects such as fleas, mosquitos and other biting insects are also known carriers of several highly contagious diseases such as myxomatosis and VHD (viral haemorrhagic disease).
- Biological transference from new, sick or contaminated rabbits via direct contact by touch or body fluids such as via urine, faeces, or mucous droplets via sneezing.
- Mechanical transference from equipment (cleaning out utensils for example) or supplies (such as bedding and food).
Knowing the factors that can allow disease to infect your rabbits is only half the battle, however, and it is really important to be aware of the reasonable precautions you can take to keep the risks to an absolute minimum. Whilst coming up with a biosecurity programme may sound a bit over the top, the basics are relevant to anyone keeping animals.
- Isolation. Keeping a newly acquired rabbit well away from others for up to 30 days makes good sense, and you need to also be aware you can spread disease and parasites on your clothing, shoes, hands and equipment. Caring for the newcomer last does minimise this risk. If your rabbit has been to a show, or boarding at a holiday boarding centre, it is important to do a thorough check on its return and place it well away from others for a few days as a precaution.
- Observation. It is vital you know what signs to look out for so you can quickly identify unusual behaviour in your rabbit so appropriate treatment and/or isolation can be started straight away.
- Vaccination. Annual vaccination of all rabbits against myxomatosis and VHD is essential, but remember it takes 2-3 weeks for it to become full effective.
- Disinfection. Keeping everything clean not only discourages insects and vermin and also prevents the accumulation of soiled bedding which in itself can perpetuate disease. Disinfectant sprays can make the job easy, but all the organic matter must be cleaned away first or you will simply be wasting your time. Get into the routine of spraying all litter trays, hutch floors, toys and equipment when cleaning out, remembering to thoroughly clean feeding bowls and water bottles too. Any hutches known to be contaminated require more than a routine spray and entails washing floors, sides, ceiling and all equipment with a strong veterinary-recommended disinfectant, or diluted bleach in hot water. Leaving the hutch open to the sun afterwards is also a useful tip. If the hutch is old and worn it is best to dispose of it completely and start again. Runs need to be disinfected too, but bear in mind that it is almost impossible to disinfectant bare ground or grass and the only option is to move the disinfected run to a new area completely. Rabbit carriers must be disinfected too, and a thorough spraying routinely applied after a carrier is used is a good precaution and it only takes seconds to do, completely changing any bedding used between rabbits.
- Waste disposal. Many local recycling centres will allow pet owners to dispose of reasonable quantities of soiled pet bedding, but if difficulties arise a polite and constructive conversation with the site manager often results in a positive outcome. Trying to compost huge mounds of rotting smelly bedding in an average garden is simply not viable and will certainly attract flies, mice and rats and associated diseases. Whatever method is used, correct waste disposal is essential.
- Record keeping. Even with a single pet rabbit it is important to keep a good record of vaccination dates, age, veterinary history, and a record of body weight. Weigh the rabbit at least once a month and keep a record of it as this will warn you of inappropriate weight gain or sudden weight loss, as sometimes this is not obvious until it is too late. Kitchen scales are useful here!
- Stress. No, I am not talking about an owner’s personal problems here but drawing attention to the fact that a stressed rabbit is far more prone to contracting and succumbing to illness compared to a non-stressed individual. Stress can be caused by various factors including travelling, changing environment or diet, bonding, overcrowding, and many other triggers. Young rabbits are more susceptible than mature rabbits to disease caused by environmental stress.
- Disposal of deceased. If a rabbit dies suddenly and you have other rabbits, the body needs to be disposed of quickly and sensibly to prevent a possible spread of infection. Your vet will be able to advise on this, and if a post mortem is to be carried out, the vet will want the body quickly as some tests cannot be carried out after a period of time has elapsed.
What is an Isolation Unit
If you have several rabbits, it makes good sense to set up an isolation area that can be used straight away if the need arises (see photo above. This should be a cage or hutch that is easy to disinfect thoroughly after it has been used, and placed well away from all other rabbits. Inside a shed is a good choice, placing the cage at a suitable working height in good light. The isolation unit needs to be equipped with its own set of cleaning utensils, disinfectant, bedding and food, and depending on the risk of infection, an extra set of footwear can be kept just inside the door, so you slip out of your shoes as you go in, and reverse the procedure as you leave. Likewise keep an overall or jacket in there too so you can put that on when you are caring for the sick bunny. If you are not going to wear disposable gloves then you need to be sure you wash your hands immediately afterwards, or have an anti-bacterial hand wash dispenser nearby. Visitors (even children) should not be allowed in the isolation area. If there is concern that the illness could be spread by insects, it makes sense to use fly screening around windows and doors or over the cage to minimise the risks of access to mosquitos and other blood sucking insects, and make sure animals such as cats and dogs and vermin cannot get in either.
Having now established good procedures for preventing disease entering into your home and infecting your rabbits, let’s look now at some of the practicalities of dealing with a sick bunny. If the illness is thought to be non-contagious by your vet, there is no need to isolate it as this will not be helpful at all unless doing so facilitates easier treatment. The stress involved in moving a rabbit and/or taking it away from bonded others is significant and may well hinder recovery and predispose susceptibility to other illness. However, if the illness is thought to be contagious (can pass from one rabbit to another via methods described above) the following situations need to be considered:
Single rabbit – If the rabbit is on its own and there are no other rabbits in the vicinity, isolation is not an issue and treatment as appropriate can be given whilst in its usual environment.
Single rabbit with other rabbits in the vicinity – in such a situation it is very important to remove the sick rabbit from the area and place it in isolation well away from others.
One of a pair – the chances are high that once you know one of the rabbits is ill, the other one is likely to already be infected too, in which case isolating the sick bunny will not achieve anything at all except to stress both of them unnecessarily. If one of them needs specialist vet treatment such as the insertion of a catheter for a drip, it is obvious the bonded partner will not be able to stay, but they should be reunited as soon as it is possible and safe to do so to keep the bonding strong and give comfort to the ill rabbit.
One of a group – keeping a small group together if practical to do so is the best way forward, as removing the sick rabbit will cause stress to all of them and will change the dynamics of the group which would likely lead to fighting and possibly the non-acceptance of the sick rabbit if trying to reintroduce it later on. If the group is large, then it may be best to isolate the affected individual but bear in mind that the rest may well be infected by this stage too. If the individual is one of a group and there are other rabbits also in the vicinity, isolation of the entire group would be the recommended course of action.
One of a litter – the implications of this are dependent on whether the babies are still living with mum or whether they are fully weaned, and how many of the litter are affected. If more than one baby is showing symptoms it is important to isolate the whole litter (and mum if she is still feeding them) and start appropriate treatment. If it is just one baby it may be best to take that one away into isolation and continue to monitor the others. Digestive upset in babies up to the age of 16 weeks is often due to changes in diet or inadequate diet, and although in itself this may not be contagious, conditions like mucoid enteritis do appear to have an infectious element as it often sweeps through entire litters with drastic and fatal results. In such a situation it is vital to move the whole litter into isolation if there are other rabbits in the vicinity. On no account should litters ever be mixed together as this is almost guaranteed to trigger serious digestive upsets and significant losses.
Keeping rabbits should be enjoyable and rewarding, but for it to be so, the owner has to be prepared to take the necessary routine steps to prevent disease arriving in the first place, knowing how to deal with it quickly and effectively if it occurs, and to be aware of any long-term action that needs to be taken afterwards to ensure it does not happen again. Clearly many illnesses in rabbits are not contagious and can and do occur spontaneously, but it makes a lot of sense to follow some basic rules to give your rabbit the best possible chance of a healthy and happy life. This includes:
- Making sure you are providing suitable safe accommodation with exercise areas appropriate to breed, numbers and age, with physical barriers between adjacent rabbits to prevent leakage of urine, droppings, and bedding between pens.
- Following an annual vaccination programme, together with regular observations and examinations.
- Keeping stress factors to a minimum.
- Providing the correct diet as appropriate to size, age and condition, with minimum dried food (average one egg cup per rabbit per day), provision of fresh green vegetables and/or grass and copious amounts of good quality meadow hay ad lib. Hay should make up 70-80% of their total diet.
- Avoid overcrowding and never mix litters together, even for a short time.
- Ensure you have a good relationship with your vet so that you can have basic mediations on the shelf to allow treatment for conditions such as digestive upsets, gut stasis and other common problems to be started straight away.
At the end of the day, being observant, proactive and diligent will ensure you are doing the best you possibly can for your long eared companions. You know they are worth it!