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Rabbits

Some helpful information

Encephalitozoon Cuniculi

Encephalitozoon Cuniculi was virtually unrecognised as a cause of disease in pet rabbits until a few years ago. Nowadays it is much more widely diagnosed amongst pet rabbits, with owners of affected rabbits wanting to learn as much as possible in order to give their rabbits the best care possible. However, the disease isn't a straightforward one, and there is still a lot that we don't understand about it, so it does take some explaining in order to understand what it is, what it does and how it is currently treated.

What is Encephalitozoon Cuniculi?
Encephalitozoon Cuniculi (E. Cuniculi) is a protozoal parasite. The parasite primarily affects rabbits, but cases have been reported in sheep, goats, dogs, cats, monkeys, guinea pigs, foxes, pigs and humans. It is a recognised zoonosis, but the zoonotic risk seems to be minimal to healthy individuals observing basic hygiene. To date, there have been no reported cases of direct transmission from a rabbit to a human. However, those individuals who are immunosuppressed should implement strict hygiene and, if possible, avoid animals suspected or confirmed of being infected with E. Cuniculi and undoubtedly seek medical advice from their doctor.

How is E. Cuniculi transmitted?
Spores are shed in infected animals' urine and transmission is usually by ingestion of contaminated food or water or, less commonly, by inhalation of spores. Transmission from mother to young (transplacental) also occurs so that offspring is born infected.

What symptoms and disease processes does it cause in rabbits?
One study* showed that approximately 52% of healthy rabbits in the UK carry the parasite, but many never show any clinical signs. We still don't understand why some infected rabbits develop the disease and others don't, but it is most likely that it is related to their immune function.

If the rabbit is infected with E. Cuniculi and showing clinical signs, it may exhibit any, some or all of the following:

  • Hind limb paresis (weakness of the hind limbs)
  • Head tilt (torticollis)
  • Paralysis
  • Urinary incontinence and/or scalding
  • Tremors
  • Cataracts and lens-induced uveitis  
  • Collapse
  • Renal failure
  • Death

These clinical signs are caused by the body's inflammatory reaction to rupture infected cells, mainly in the nervous system and kidney. However, many of these symptoms can be associated with other disease processes, so a diagnosis is rarely made on clinical symptoms alone.

How is E. Cuniculi diagnosed?
If the rabbit is showing clinical signs that may be indicative of an E. Cuniculi infection, your vet will probably recommend a blood test.

Nowadays the test most commonly used is the ELISA test that measures serum antibody levels. This detects whether the rabbit has been exposed to the parasite.

A blood sample will be taken from your rabbit and sent away to a laboratory. A negative result is generally conclusive and can rule out E. Cuniculi as the problem, unless the sample is taken very early on in infection or the immune system is so weak that the rabbit doesn't produce antibodies. A positive result isn't always that straightforward. A high antibody titre, together with clinical signs, is usually enough for most vets to commence the rabbit on treatment for E. Cuniculi, but a moderate or low antibody titre may not be enough for the vet to be sure that E. Cuniculi is the problem since so many rabbits carry the parasite without symptoms (asymptomatically).  

In these cases, diagnosis is usually made by taking a further blood sample a few weeks later and if the titre is higher than the first (a rising titre) this would indicate an active infection and would usually lead to a diagnosis of E. Cuniculi as the problem.

Another available test is the PCR test, which detects the parasite itself, usually in a urine sample. A positive result means that the rabbit is shedding the parasite and is thus infected, but a negative may mean either that the rabbit is not infected, or that it is infected but just not shedding spores at that time.

What is the treatment for E. Cuniculi?
Treatment aims to reduce inflammation and prevent formation of spores. If a diagnosis is made or clinical symptoms indicate E. Cuniculi to be the cause of disease, a 28-day course of oral fenbendazole, e.g. PanacurT, at 20 mg/kg once a day is the general treatment of choice, plus anti-inflammatory drugs such as corticosteroids.

However, many new treatments are being trialled and looked into, so your vet may decide to treat with a different drug or combination of drugs. If a secondary bacterial infection is also present, then the treatment regime will probably also include antibiotics.

Does my rabbit need routine treatment?
This is where people differ in their opinions. Routinely treating against E. Cuniculi is recommended by some vets but deemed pointless by others! Some vets feel that treating your rabbit 2-4 times a year can help reduce the incidence of E. Cuniculi developing to a point where clinical signs are seen. However, other vets feel that preventive treatment is pointless because as soon as the course of treatment is finished, the rabbit is no more protected than it would have been if it hadn't been treated. This is an area where more research is needed.

If you chose to use preventive treatment, there are products that are licensed for this purpose. It is usually a 9-day oral course given once daily at the same dose as what would be used to treat an infected rabbit (20 mg/kg) and can be done every 3-6 months. Please contact your vet who will be happy to advise you.

Does treatment cure the problem?
We don't really know. One study showed that a 28-day course of fenbendazole does eliminate the parasite, but this may not be the case with all rabbits and some people feel that once a rabbit is infected with E. Cuniculi it will be a life-long carrier. The disease process will generally take one of the following routes...

Treatment improves the clinical signs
If this is the case, after 28 days the treatment is usually stopped. At this point if the rabbit deteriorates again then treatment can be recommenced. It isn't known for sure what triggers a flare-up of the disease but stress is thought to play a part, or if the rabbit's immune system is weakened by another disease and can no longer keep the parasite at bay. Also don't forget that a rabbit can become re-infected if it is exposed again to spores from the environment.

Some rabbits need lifelong medications, whereas others need it sporadically to control clinical signs when they manifest themselves. Others only need a one-off treatment course and never seem to develop clinical signs again. However, it should be stated that treatment might not be sufficient for the rabbit to make a full recovery and some level of clinical signs often continue.

Treatment does not improve the clinical signs
Generally, if treatment is going to work then some improvement in clinical signs is seen in the first week or so, with a gradual improvement. For those rabbits that fail to improve, euthanasia is the only humane option if the clinical signs are debilitating and the rabbit has no quality of life.

How can I stop my rabbit getting E. Cuniculi?
Firstly, you need to be 100% sure that the rabbit isn't already carrying the parasite. Ask your vet if they would be willing to blood test your rabbit. If the result comes back as negative, the best form of defence is to stop your rabbit coming into contact with any other rabbits, be this domestic or wild. As previously mentioned, spores from the parasite are primarily passed on in the urine of infected rabbits, so removing this route of transmission is your rabbit's best form of defence. Good hygiene is vital as spores can easily be killed by routine disinfectants.

Can I have my rabbit vaccinated against E. Cuniculi?
E. Cuniculi is a parasite and not a virus, therefore there is no vaccine against E. Cuniculi.

What is the outlook for rabbits with E. Cuniculi?
This depends upon the rabbit's response to treatment, and the frequency and severity of any flare-ups.

Generally speaking, a lot of rabbits who develop problems due to E. Cuniculi can go on to do well and lead full lives, but treatment needs to be prompt, otherwise the parasite will cause more damage and clinical signs will be more severe.

Quality of life
It is important to keep in your mind your rabbit's quality of life when dealing with E. Cuniculi. For example, if your rabbit has a head tilt but is otherwise eating, drinking and managing to get around, the rabbit is probably perfectly happy. Rabbits don't worry about what they look like; this is more of a concern to the owner.

Whereas a rabbit that is continually scalded with urine, miserable, rolling/falling over or unable to move due to hind limb weakness or paralysis is not a happy rabbit. You should think seriously about whether your rabbit has an acceptable quality of life.

Myxomatosis

Myxomatosis is widespread in the UK and is usually fatal. It's caused by the myxoma virus, a type of pox virus that only affects rabbits. It was first discovered in 1896 in Uruguay and was imported to Australia in 1951 to control its large rabbit populations – initially having the desired devastating effect. The disease was illegally introduced to France in 1952 and it appeared in Britain the following year. It quickly spread to both wild and domestic rabbit populations and within a few years had spread throughout Europe. Myxomatosis has been a threat to wild and domestic rabbits ever since.

Who is at risk?  
All rabbits, whether wild or domestic, are at risk of Myxomatosis.

How is it spread?  
Myxomatosis is typically spread by blood-sucking insects and in particular the rabbit flea, Spilopsyllus cuniculi. This flea is frequently found on wild rabbits and transmission in the absence of bites is unusual. All breeds of domestic rabbit can be affected, with little to suggest that one breed is more susceptible than another, and whatever the lifestyle of your rabbit there is a potential risk of this disease.

Signs and symptoms  
The incubation period varies depending on the strain and its virulence and is typically at least five days. Accompanying the classic bulging eyes that most of us associate with Myxomatosis, there are localised swellings around the head, face, ears, lips, anus and genitalia. Severe swellings can lead to blindness and distortion around the face within a day or so of the onset of symptoms, leading to difficulty with feeding and drinking. Bacterial respiratory infection often complicates the disease, resulting in a fatal pneumonia.

Management of Myxomatosis  
There is no specific treatment for the virus and any treatment offered is merely supportive.

Help prevent your rabbit contracting Myxomatosis – it is important to put various controls in place, for which there are two main methods: control of parasites and vaccination.

Flea Control
Always keep a regular check on pets for any signs of fleas and consider the regular use of an insecticidal treatment from your vet. There is also evidence to suggest that mosquitoes and other biting flies may transmit Myxomatosis in the UK, so nets and insect repellent can be used to combat this threat in warmer weather. Your vet will be able to advise you further on these measures, since not all products are suitable or safe for rabbits.

Vaccination
A dual vaccination covering both Myxomatosis and rabbit haemorrhagic disease (RHD) has recently been launched in the UK and is designed to replace the older Myxomatosis-only product during 2012. This new vaccine provides efficient and effective protection for rabbits against both diseases.

It is recommended that a single dose of the new vaccine is given to all rabbits over the age of five weeks and requires an annual booster to maintain protection.

Management of Myxomatosis  
There is no specific treatment for the virus and any treatment offered is merely supportive.

Help Prevent your Rabbit contracting Myxomatosis
It is important to put various controls in place, for which there are two main methods: control of parasites and vaccination.

Flea Control
Always keep a regular check on pets for any signs of fleas and consider the regular use of an insecticidal treatment from your vet. There is also evidence to suggest that mosquitoes and other biting flies may transmit Myxomatosis in the UK, so nets and insect repellent can be used to combat this threat in warmer weather. Your vet will be able to advise you further on these measures, since not all products are suitable or safe for rabbits.

Vaccination
A dual vaccination covering both Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) has recently been launched in the UK and is designed to replace the older Myxomatosis-only product during 2012. This new vaccine provides efficient and effective protection of rabbits against both diseases.

It is recommended that a single dose of the new vaccine is given to all rabbits over the age of five weeks and requires an annual booster to maintain protection

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD)

This disease is increasing in significance and causes sudden death 1-3 days after it is contracted.

Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD), also known as Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) is a very serious infectious disease which first emerged in China during the 1980s that can affect rabbits. Within a few years this disease was seen virtually worldwide and it is now an endemic disease in wild rabbits in the UK. The disease is extremely sudden in onset in many cases with the only sign often seen in an infected rabbit is that it is found dead.

Who is at risk?
All rabbits are potentially at risk of RHD.                                  

How is it spread?
RHD is spread by direct contact between rabbits (both wild and domesticated) but also via indirect contact. Possible sources of indirect transfer are people, clothing, contaminated hutches and bedding, as well as insect vectors such as fleas and flies.

Causes of RHD 
RHD is caused by a calicivirus and has an incubation period of just one to three days. The virus itself is very stable in the environment and can survive for up to 105 days.

Signs and symptoms
Signs include depression, collapse, difficulty in breathing, convulsions, high body temperature, lethargy and bleeding from the nose. Death usually occurs within 12-36 hours after the onset of fever and the mortality rate can be as high as 90-100%.

Prevention and control 
RHD vaccination can be given to provide effective protection against this disease from as early as 5 weeks of age. A dual vaccine for rabbits covering both Myxomatosis and Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease has recently been launched in the UK. This new vaccine provides efficient protection of rabbits against both diseases and, as with existing RHD vaccines, an annual booster is sufficient to maintain immunity.

Rabbit Care

How big should a rabbit hutch be?
Sadly, many hutches sold for rabbits are too small for them. 

A large weatherproof home that is raised off the ground provides the ideal rabbit environment. Their hutch should be big enough to allow them to lie down and stretch out comfortably in all directions, tall enough for them to stand up on their back legs without their ears touching the top, and long enough to allow at least three hops. A suggested minimum size for most rabbits is 6ft x 2ft x 2ft high.

Do my rabbits need an exercise run as well as a hutch?
Yes. In the wild, rabbits have a home territory the size of 30 tennis courts! So, to get enough exercise, pet rabbits should have as much space as possible.

A large run on a grassy area will help ensure they get enough exercise. This must be escape-proof, safe from predators and offer some shade for maximum rabbit safety. They need an indoor run in cold weather. Ideally, their run should be attached to the hutch so that the rabbits can exercise whenever they want to.

How big should an exercise run for rabbits be?
A run should be tall enough to allow the rabbits to stretch up to full height and they should be able to run, rather than just hop. A suggested minimum size of run for most rabbits is 8ft x 4ft x 2ft high.

Where should I put my rabbit hutch and run?
The hutch should be positioned out of direct sunlight and strong winds.

Should I move the hutch if the weather gets very hot or very cold?
In the winter, if it gets very cold, the hutch may have to be moved into an outhouse or car-free garage (car-free because exhaust fumes can be fatal). Rabbits can suffer from heatstroke, so in hot weather move the hutch and run into shaded areas.

What type of bedding should I give my rabbits?
The hutch should be lined with newspaper or clean wood shavings, with soft hay or straw on top. The sleeping area should contain clean, dry hay or straw as bedding.

How often do I need to clean my rabbit hutch?
For the ideal rabbit environment, the hutch should be cleaned at least once a day, by removing any shavings or bedding that are wet and dirty, removing any uneaten fresh food and cleaning the food and water containers before refilling them. You also need to clean the hutch more thoroughly to keep it clean and hygienic – once a week is usually adequate.

From time-to-time the hutch should be completely stripped out and scrubbed, with your rabbits only being allowed back into the hutch when it is completely dry.

Hazards and poisons to watch out for
To ensure rabbit safety, make sure the hutch and run are escape-proof and safe from predators such as dogs, cats, foxes, rats, and birds of prey. Indoors, rabbits will chew through electric cables, so don’t let rabbits have access to these. The following is a list of plants that are poisonous to rabbits. There are many others not on this list, so don’t let your rabbits go near plants or flowerbeds if you are not sure whether they might contain poisonous plants, or if they might have been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides.

Plants that are poisonous to rabbits and should be kept out of the rabbit environment include:

  • All plants that grow from bulbs
  • Amaryllis
  • Bracken
  • lder
  • Foxglove
  • Lily-of-the-valley
  • Laburnum
  • Most evergreens
  • Oak leaves
  • Privet
  • Ragwort
  • Rhubarb leaves
  • Yew

Feeding your Rabbit
Rabbits need to keep their digestive systems busy with a mix of two kinds of fibre moving through the gut at all times (these types of fibre are called digestible fibre and indigestible fibre, and at Burgess Excel we collectively call them ‘Beneficial Fibre’)

Rabbits can’t get enough nutrition from fibre when it passes through their gut the first time, so they pass it through a second time, by eating their poo!

Indigestible Fibre - Indigestible fibre is moved through their digestive system and excreted as separate, round, hard droppings. This type of fibre keeps the digestive system moving and their appetite stimulated.

Digestible Fibre - Digestible fibre is moved up into an organ called the caecum – which is like a giant appendix. Good bacteria in the caecum ferment the fibre, making it easy to digest. This emerges in the form of clumps of sticky droppings – we call these droppings caecotrophs. Rabbits then re-eat the caecotrophs directly from their bottom and the essential nutrients are then absorbed when the digestible fibre passes through for the second time. If rabbits don’t get the right amounts of both digestible and indigestible fibre, it can rapidly lead to serious health problems.

Sticking to The Excel Feeding Plan will ensure your bunnies get the right amounts of fibre in their diet. The Excel Feeding Plan was developed in conjunction with one of the world’s leading small-animal vets, to provide a perfect daily balance of fibre and nutrition.

The Excel Feeding Plan - Vets say that a complete diet for fibrevores should provide for their dental, digestive and emotional health. The Excel Feeding Plan is an easy to follow, 5-a-day guide to ensure your rabbit, guinea pig or chinchilla gets the right balance of fibre, nutrients, vitamins and minerals for their all-round health.

5 Step Feeding Plan
The Excel Feeding Plan is a simple five-step guide to help pet owners understand the high levels of beneficial fibre required by fibrevores. It is the only complementary range that, when used together, delivers extremely high levels of the right kinds of fibre needed in fibrevores’ diets and effectively promotes and maintains the dental, digestive and emotional health and longevity of these pets.

Excel Herbage and Forage
These premium quality Timothy Hay and grass foods should form most of your pet’s diet.

They are especially good for dental health as the chewing action required by the fibrevore, to eat them, helps to wear down teeth.

The teeth of all fibrevores are constantly growing and overgrown teeth can be the cause of potentially fatal problems.

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