PREVENTIVE medicine for domesticated rabbits can be broken down into several distinct activities.
1. Avoid inheritance of undesirable genetic traits
If a rabbit is known to be carrying an inheritable disease (e.g. splay leg) it should not be used for breeding and neutering is advisable. Ovariohysterectomy is also beneficial as a preventive measure because it removes the potential for the development of uterine adenocarcinoma, which is common in rabbits over two years of age.
2. Provide good quality water and nutrition
Provide clean, uncontaminated water at all times to prevent dehydration. Nitrate levels in natural water supplies should be checked as levels of 50ppm can cause abortions.
Maintain regular food intake as anorexia is a serious problem that can lead to secondary gastrointestinal problems. Rabbits are grazers requiring fresh food to be available at all times and owners should feed good quality, uncontaminated grass or hay, supplemented with a commercially prepared rabbit food, not rations intended for other species, e.g. guinea pigs.
Minimise antibiotic use to reduce the risk of gut microflora changes that may cause diarrhoea, electrolyte and fluid losses and dehydration.
Dental malocclusion and incisor overgrowth can be prevented by feeding high fibre grass or hay, and providing some wood for gnawing.
Regular weighing helps identify early weight gain and the risk of obesity, and weight loss which indicates inadequate energy intake or disease.
3. Avoid exposure to adverse, potentially harmful environmental conditions
Accommodation. Hutches, runs and pens should protect against predators and adverse weather conditions including rain, wind and extremes of temperature or humidity. Wood used in making hutches or runs, or for gnawing, should not be treated or painted with toxic chemicals or be derived from toxic plants. Grooming. Regular grooming, especially of the cloacal region, removes contamination, prevents matting and avoids attracting fly strike. Nails should be kept trimmed to prevent injury. Handling. The hind legs of rabbits must be supported and restrained during handling as they are powerful and a sudden kick out can damage, even fracture, the spine.
4. Prophylactic treatment
Some preventive management strategies for rabbits are summarised in Table 1.
There are two vaccines available for rabbits in the UK against diseases that are endemic in the wild rabbit population and cause sporadic outbreaks of clinical disease with high morbidity and mortality. There are no specific treatments for these diseases:
Vaccination starts at six weeks and immunity is present 14 days afterwards. The duration of immunity is six months. Vaccinations should not be given within 14 days of viral haemorrhagic disease vaccinations. The vaccine cannot be given to pregnant rabbits.
Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD)
VHD can be prevented by vaccination with a single dose given from 5-10 weeks of age resulting in protection being present 6-21 days after vaccination. Duration of immunity is 12 months, so annual boosters are necessary.
Vaccinated rabbits are fully protected against challenge with virus and the vaccine is safe to administer to pregnant rabbits but they should be handled with care. Vaccinations should not be given within 14 days of myxomatosis vaccinations.
It is estimated that less than 25% of rabbits visiting veterinary practices are vaccinated against VHD (Fort Dodge Index) so the vast majority of pet rabbits in the UK are at high risk to contract this.
The virus is very stable and resistant, survives freezing and persists in the environment for months. Hence VHD can easily be carried and transmitted through contact with hair from infected rabbits, on clothing, shoes, boots, bedding, feeding, drinking bowls or other utensils.