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All rabbit owners should know about the serious dangers posed by Myxomatosis. Originally harnessed by man to control the wild rabbit population, Myxomatosis - or Myxo as it is sometimes abbreviated in the veterinary world - has been cultivated to maximise transmission and decrease survival rates in all rabbits, regardless of breed, age or environment. Even if your rabbit is kept exclusively indoors, it is still vulnerable to infection via contaminated bedding or food. The survival rate for Myxo is low, and even with prompt veterinary attention your rabbit may not be treatable. Sadly, euthanasia is often the recommended course following diagnosis. Carefully planned prevention is the best way to ensure your rabbit is protected from this highly contagious, virulent disease.
The most common route of transmission is via parasites, such as mosquitos and fleas, which carry the disease from infected to healthy animals as they travel from host to host. When a disease-carrying parasite bites and feeds upon a rabbit, the virus will infiltrate the host's bloodstream and multiply on the skin. Mucous membranes, such as the eyes, nose, anus, and genitals will usually be the first places to show signs of infection, around 5 to 14 days after the initial exposure. Swelling, redness, and ulceration of the tissue may occur in these areas, gradually becoming worse as the infection progresses. For households with multiple rabbits the impact can be devastating. The virus can survive inside parasites through dormant or winter periods, therefore it is essential that you take steps to protect your rabbits all year round.
The virus incubation period may last up to two weeks after infection, so you may notice changes in your rabbit's behaviour or appetite before you notice other signs. Symptoms may appear gradually and can be mistaken for respiratory tract infection, pasteurella or conjunctivitis. Once taken in for a health check, your vet may decide to make a formal diagnosis by sending off swab samples to a lab for analysis, or he may begin treatment immediately if symptoms are inconclusive. Myxomatosis is not immediately fatal: some rabbits can survive for months whilst infected, but many will die within 12 days. If left untreated, your rabbit's symptoms will grow progressively worse, culminating in blindness, painful skin irritation and lethargy. Ultimately, a severely infected rabbit will stop eating and drinking and may succumb to secondary lung infection.
Medication coupled with intensive nursing techniques may be used to provide supportive treatment if there is a chance of recovery, however many vets may recommend euthanasia straight away. Bear in mind that Myxo is known to cause a great deal of suffering once contracted - the kindest choice may be to put your rabbit down. If treatment is an option, be aware that prognosis will vary from patient to patient depending on the severity of the symptoms. Any recovery may be prolonged, and survivors may suffer from severe scabbing or permanent scars. Your vet may also recommend that you remove and destroy all bedding or housing materials after infection has been confirmed.
Vaccinations and parasite prevention are the best ways to ensure your rabbit is safe both indoors and out. Vaccination: Rabbits can be vaccinated against Myxomatosis from six weeks of age onwards. Depending on the rate of infection in your area and where your rabbit is kept, your vet may recommend that you have booster vaccinations either once or twice per year. Annual boosters are typically given in May or June to ensure rabbits are protected during the Myxo high season. Vaccination alone may not be enough to fully protect your rabbit from infection; therefore it is important that you also take steps to ensure other risk factors are kept at a minimum. It can take up to 14 days for your rabbit to build immunity to Myxo after his initial injection. Rabbits that contract Myxo after vaccination may have a milder form of the disease than unvaccinated rabbits. Parasite Prevention: Fleas and mosquitoes transmit Myxo; therefore controlling your rabbit's exposure to fleas and other biting pests is an essential step in responsible ownership. An easy way to prevent infestation is to use one of several topical insecticides designed especially for rabbits. Talk to your vet about the different sprays and spot-on formats available. Never use a flea treatment that is not specifically marketed for rabbits, as some chemicals approved for use in cats and dogs are toxic to smaller animals. Also be sure to note how frequently treatment is recommended: overdosing your rabbit can be extremely harmful to his health. If you live in an area subject to mosquito swarms during the summer, protect your rabbit through the use of nets and repellent strips. It may be best to keep your rabbit in an enclosed space through the summer, such as a conservatory with a screen door. Never house your rabbit near standing bodies of water, including ponds or shaded ditches - mosquitoes breed and spawn at these sites. Another way to ensure your pet is not exposed to parasites is to only purchase specially treated straw, grass and/or bedding. Untreated straw may be cheaper or more accessible, but there is no guarantee it won't contain mites or fleas just waiting for exposure to a host. Besides the threat of Myxo, parasites like fleas can be difficult to fully eradicate once they've inadvertently been brought into your home. Protect your rabbit and home by being selective about what you put in his hutch.
Rabbits are gentle, relatively low maintenance pets. Though the above information may be disheartening to prospective owners, it is important to remember that a well-planned rabbit care regime will virtually eliminate the risk posed by this and other diseases. Taking your rabbit to the vet to discuss potential risk factors can help you decide with preventative measures are most appropriate for you.
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