If you ask most people to think of vaccinations in animals, they will immediately think of dogs and cats or maybe horses, but there is another animal where regular vaccination is important, the rabbit. Unvaccinated rabbits, whether indoors (house rabbits) or outdoors are all at risk from some very distressing diseases.
It is easy to think of vaccinations for pets are a way for veterinary surgeons to make easy money. However it must be remembered that vets go into practice because they care about animal welfare. The main reason pet diseases are less obvious are because veterinary medicine has been developed and vaccination has saved countless lives. Although there are fewer cases of these diseases, there is still a real need to vaccinate. The bottom line is many of the diseases our animals can get vaccinated against can kill. Rabbits are certainly no exception.
Rabbits can be exposed to several infections but at present there are two that can be vaccinated against, Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD). Myxomatosis What is it and how does it affect my rabbit? Myxomatosis is probably the most well-known disease in rabbits and is a virus. It has a devastating effect on rabbits that contract the disease with numerous distressing symptoms. The first signs owners might see are puffy eyes and swellings around the head. Because of the swollen eyes, owners often will phone a veterinary surgery and tell them their rabbit has 'sleepy eyes'. In many cases where owners take their infected rabbits to the vets, the rabbit is often put to sleep to save it from further suffering. The disease can also cause swollen lips and swellings on the inside of the ears. Most rabbits develop both inflammation on the genitals and anus. Usually within only 24hours the swellings on the eyes become so bad that they cause blindness. With all this soreness coupled with the blindness, eating and drinking becomes quickly more challenging. Although some rabbits can survive weeks, even months, death normally follows within 12 days - sometimes sooner in susceptible rabbits. Although not all affected rabbits die, those who do survive will need intensive nursing for a very long period and will be left with a great deal of scarring and scabs to the head and body. How is it spread? The disease is spread by the rabbit flea (Spilopsyllus cuniculi) - which is different to dog and cat fleas. It is also transferred by other blood sucking insects such as mosquitos. The myxomatosis virus can survive over the winter in the blood of hibernating rabbit fleas. Once an unvaccinated rabbit has come into contact with an infected insect, the incubation period, before any signs of the disease start to show, can be between 5 to 14 days. It only takes a minuscule amount of the live virus to be put into the rabbit skin, when the insect bites, for it to rapidly enter the rabbit's bloodstream. Within a few days the virus spreads to several sites over the rabbit. Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) What is it and how does it affect my rabbit? Viral Haemorrhagic Disease is also a virus. VHD is almost always fatal in rabbits, it is also very rapidly spread. Rabbits that have the virus can display the following symptoms:
The rabbit might also have internal bleeding of the lungs, guts and urinary tract. It is thought that some 50% of rabbits die without the owners even knowing the cause. How is it spread? VHD is spread by direct contact between rabbits this is common to both wild and domesticated species. However this disease can also be spread by indirect contact with people, clothing and shoes etc. contaminated with the disease. Unclean hutches and bedding can also contribute to the spread of VHD. How are the vaccinations given? Vaccines for the use against myxomatosis can be given to rabbits over 6 weeks of age, while VHD vaccination can be given from 5 weeks (but usually given at 10 to 12 weeks).The vaccine is by injection. All rabbit owners that have their animals vaccinated should also be aware that the vaccine can take up to 14 days to be effective and the animal should not be exposed to any risks during this time. Until recently the vaccination for myxomatosis had to be given with a minimum fortnight interval before the rabbit could be vaccinated against VHD. However advances in vaccine technique means there is now one vaccination that covers both diseases, your vet will be able to offer advice on this. Boosters should be given every year. In some areas where the risk is high, your vet might suggest a booster for myxomatosis every 6 months. Once your vet has vaccinated your rabbit, they will give you a vaccination certificate with all the details and dates, the rabbit was treated. It is very important to keep this certificate in a safe place as if your rabbit is going to be looked after, while you go on holiday, by a boarding centre, (some kennels and catteries will also look after rabbits), they will not take your rabbit without its certificate.
This disease can be only be controlled using two main methods; Insect control and vaccination. Flea control in rabbits, just as it is in dogs and cats, is vital. Outdoor rabbits should be kept well away from any wild rabbits that might enter the area. Flea preparations are available for rabbits as spot-on and sprays. Your vet will always be able to offer advice on the use of these products. By keeping the rabbits bedding dry will help discourage insects such as mosquitoes. Although no vaccine can guarantee 100% protection, prevention is better than cure. In the case of these two diseases in rabbits, it is the only way to offer the best possible chance of immunity.
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