Stories from the surgery: why myxomatosis symptoms and treatments are vital to know about

Each month Petplan vet Brian Faulkner takes a look at some of the issues he comes across in his day-to-day life as a practising vet.

This month Brian takes a look at how to spot the symptoms of myxomatosis in pet rabbits and what can be done to treat it…

Autumn can bring new illnesses and injuries to the surgery. One of the most worrying trends is an increase in the number of myxomatosis cases.

This is due to an increase in the number of parasites who spread the disease from the wild rabbit population to un-vaccinated domestic pets.

It’s a particularly horrible disease to witness in a loved family pet, but thankfully there are a number of things you can do to reduce the risk of your rabbit contracting it…

What is myxomatosis?

Firstly, it’s important for rabbit owners to understand exactly what the disease is.

It’s a viral infection that is transmitted by insects such as fleas, lice, ticks and mites and is incredibly dangerous with high mortality rates – so it’s vital you do everything you can to reduce the chances of your rabbit becoming infected.

What are the symptoms of myxomatosis?

The disease can take several different forms and in each case the symptoms are very different.

This is one of the more common forms where the disease progresses at a rapid pace – meaning death can occur within a seven day period from the point of infection.

The symptoms can be very subtle and include swelling around the eyes, lethargy, reduced or a lack of appetite and a fever. This is difficult to diagnose and even harder to treat.

The symptoms of this form are far more pronounced and disturbing for rabbit owners.

Sores and abscesses develop around the head, face, lips, nose and the eyes because of a build-up of fluid under the skin.

Unfortunately, the majority of rabbits (around 90%) will die within 10 days of contracting acute myxomatosis.

This form only occurs if a rabbit survives the acute disease.

A discharge from the ears and eyes can develop, and the rabbit may have difficulty breathing. Sadly, even though the rabbit has survived the acute phase, many of them will still die within approximately two weeks of moving into the chronic stage.

However, if they do survive, they will be immune from contracting myxomatosis for the rest of their lives.

How do you treat myxomatosis?

Myxomatosis is a virus and there is currently no specific treatment for the disease. If your rabbit is well cared for and undergoes intensive treatment – including antibiotics to stop secondary infections - then there is a small chance they may recover.

Often though, a vet will recommend euthanasing the rabbit on humane grounds to prevent further suffering.

How can you prevent myxomatosis?

The only way to prevent your rabbit contracting myxomatosis is to have them vaccinated against the disease, which can be given from five weeks old and will need to be repeated every year to keep them protected.

You should also ensure your rabbit and all pets in your household are treated for fleas. The best treatments are spot-on treatments which are pre-measured pipettes of liquid which are applied to the skin on the back of your pets neck and can be purchased from your vet.

WARNING: Common flea treatments for cats and dogs, must NOT be used on rabbits. Consult your vet for products suitable for rabbits.

Finally other measures include regularly cleaning and disinfecting your rabbit’s hutch and preventing your rabbit coming into contact with wild rabbits or hares.

While myxomatosis is undoubtedly a horrible disease, plenty of practical steps can be taken – including getting reliable rabbit insurance – so your rabbit can be cared for should illness strike.

And, as always, consult with your vet immediately should your rabbit show any symptoms.

Have you had any experience with myxomatosis? Let us know your stories below…