Did you know that your rabbits’ skin and fur can be a good indicator of their overall health? Petplan vet Brian Faulkner explains what certain conditions may be telling you about your bunnies’ wellbeing, and how you can keep them in tip-top health.
Many rabbits shed fur after winter and throughout spring, so now is the perfect time to establish a simple, daily grooming routine with yours. It’ll not only help your bunnies dispose of excess hair but, as Brian explains: ‘It’s also the perfect chance for you to thoroughly check your bunnies for any sudden changes that could point to a skin condition or parasites.’ We’ve listed the most common issues your rabbits might experience below, and the steps you can take to treat each one.
‘This condition is caused by a skin mite called Cheyletiella parasitovorax,’ Brian explains. ‘A lot of rabbits carry this parasite in small numbers without it causing any problems. But, if a rabbit is unwell, the mites can proliferate and cause a thick, white, scaly dandruff on the fur. It’s called “walking dandruff” because the skin flakes move as the (rather large) mites crawl across the fur.’
The most common cause behind walking dandruff is a rather surprising one: dental disease.
‘When rabbits have dental problems, they can’t eat properly,’ Brian says. ‘Understandably, this affects their stress levels and immune system.’
So, the key to avoiding an infestation of skin mites is to invest time and energy into your rabbits’ dental health. Feed them lots of hay each day, provide plenty of space for sleep and exercise, and arrange regular check-ups. ‘Your rabbits’ teeth should be checked every year as part of their annual veterinary booster,’ Brian says. ‘Increase this to twice a year if there’s a possibility of dental disease and, for rabbits with existing dental problems, every three months.’
Most common during summer, fly strike is a nasty condition that can affect rabbits of any age and, again, dental disease is a major contributor. Bunnies produce both hard and soft droppings and, while it may sound a bit off-putting, they eat the soft ones to aid their digestion. ‘However, if a rabbit’s mouth is sore because of dental issues, it avoids eating – including the soft droppings – which means its bottom can become soiled,’ Brian explains. ‘This attracts flies that lay eggs on the rabbit, which hatch into maggots that burrow into the skin.’
Thankfully, there are steps you can take to help prevent fly strike. ‘Keep your pets’ hutch and exercise areas clean, dry and well-ventilated,’ Brian says, ‘as a hygienic space is less likely to attract flies.’
Rabbits that can’t groom themselves properly – for example, those that are overweight, or have arthritis – can also be more vulnerable, which is yet another reason why a good grooming routine is vital. Fly strike can claim a rabbit’s life quickly, so it’s essential to inspect your rabbit thoroughly each day, and give its bottom a proper check.
If your rabbits have a thick reddish-brown crust in the ear canal, which can be very painful for them, it’s most likely due to ear mites. ‘Fortunately, this is easily remedied by your vet,’ says Brian. ‘A week or so after treatment, the whole crust lifts out of the ear like a cork.’ While it won’t necessarily cause any long-term harm, the discomfort could lead to a weakened immune system that could cause other health problems like those listed above. There’s not much you can do to prevent ear mites, but you can catch any outbreaks early by giving your rabbits’ ears a check during each grooming session – and the good news is that these mites are much rarer than those found on the skin.
‘Rabbit fleas are very rare and are a different species to the type that affects cats and dogs,’ Brian explains. ‘Pet rabbits can be affected by cat or dog fleas, but an infestation is less likely among those that live outdoors.’ However, fleas do transmit other diseases that are serious in rabbits, such as myxomatosis (a virus that causes swelling and discharge from infected rabbits’ orifices). If you have any reason to suspect that your bunnies have fleas, contact your vet as soon as possible.
Lumps and bumps
A lump under your rabbits’ skin is most probably caused by an abscess, which again results from dental disease and often appears around the mouth or jawline. Abscesses are notoriously hard to cure, and so prevention really is the best medicine. Follow the dental tips we mention above, keep feeding a good diet and make sure to book those regular check-ups with your vet.