Myxomatosis in pet rabbits
This year has seen a significant increase in the number of pet rabbits succumbing to myxomatosis, a fatal virus that is most commonly spread by mosquitoes. The recent heavy rains and warm weather have been ideal breeding conditions for mosquitoes and their high numbers are causing rapid spread of the disease.
Myxomatosis was introduced to Australia in 1950 to eradicate the rabbits that were in plague proportions. The disease was effective in controlling populations for some time, however, many surviving rabbits developed a resistance to the disease and populations grew again. Hence, the disease is still prevalent in wild rabbit populations. It can be passed to any breed of rabbit via direct contact, mosquitoes, fleas or other blood-sucking insects.
The initial signs of myxomatosis are similar to that of conjunctivitis. The rabbit’s eyes, mouth and nose become moist and swollen. The genitalia area also becomes swollen. This appearance rapidly becomes more marked and is accompanied by a milky ocular discharge. The rabbit becomes listless and loses its appetite. It may have a fever that frequently reaches 42°C. A characteristic sign at this stage is drooping and swollen ears. Approximately 2 weeks after the clinical signs appear breathing may become laboured, and the rabbit can go into a coma leading to death. In acute outbreaks, some rabbits may die within 48 hours after signs appear.
If you suspect your rabbit to have myxomatosis contact your veterinarian immediately. Some rabbits which have contracted the virus can be treated and may recover.
Approximately 90% of the domestic (pet) rabbit population is susceptible to myxomatosis. Exposure to the virus has given the wild rabbit population some resistance with approximately 40% susceptible. The majority of adult rabbits going into the next breeding season have been challenged by myxomatosis and are now immune.
It is the rabbit owner’s responsibility to try and prevent pet rabbits contracting myxomatosis. There is no guaranteed treatment once rabbits have contracted the virus.
The only option to prevent this disease is for rabbits to avoid any contact with mosquitoes and infected rabbits. Rabbit hutches must be covered in insect-proof netting or rabbits should be kept inside away from mosquitoes, especially during dusk and at night when mosquitoes are most active.
Insect repellents can be used to deter mosquitoes. Ask your local veterinarian which ones are suitable to use as some can risk the health of rabbits.
If a rabbit is suspected of having the disease it must be isolated from other rabbits immediately so the disease is less likely to spread. The rabbit must then be provided with veterinary treatment or humanely euthanased.
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