What are Rabies?
Despite the cases of infection being rare, rabbits are highly susceptible to the rabies virus. After exposure to the virus an incubation period of between 2 and 3 weeks takes place with rapid deterioration following the onset of symptoms.
Unfortunately, there is no treatment for this disease. Due to it’s highly infectious and zoonotic nature it is vital that if you suspect your pet may have been exposed to or is suffering from this disease, you contact your veterinarian.
Rabies in rabbits is a very rare, yet fatal condition. This disease is caused by lyssaviruses in the rhabdovirus family. This highly neurotropic disease can be traced back thousands of years, and despite extensive scientific, research remains responsible for thousands of human fatalities world wide.
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Symptoms of Rabies in Rabbits
In reported cases of this disease signs of being bitten by infected animals were often seen due to visible bite wounds. Unlike other infected animals that may display aggressive signs of the illness, this disease is predominantly manifested in paralytic signs in rabbits. Other symptoms that can be seen are:
- Head tilt
- Bilateral conjunctivitis
- Nasal discharge
- Neurological signs such as teeth grinding, head tremors and ascending paralysis
- Recumbent, non-responsive state
This disease often progresses very quickly in rabbits, leading to death 3 to 4 days following onset of symptoms.
Causes of Rabies in Rabbits
This disease is caused by the lyssavirus, which is part of the Rhabdovirus family. Infection follows the introduction of the virus into the tissue. As the virus is shed intermittently in the saliva, infection is often caused following the transfer of infected saliva from a rabid animal into a bite wound. In rare cases, the infected saliva is transferred through existing fresh wounds or through the mucous membranes. Once the tissue is infected the virus moves through the peripheral nerves to the spinal cord and brain.
Although the cases of rabies have dramatically declined due to the routine vaccination of pet animals over the last 60 years a few hundred cases are still reported each year and stray animals and wildlife still pose a risk. In the United States, cats are infected at a higher rate than dogs, thought to be associated spillover infection from fewer cat vaccination laws and the roaming tendency of cats to roam and fight.
Diagnosis of Rabies in Rabbits
Your veterinarian will begin the clinical visit with a neurological examination of your pet and discuss his history with you. If you suspect your rabbit may be suffering from this illness it is vital you discuss any changes of mood or behavior such as increased aggression. Your veterinarian may perform the following diagnostic tests:
- Radiograph under sedation to check for signs of brain tumor or abscess that can cause neurological symptoms
- Hematology to rule out poisoning which may present with similar symptoms
In order to provide official diagnosis, post-mortem testing must take place, the following are possible diagnostic tools that may be performed in that event.
- Direct fluorescent antibody assay (dFA)
- Direct rapid immunohistochemistry test (dRIT)
- Virus isolation via mouse inoculation
- Reverse transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR)
- Histopathology and immunohistochemistry
- Detection of rabies virus-specific antibodies
Treatment of Rabies in Rabbits
Unfortunately, there is no known treatment for this disease. Rabies is a highly infectious, zoonotic disease, meaning it can easily pass from animal to human. Due to the zoonotic risk and grave prognosis if your pet is exposed to rabies it may be highly recommended that your pet is euthanized for humane and public safety reasons. If this is not done your rabbit will need to be placed in strict isolation with no animal or human contact for 6 months and watched for signs of infection.
Recovery of Rabies in Rabbits
The prognosis for rabbits exposed to rabies is grave. For owners that have been exposed to the disease the risk of rabbit to human infection is very rare, however it is important that they evaluate their health very carefully and contact a public health official. If other pets are on your property or have been exposed to your rabbit, discuss the appropriate quarantine measures that should be taken with the public health official. Unfortunately, rabbits are unable to be immunized against this illness. Other pets on the property such as cats or dogs should be vaccinated for this disease.
Infected wildlife and stray animals pose a risk factor for the spread of this disease so preventing contact with these animals is a major consideration in order to reduce the chance of exposure for your pets. Rabbits should be kept indoors or in elevated enclosures without exposed wire mesh floors. Your rabbit should be supervised at all times, especially when he roams in your yard.
Rabies Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
Is there anything I can give my bunnies to keep them from getting rabies? There might be a chance that I have to make my bunnies outside pets but they are inside, but if they have prevention from rabies then it will be okay and I was wondering if there is?
It is uncommon for rabbits to be infected with rabies or to transmit rabies. Some Veterinarians use the same vaccines for rabbits like for dogs and cats, but there are no approved rabies vaccines for rabbits (due to the rarity of infection). Your rabbits should however, depending on your location be vaccinated against myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease which are more dangerous to rabbits than rabies. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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