Perhaps one of the most well known animal diseases, it has had much publicity since it decimated the rabbit population after introduction to the UK in the early 1950’s. So virulent is the disease that 95% of rabbits in the UK had died by 1955. Since then it has gone on to be a major killer of wild rabbits over the years and can also be found in domestic rabbits. The disease is able to mutate and comes back with a slightly different strain making eradication very difficult. The severity of outbreaks tends to vary and there was quite a major outbreak in the South east of England in 2000. Myxomatosis is a threat to all rabbits but the greatest threat is to wild rabbits.
Those domesticated rabbits that live indoors are at least risk but they are still susceptible to it. Domesticated rabbits living outside in gardens and hutches are at an increased risk, especially if wild animals can get in to the garden, or they come into contact with a dog that hunts wild rabbits. The myxoma virus is mainly spread by biting animals such as mosquitoes, fur mites or rabbit fleas. The fleas can go from one rabbit to another via contact with each other. The best way to protect your pet rabbit is to have it vaccinated against the disease. Myxomatosis is a dreadful disease and the animals die a horrible long slow death. They can take up to two weeks to die and treatment is rarely successful, so the kindest option is usually euthanasia.
The first sign of the most common form of the disease is often runny eyes and can be confused with conjunctivitis. In myxi however, the genitals show signs of swelling & puffiness while the conjunctivitis worsens until it leads to blindness. Nodules can also start to appear on the head and body. Thick pus starts to discharge from the nose and swollen eyes and death will follow. There are two other forms of myxomatosis and these have a better recovery rate if treated quickly. One causes pneumonia type symptoms and snuffles while the other is again nodular. Symptoms in vaccinated rabbits are much the same but less severe, and the disease is potentially treatable in vaccinated rabbits.
Domestic rabbits have no genetic immunity against myxomatosis and it is essential these rabbits are vaccinated to give them the best chance of survival. Boosters need to be kept up to date and owners need to look out for symptoms of the disease to catch it as early as possible. If it is thought a rabbit may have contracted the disease, it should be isolated from any other rabbits to prevent spread. If there is an outbreak nearby then it is safest to get a further booster if the rabbit has not had a booster in the last 6 months. Vaccinations can be given at 6 weeks of age and can also be given to pregnant rabbits. Regular 6 monthly vaccinations are recommended. Other steps you can take are to buy hay from farms not infested with Myxi, fit insect screens to hutches and runs & prevent standing water from accumulating nearby to reduce mosquito’s appearing. Check your rabbit regularly for fleas and fur mites and if found get treatment to eliminate them. The vaccination for myxomatosis is unusual in that part of the dose also has to go into the layers of the skin (intradermally) and for this reason it is best given by a vet to ensure it is done correctly otherwise the rabbit will not be properly vaccinated.
This is as previously mentioned and is usually unsuccessful in unvaccinated rabbits. If a vaccinated rabbit contracts the virus then treatment can be successful with good veterinary & nursing care. This will likely include
- Regular bathing of sticky eyes and genitalia
- Keeping them in a warm environment
- Fluid treatment
- Antibiotics to prevent secondary infections
As always, prevention is better than cure. Vaccination substantially increases the chances of survival and will reduce the pain and suffering a rabbit will have to endure from catching myxomatosis.