Essential pet advice with vet Jo Gourlay

This week we take a wee interlude from the series about X-rays and ultrasounds to discuss Myxomatosis, as an outbreak of the disease was reported last week in Ayrshire. Although the topic was touched on briefly in an article about vaccinations in rabbits a couple of years ago, it’s worth reviewing it today because, as you will see, any steps to reduce to risk of your pet rabbit contracting it are well worth the effort.

Myxomatosis is a viral disease that is usually spread by biting insects such as mosquitoes and fleas.

Although pet rabbits living outdoors are at a higher risk, especially if they come in contact with wild rabbits or hares, house rabbits can also pick up the infection.

It’s a horrible disease to witness with affected rabbits classically getting very sore and watery eyes initially. This then progresses to blindness, with pus discharging from both the eyes and the nose. In addition, skin lumps can appear and the genitals usually become very swollen.

With certain types of the disease the lungs can become involved too. Unfortunately, once contracted the prognosis is very poor, so to prevent prolonged suffering euthanasia is often the kindest option.

The good news is that there are things you can do to help protect your pet. Vaccination is a critical part of this. Although vaccinated rabbits can still get Myxomatosis, the disease is usually much less severe, which makes it infinitely more treatable. They will still need careful nursing through the condition with treatment from your vet but vaccination substantially changes the likely outcome.

In normal circumstances an annual booster vaccination is enough to give sufficient protection but, in high risk situations such as an outbreak, it’s recommended they have been vaccinated within the past six months.

The vaccine can be given from a young age as long as the rabbit is healthy and not pregnant, and is given not only under the skin (like most other pet vaccines) but also directly into the skin itself. This will usually leave a little lump for a few days but is important as it gets the immune system to give protection where it is needed – in the skin.

Other steps you can take to help protect your rabbit involve minimising their contact with biting insects. Hunting cats will often pick up rabbit fleas from the wild ones they catch and these can be brought back to the house and passed on to your pet.

Keeping your dogs and cats flea free is, therefore, a good idea, as is taking precautions to make sure wild rabbits, hares and foxes cannot make contact with your rabbit. If you notice any evidence of fleas or other mites (which can look like dandruff), get your rabbit checked promptly by your vet and treated if advised. In addition, you can fit insect screens to outdoor hutches and try to remove areas of standing water from your garden to discourage mosquitoes from breeding nearby. Finally, even the hay you feed them could bring in biting insects so ensure it comes from farms that are Myxomatosis free.

Your own veterinary practice will be able to advise you on when your rabbit should next be vaccinated. This will be dependent on when it was last done and what they feel the specific risk is to your rabbit taking into account the number of wild rabbits affected locally and your rabbit’s individual environment and circumstances.