Celia Haddon - Cat Expert

Understanding animals through their behaviour


The swollen eyes and suffering of a rabbit with myxomatosis. c. Celia Haddon

Myxomatosis came to Britain in 1953 and spread rapidly. There are regular outbreaks, usually in areas with big populations, the numbers dip then slowly climb back up again. The rabbit’s eyelids swell and so does the base of the ears, so that the poor animal is both blind and deaf like the one in the photo above which I found sitting by the side of the road (Thompson 1994).

The rabbit stops eating, has difficulty breathing and a nasal discharge. The disease is spread by the rabbit flea – a stick-fast flea that is sometimes found on cats that hunt rabbits – biting flies  and mosquitoes. Pet rabbits may catch this cruel disease and will usually have to be put down (Dingle & Rock, 2006). Fortunately there is a vaccine but in one survey only about half the pet rabbits had been vaccinated (Schepers et al., 2009)

Viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD)  is the other serious rabbit disease for which there is now a combined vaccine. The rabbit collapses, has fits, breathing difficulty and bleeding from the nose.  The animal often dies before a diagnosis (Dingle & Rock, 2006).  The disease can be spread directly from rabbit to rabbit, but it also can be spread by rodents, people, bedding or contaminated hutches.

House rabbits should be vaccinated as should all out door living rabbits (Dykes & Flack, 2003). Even if a house rabbit has no time at all outside (a pity) they still need protection against these cruel disease. Vaccines may be needed more frequently if there is a disease outbreak near you – ask your vet.

Get your vet to check your rabbit’s teeth and the underside of its back feet, the hocks, at vaccination time (Mancinelli et al, 2014).


Dingle, H. & Rock, A., (2006), ‘Prevention of the spread of infectious diseases,’ in ed. Aspinall, V., The Complete Textbook of Veterinary Nursing,  London, UK, Butterworth-Heinemann.

Dykes & Flack, (2003), Houserabbit, Dorking UK, Ringpress.

Schepers, F., Koene, P. & Beerda, B., (2009) ‘Welfare assessment in pet rabbits,’ Animal Welfare, 18, 477-485

Mancinelli, E., Keeble, E., Richardson, J. & Hedley, J., (2014), ‘Husbandry rusk factors associated with hock pododermatitis in UK pet rabbits (Orcolagus cuniculus)‘, Veterinary Record, 174, 429

Thompson, H. V., (1994), ‘The rabbit in Britain,’ eds: Thompson, H. V. & King, C. M., The European Rabbit, Oxford, UK, Oxford University Press, p 64-107

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