What vaccinations does my rabbit need and why?
There are two diseases, common in the UK, that every rabbit should be vaccinated against. These conditions cause untold suffering and distress to unvaccinated bunnies, and are frequently fatal - with affected pets dying very unpleasantly. They are myxomatosis (“myxi”) and rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease (VHD) - and they can be prevented with vaccination.
What is myxomatosis?
Myxomatosis (often referred to as “myxi” or “myxo”) is a viral disease that has decimated the wild rabbit population since the 1960s. Sadly, domestic rabbits are highly susceptible, and there are deaths every year. The highest risk is for outdoor rabbits, but house-rabbits are also at risk - the virus is transmitted via biting insects (fleas, mites, mosquitoes etc) but also from one rabbit to another; and infectious fleas or mites can be carried into the house on the owner’s clothing, or in bedding. The incubation period is variable, but is usually at least 5 days.
One infected, there are three forms of the disease - Classical, Atypical and Nodular.
Classical Myxomatosis is the result if an unvaccinated rabbit is infected. It usually starts with runny, red, sore and swollen eyes, and may initially be confused with conjunctivitis or other eye conditions. However, in most cases, the genitals also become swollen early on; this then progresses with the formation of nodules (lumps or swellings) on the head and sometimes body. The eye infection is by now so severe that most rabbits are blinded, with pus oozing from their eyes and nose. Death usually occurs within 12 days; recovery even with intensive care and aggressive treatment is very unlikely; it’s normally necessary to put the poor rabbit down to end their suffering.
Atypical Myxomatosis causes pneumonia and a “snuffles-like” illness; it too is usually fatal.
Nodular Myxomatosis, however, is much milder, and is the form that occurs if a vaccinated rabbit is unlucky enough to become infected. This causes variable lumps and swellings on the skin, and is a treatable condition, with a low mortality rate.
So what does vaccination do?
Unfortunately, no vaccine is 100% perfect, and although it is unlikely, vaccinated rabbits may still contract myxi. However, if they do, they are most likely to develop the nodular form; even if they do develop Classical symptoms, the symptoms are milder and the disease can be treated. Affected rabbits may need intensive care and treatment, but there is a good chance that they will survive - whereas unvaccinated rabbits will almost invariably die.
OK, that’s myxi, but what about VHD?
Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD or RHD) is another highly contagious and fatal infection. Rabbits may be infected directly from another rabbit, or (and this is the problem) by stray virus particles in the bedding, food, water, on their owner’s clothes, or even blown on the wind through an open window. The microscopic virus is stable in the environment and may last for many months; it can even survive washing at up to 60C! As a result, no unvaccinated rabbit is safe.
Once infected, symptoms follow quickly - most rabbits are dead within 12-36 hours of infection. The symptoms include high fever, depression, convulsions, and breathing difficulties. In many cases, there is bleeding under the skin and out of the nose and bottom. The other common symptom is sudden death. About 1 in 10 to 1 in 20 rabbits will develop a more lingering disease, where they survive the initial phases, but go into liver failure and die 1 to 2 weeks later.
So, what does vaccination do?
Vaccination prevents disease - it’s as simple as that! A vaccinated rabbit is fantastically unlikely to contract VHD as long as their boosters are up to date.
What vaccines are there, and are they safe?
There are three vaccines available - two that just protect against VHD, and one combination vaccine that protects against myxi as well. There are a few rabbits who may not be suitable for the combined vaccine (e.g. if they’ve contracted Myxomatosis before, and may not gain protection against VHD from this injection), so in these cases our vet may decide that a VHD-only vaccine is more appropriate.
These vaccines are very safe (some rabbits may suffer temporary swelling at the injection site, but other problems are very rare, affecting less than 1 in 10,000 vaccinated rabbits). However, to be effective they must be repeated annually.