Myxomatosis is a horrid disease that kills rabbits, whether it be rabbits in the wild or family pets. All rabbits living in the UK are potentially in danger of contracting the disease, which is caused by a virus spread by blood sucking insects, e.g.: fleas or mosquitoes. This means even if you have a house rabbit or live in a city centre, your pet could be at risk of contracting Myxomatosis.
Once a rabbit has been bitten, the virus multiplies in the skin and slowly, over a matter of days, the disease breaks out. The virus can remain alive in the blood of fleas for many months and it is by the over-wintering of fleas in rabbit burrows that the disease is maintained from year to year.
The very first signs include puffy swellings around the head and face. “Sleepy eyes” are a classic sign along with swollen lips, tiny lumps on the inside of the ear and puffiness around the anus and genitalia. Within a day or so, the swellings can become so severe that it results in blindness with some distortion around the face, mouth, ears and nose.
Sadly in most cases of Myxomatosis the rabbit will die or have to be put to sleep within 12 days. Occasionally, animals can survive longer or overcome the disease with the skin swellings persisting for weeks or months after infection and often develop into severe scaling, scabbing and scarring on the head and body.
Rabbits that suffer from Myxomatosis are often affected with another disease called Pasteurellosis. Unfortunately, most rabbits carry the bacterium which causes Pasteurellosis which means rabbits firstly suffer from Myxomatosis and then develop pneumonia, due to this bacterium. In such cases, the pneumonia can also lead to death, as it is almost impossible to control this disease in the presence of Myxomatosis.
The good news is that Myxomatosis can now be prevented by use of a vaccine and control of insect parasites. Vaccination will be performed by your veterinary surgeon and is usually given in two portions: Most of it is injected under the skin but a smaller dose will be injected into the skin. This dual procedure ensures the development of optimum protection against Myxomatosis.
In order to maintain your rabbit’s protection, boosters need to be given annually. Most Myxomatosis cases in Britain occur in the late summer, autumn and early winter months, therefore the best time to vaccinate is May or June for optimum protection. You should, however, discuss with your vet whether you live in a high-risk area, and if so you should probably have your rabbit vaccinated twice yearly.
Flea and mosquito control is important and may involve not only keeping wild rabbits away from pet animals but also positive use of flea control measures such as sprays, dips and insect repellent strips. Do not forget to treat your other pets, like dogs and cats, for fleas as they can also potentially transmit the virus!
To sum up: Myxomatosis is a killer disease and unless treated, will result in death. It spreads easily and quickly amongst the rabbit population. Vaccination and insect control are the keys to prevention.