Rabies in Rabbits

Catherine Gose, CVT
By Catherine Gose, CVT. Reviewed by Melissa Witherell, DVM on May 22, 2023
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In This Article

Summary

What is Rabies in Rabbits?

Rabies is a viral disease that affects the central nervous system of mammals. All mammals are susceptible to the rabies virus. Infections in rabbits are rare, but rabies is a fatal disease.

Symptoms of Rabies in Rabbits

The incubation period for an infected rabbit is typically 2-3 weeks, although it can be longer. The initial symptoms of rabies in rabbits appear non-specific which can make it difficult to recognize since signs can resemble other common illnesses. Signs include:

  • Lethargy

  • Weakness

  • Fever

  • Anorexia

  • Eye discharge

  • Nasal discharge

  • Teeth grinding

  • Behavior changes—aggression, anxiety, irritability

The infection progresses through the central nervous system rapidly. Within days of the first symptoms, rabbits will begin to show neurological signs such as:

  • Head tilt

  • Head tremors

  • Slack jaw

  • “Fly biting” behavior

  • Blindness

  • Abnormal salivating or drooling

  • Difficulty swallowing

  • Difficulty walking or partial paralysis of the limbs

Causes of Rabies in Rabbits

Rabies is included in the Lyssavirus genus, which is a diverse group of viruses in the Rhabdoviridae family. Lyssavirus is believed to have originated in bats and it was first documented in Australia and Africa.

Rabies is most commonly carried by wildlife in the United States. The primary species known to carry the virus are raccoons, skunks, bats, foxes, and coyotes. Most pets contract rabies from contact with a wild animal.

The rabies virus primarily resides in an infected animal's saliva, brain tissue, and spinal fluid. Transmission usually occurs from a bite but is also possible when an open wound or scratch is contaminated with infected saliva. Direct contact with mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth) can transmit the disease as well.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Rabies in Rabbits

If your rabbit is showing neurological symptoms or you suspect he has been exposed to the rabies virus–bring him to a veterinarian right away. A vet will likely sedate your rabbit and perform diagnostic tests.

An x-ray or CT scan of the head may show tumors or other abnormalities that could be causing the neurological signs. In addition to imaging, bloodwork can be performed to rule out poisoning and other diseases that can cause similar symptoms. In short, there is no definitive diagnostic test to determine if your rabbit is positive for rabies. Diagnosis is often determined through process of elimination.

Treatment of Rabies in Rabbits

Unfortunately, rabies in rabbits is a fatal disease as there is currently no known cure for the virus. Treatment options are very limited and may include sedation and supportive care in the hospital in a quarantined environment.

The only way to reliably diagnose rabies in a rabbit is by post-mortem testing of the brain tissue or salivary glands. There are various tests available, and your vet will work with the diagnostic lab to choose the tests most appropriate. The time frame to expect results to be returned can vary depending on which tests are being performed.

Recovery and Management of Rabies in Rabbits

Since there is no cure for the rabies virus, recovery for a rabbit suspected of having rabies is unlikely. Once the infection is introduced to the bloodstream via a bite or wound, it travels quickly through the peripheral nerves to the brain and spinal cord. The disease eventually causes organ failure, paralysis, and seizures. Death usually occurs 7-10 days after the initial onset of symptoms.

Rabies is a reportable disease, meaning local health department officials need to be alerted to any positive cases. Your veterinarian will report it, and a representative from the health department may reach out to you for more information about your rabbit's case.

Prevention of Rabies in Rabbits

While dogs and cats are commonly vaccinated for rabies, there is currently no approved vaccine against rabies for rabbits. Administering a rabies vaccine intended for another species in a rabbit is considered “off-label usage”. This means the manufacturer will not cover any treatment if there are side effects or if the vaccine proves ineffective.

The best way to prevent your rabbit from contracting rabies is to prevent exposure to wildlife. For outdoor rabbits this means housing them in a raised and secured hutch to keep them safe from predators. If your rabbit lives indoors but enjoys occasional outside playtime, always make sure they are supervised—never let your pet rabbit outside unattended.

Rabies in Rabbits FAQs

What do rabbits do when they have rabies?

A rabbit with rabies may appear off balance and possibly have a head tilt. They will often exhibit new aggressive behavior, and you will likely see excessive drooling.

How long does rabies take to show in rabbits?

The typical incubation period for rabies in rabbits is about 2-3 weeks after exposure. However, the time it takes to show symptoms after a bite or wound infection can range from weeks to months.

Featured Image: iStock.com/SQUAMISH


Catherine Gose, CVT

WRITTEN BY

Catherine Gose, CVT

Veterinarian Technician


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