Fleas and Flea Infestation in Rabbits
Flea infestation occurs as the result of the common flea inhabiting the body of the rabbit and reproducing. The occurrence varies with weather conditions, and clinical signs will depend on each animal’s individual reaction to the infestation.
Because fleas feed on blood, heavy infestations may cause anemia (low hemoglobin in the blood due to loss of blood), especially in young rabbits. Rabbits can also develop a hypersensitive reaction to fleabite, with excessive scratching and itching that can sometimes lead to lesions on the skin's surface and skin infections.
Symptoms and Types
Some rabbits will not show any symptoms when suffering from a flea infestation, but many more others will display one or many of the following symptoms:
- Self- biting or chewing
- Excessive scratching, licking
- Visible bite marks or evidence of fleas (e.g., larvae, flea dirt, etc.)
- Hair loss
- Scaling on the skin
- Pale mucous membranes, increased heart rate (in anemic animals)
- Secondary bacterial infections ( sometimes seen)
Fleas are more common in some climates and during particular seasons, but they can affect rabbits year-round. Moreover, fleas can jump from one pet to another, such as from dogs or cats.
Although flea infestation can be easily apparent by the presence of the insects on your rabbit's body, your veterinarian may want to differentiate the insects from ear mites, skin mites, or other parasites. If your rabbit has symptoms of severe itching (biting, licking, scratching at self), your veterinarian will also want to differentiate the reaction from other allergic reactions, infections, or reactions to injections, if any have recently been given.
For diagnosis of flea infestation, your doctor will do a flea combing; fleas and/or flea dirt are usually found in affected rabbits. An analysis of skin scrapings will determine whether bacterial infections or other skin parasites are present. A study of discharge from the ear, meanwhile, will confirm whether an ear infection is affecting your rabbit or whether ear mites are present. And a complete blood profile will be conducted as part of a standard physical examination. This will include a chemical blood profile, a complete blood count, and a urinalysis. If your rabbit is suffering from a condition of anemia, this will be determined and treated quickly.
Eradicating and controlling exposure to fleas is currently the only means of therapy. You will need to treat all animals in the household as well as the household environment, and if possible, the environment outside of the home. Sprays and fumigators can be used to treat the living environment, both indoors and outdoors, but you will need to remove your pets and family members from the home before applying these chemicals, as they can be severely toxic for some animals and individuals.
There are specific powders and ointments that are made to kill fleas. Typically, boric acid, diatomaceous earth, and silica aerogel can be very safe and effective, as long as they are applied properly following the manufacturer's recommendations, but you may want to consider checking with your veterinarian before choosing a specific skin treatment. There may be some medications that are not indicated for your rabbit's particular age or size. Antibiotics may also be necessary for treating severe skin infections that have resulted from the flea infestation.
Living and Management
Use extreme caution when dipping or bathing rabbits in medicated flea-killing shampoos. Due to the high risk of skeletal fractures and excessive chilling, sudden death may occur. If you are applying topical spot-on products, make sure that the product has dried before allowing your rabbits freedom to groom themselves of their mates. The fleas and flea dirt should decrease with effective flea control. Itching and hair loss should decrease with effective flea control; if signs persist you will need to return to your veterinarian for an evaluation of other causes.
Instill measures for flea control for all other pets in the household, especially dogs and cats. If you are living in a year-round warm climate, be especially cautious of flea infestation all year long, beginning aggressive flea control as early as April or May.
Secondary bacterial infections and adverse reactions to flea-control products may occur. If any signs of toxicity are noted or if your rabbit should show any signs of behavioral or physical change, you should bath the rabbit thoroughly to remove any remaining chemicals and treat the rabbit appropriately.