Coccidiosis is a widespread parasitic disease that can infect rabbits. Other animals which may be affected by the disease include chickens, dogs, cats, cattle and sheep. However, different species of parasites causing coccidiosis affect different animals. Wild rabbits are more commonly affected as opposed to domesticated rabbits. Rabbits can be affected by eight different types of the causal parasite. The disease can prove to be fatal in rabbits.
Coccidiosis is caused by microorganisms that are called coccidian parasites. The parasites are known as protozoa and are a part of the Eimeria species. They are called E intestinalis, E irresidua, E flavescens , E media , Eimeria magna, E perforans, and E stiedae. The parasites affect the intestines of rabbits with the exception of E stiedae which is known to affect the liver of infected rabbits.
Rabbits more susceptible to the disease are young kittens between the first and four months following their birth. Older rabbits appear to be more resistant to infections. The disease is transmitted once the parasitic oocysts have been passed in the faeces of the infected rabbit. Once this contaminated matter is ingested then the disease is transferred to this unaffected animal. This form of transmission is true for all the types mentioned above.
Affected animals may not show any signs or symptoms and so are asymptomatic. In some cases, however, rabbits may experience diarrhoea. The rabbit may also be depressed and lose weight. E stiedae is non-zoonotic which means it cannot be transmitted to humans. It is also species-specific.
Transmission of Coccidiosis in Rabbits
Coccidian parasites lay their eggs in the gut and these are released into the environment via the faeces of the infected animal. The eggs are known as oocysts. Transmission is faecal-oral which means it occurs when these contaminated faeces are ingested by the rabbit. Contaminated materials can include grass and other green vegetation, food, water, and bedding. Some rabbits can show no signs or symptoms but be carriers of the disease. Therefore, this increases the risk of infection.
It is between the period of the first and fourth day following defecation and thus excretion of the oocysts does it become infectious. Oocysts are able to survive and remain infectious for longer than even one year. This is dependent on the oocysts being in favourable conditions, that is to say a warm and humid environment.
Signs and Symptoms of Rabbits Infected with Coccidian Parasites
Some rabbits act only as carriers of this infectious disease and present no signs or symptoms to show that they are or have become infected. Rabbits tend to have more severe signs or symptoms as the number of coccidian parasites within them increases. The signs and symptoms can vary depending on whether the disease is a hepatic or an intestinal infection.
Other affected rabbits can lose their appetite and lose weight. They may also have diarrhoea which will be very soft, watery, or even jelly-like. Another suggested sign is a “pot-bellied” appearance as well as pain in the abdomen. The rabbit may become dehydrated and present signs of weakness. Some rabbits collapse when heavily infected with the coccidian parasites. Younger rabbits may experience stunted growth and poor coat condition. The intestinal forms of the disease are thought to be the most dangerous to the rabbit’s health as death is more likely.
Treatment of Coccidiosis in Rabbits
If the rabbit is suspected of this infection, the animal should be immediately taken to the vet for treatment. Sulphaquinoxaline used to be the main treatment for a coccidian infection although over the years the parasites have become resistant to it and so it is used much less or even not at all. Currently, it has been suggested that toltrazuril is a more effective medication to treat this disease. Secondary bacterial infections may need to be treated although care should be taken when using antibiotics with rabbits. Fluids may need to replace those lost and nutritional support can sometimes be necessary.
Infected animals should be isolated for a short period of time to prevent further transmission. The living quarters of the rabbits should be cleaned and disinfected. This is also true for bedding and feeding bowls. Overall, any faecal matter present should be removed and all objects which have had contact with the infected animal should be disinfected.
Prevention of Coccidian Infections in Rabbits
As is true for the majority of disease, maintaining a high level hygiene is a necessity when caring for rabbits. Oocysts thrive in warm and humid conditions so all bedding should ideally be kept dry and the area given adequate ventilation. Hutches and cages should be cleaned daily to reduce the risks of infection.
Food including hay and vegetables should be prevented from being eaten on surfaces such as the floor. Owners can use hay racks to place these foods in, thus reducing the risks of ingestion of contaminated material. If any faecal matter is present on food or in water sources, then it should be removed immediately. New animals introduced to the rabbit’s environment should be isolated and on occasion tested.
Diagnosis of Coccidiosis in Rabbits
Initially, diagnosis may include an observation of the signs or symptoms presented. This is not always simple as many rabbits provide no indication in this way that they are infected with the parasite. A medical history may be required of the animal and the area. Following this, the next step generally involves taking a sample of faeces and analysing them in order to find any signs of infection.
Prognosis for Rabbits with Coccidiosis
The prognosis for older rabbits tends to be good as they are generally more resistant to infection than their younger counterparts. It is relatively rare for rabbits to die following an infection of the hepatic form of the parasite although stunted growth is a possible effect of the disease. Generally, intestinal coccidiosis results in only mild infections. Despite this, it is more likely for rabbits to die from a severe form of this type of the disease than they are from the hepatic form.