Cancer of the uterus (or womb) is very common in rabbits; in fact, it is probably the single most common tumour in rabbits even though it affects only females. It is usually highly aggressive and rapidly spreads to other abdominal organs and into the lungs.
Essentially, being a female rabbit! Evolution has equipped rabbits with the capacity to breed fantastically fast, but in doing so, the female reproductive tract is so “overactive” that the uterine wall undergoes metaplasia (cells changing form) and then neoplasia (formation of tumours). The most common is an aggressively malignant uterine adenocarcinoma.
Any unneutered female rabbit. Statistically, about 4% 80% of does will have uterine tumours by the age of 2 years, rising to 80% at 6 years. Overall, we’d expect 60% of ALL unneutered female rabbits over 3 years of age to have tumours in their uterus. It doesn’t seem to matter whether they’ve been bred or not, or what breed they are, the risk appears to be linked to age, not reproductive function.
Once the tumour grows large enough, it will definitely cause symptoms; typically, these include bloody urine, a discharge of blood from the vulva, weight loss and sometimes abdominal swelling (due to the tumour growing). If the tumour spreads to the lungs, coughing, wheezing and difficulty breathing may be apparent, but usually there are no signs immediately.
An ultrasound scan will often identify an abnormal mass in or on the uterus; the presence of a tumour can then be confirmed by exploratory surgery. Secondary tumours in the lungs can only usually be detected with an X-ray, but they may not be visible until they have grown to a significant size (so a “clear” X-ray doesn’t mean there aren’t microtumours in the lungs that are too small to see yet).
Yes, very simply – spay all female rabbits not required for breeding as soon as possible after puberty (usually, at about 5-6 months of age). No uterus = no uterine tumours. Other than this, there are no lifestyle modifications or treatments known that will prevent or slow down the growth of the tumours.
RHD, or Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease, is a serious and usually fatal infection of rabbits. It is also known as VHV (Viral Haemorrhagic Disease), and sometimes RCV (Rabbit Calicivirus), and there are two variants – RHD1 (which usually causes sudden death) and RHD2 (a newer variant which has only relatively recently been recognised).
RHD is caused by a type of virus called a calicivirus, that is shed by infected and (although it’s rare) any who manage to survive the infection. The virus is immune to freezing, and stays stable at room temperature for over 3 months (and longer if it’s cold weather). As a result, it can easily be spread from infected wild rabbits to domestic pets, and even to house rabbits, with the virus particles being carried on people’s shoes, clothes and even skin. Rabbits that are lucky enough to recover can usually be expected to shed the virus for 6 weeks or longer.
The most common symptom of RHD1 is sudden death – rabbits that appear healthy may suddenly drop dead from the infection without showing any other signs. Sometimes, a rabbit survives longer, and then they will be depressed and lethargic, have a fever, and bleed from the nose or mouth. Very occasionally, a rabbit will recover, but this is unusual. RHD2 is much more variable – sudden death (sometimes with and sometimes without bleeding) is sometimes seen, but more often the rabbit will be ill for several days, perhaps even a week or more, before succumbing. This, of course, dramatically increases the risk that other rabbits will become infected because as long as they are alive, they’ll be spreading the virus.
The clinical signs are characteristic, but not strictly speaking enough for a certain diagnosis. Unfortunately, in most cases the only way to confirm a diagnosis of RHD is by post-mortem examination, because these rabbits do not usually survive long. In living rabbis, blood samples can be sent away for virus isolation testing.
There is no treatment for RHD1 or RHD2 – most rabbits will die; those that survive do so because their immune system is able to meet and defeat the virus. In most cases, we would strongly recommend that infected rabbits are put to sleep on welfare grounds, and to prevent further rabbits becoming infected. If a rabbit has a very mild case, it is possible to attempt supportive treatment with fluid therapy and anti-inflammatory drugs, but the risk of complications is high.
Yes – there are vaccines available for RHD1 and (now) RHD2. It is essential, however, that these vaccines are kept up to date, as immunity does reduce over time. In addition, you can minimise the risk of infection by keeping your rabbits isolated from wild ones (as well as birds and rodents that can carry the virus), for example, in a secure double walled hutch, or as a house-rabbit. However, as there is always a risk of bringing the virus into the house, unless you are able to institute full biosecurity precautions (such as foot dips and changing clothes whenever you visit your rabbits), this alone will not be 100% effective, so we would still recommend vaccination.
There are a number of different health and behavioural conditions that entire buck (male) and doe (female) rabbits suffer from that can be avoided (or at least minimised) by neutering. In general, a neutered rabbit is actually a happier rabbit… and there are less of them too!
(1) Population control. Rabbits breed like, well rabbits! In an ideal situation (unlimited food, no predators), in just seven years, a pair of rabbits could produce as many as 184 billion descendants! Of course, such a situation cannot exist in nature – so most of those bunnies would die of starvation or disease. Not only is a neutered rabbit unable to breed, but they lack the desire to – and as a result, it isn’t necessary to separate them.
(2) Increasing wellbeing. If you keep a buck with a doe, they’ll breed incessantly (see above…). However, if you keep a pair of does together, they’ll usually fight; and a pair of bucks will fight so much they’ll often kill each other. You may be able to keep two sisters or two brothers in the same pen, but not always. However, if you separate them, they usually pine – rabbits are social animals who need to live in groups. A neutered pair, however, of either sex, usually get along just fine, as the hormones that drive aggression are lost along with their ovaries or testicles.
(3) Avoiding behavioural problems. Aggressive does and bucks are known to attack people; bucks may also attempt to mount any animal that comes their way (including guinea pigs and even cats). Additionally, entire rabbits tend to urine-spray. These are all generally undesirable behaviours that can be minimised or eliminated with neutering.
(4) Preventing disease. This is really the clinching factor. While entire bucks tend to have a shorter lifespan than their neutered brothers, it’s the does where this is a MASSIVE issue. Approximately 80% of entire does will develop uterine cancer by 5 years of age; this can be a fatal condition as it is usually malignant. Once neutered, this risk disappears; and the risk of mammary (breast) cancer is also dramatically reduced.
Well, it is true that surgery in rabbits is a bit more tricky than surgery in dogs or cats. However, the “Bad Old Days” when an operation on a rabbit was dicing with death are well and truly behind us. Almost all modern practices are experienced with rabbit surgery and anaesthesia, and have very high safety standards – so while there is always a surgical risk, it’s a lot lower than it used to be, and definitely is not a reason to avoid surgery.
In bucks, the procedure is called castration, and involves the surgical removal of both testicles. It’s relatively straightforward, although the open inguinal rings mean that we are especially careful in closing the surgical wound, to prevent a hernia developing. We’d usually recommend neutering at 4-5 months of age, and the rabbit will be in for the day and go home the same evening, with skin glue rather than stitches and two empty pouches between his back legs. However, it’s important to keep him away from does post-op, as he may still have a few sperm “”in storage”” for up to six weeks!
In does, the procedure is called a “”spay””, or an “”ovariohysterectomy””. It involves the surgical removal of both ovaries and the uterus; and isn usually carried out ata bout 5-6 months old. We usually clip a patch on the belly, and make an incision along the midline; this is, again, closed with glue to minimise nibbling!
If you want to be kept up to date after dropping your rabbit in with us, please feel free to call us! However, we would always try and keep you informed, so you should give us a mobile or daytime number so we can call you to let you know how your bunny’s doing.
Complications are very rare, usually just some local bruising and swelling. Occasionally, there may be wound breakdown or infection that needs management, but in most cases this can be done on an outpatient basis with antibiotics and perhaps dressing changes in the practice.
A neutered rabbit lives a longer, happier and healthier life. As a result, we STRONGLY advise neutering on humane and population grounds, unless you specifically want to keep a rabbit for breeding purposes.
Vaccination is a way of teaching the immune system how to fight a disease. It is a vital component in keeping your rabbit safe, happy and healthy. Vaccination gives excellent protection and is very, very safe.
The two major infectious diseases of rabbits are both nasty, and both are killers. Unvaccinated rabbits have virtually no chance agaisnt Myxi or VHD – if infected (by virus brought in on hay, or caught from wild rabbits and their fleas, or even carried on your shoes), they will almost certainly die.
Vaccination is a very, very safe procedure for rabbits, and side effects are almost always very minor (usually developing a local swelling, or being a bit “off colour” for a day or so). Very occasionally, rabbits may develop an allergic-type reaction, but this is really rare.
Without vaccination, the rabbit has to actually contract the disease before they can learn how to fight it – and for most, that’s too late. A vaccine contains a weakened form of the disease (either dead, weakened through the way it’s processed, or genetically modified not to cause disease) that the immune system can recognise, but that is very, very unlikely to cause the full-blown and fatal disease. However, the protection that a vaccine gives doesn’t last indefinitely – after a while, the “memory” (carried by T-memory cells) declines, so a booster is needed to “top up” their cover. In most cases, this is required annually. While a vaccinated rabbit may occasionally contract disease (especially with Myxomatosis), the disease will be less severe, and treatment will have a chance of saving them, unlike the situation in a vaccinated bunny.
There are three rabbit vaccinations currently available in the UK:
(1) Myxomatosis. This virus attacks the skin and the mucous membranes causing swelling and disharge of the eyes, mouth, nose, anus and genitals. It is almost invariably fatal in unvaccinated rabbits, which often take several weeks to die.
(2) Rabbit Viral Heamorrhagic Disease. This virus breaks down the blood vessels, so affected bunnies rapidly bleed to death. There is no effective treatment and death is almost completely certain once symptoms appear. There is a vaccine for VHD Type 1 in the UK; the Type 2 virus vaccine is also available now although it can occasionally be hard to get hold of. We are hoping for a licensed 1 & 2 vaccine in the UK in the near future!