Thursday 20 October 2016

My balding rabbit suffered from 'walking dandruff'

A severe case of dandruff turned out to be caused by a microscopic parasite

As you can see from the photo, Cloud is a large, healthy-looking pet rabbit. Joanne has read plenty of online advice about the best way to care for rabbits, and she is doing everything right.

Cloud doesn't live on his own: rabbits are social creatures, so Joanne has a friend for him, TJ. Both rabbits are male, and they have both been neutered to prevent them from fighting. As a result, they are good friends.

They have both been vaccinated, so they are protected against myxomatosis and viral haemorrhagic disease, viruses that otherwise can cause unexpected sudden death in pet rabbits.

The rabbits have a hutch as a night-time sleeping place, but they are allowed to roam around the garden in the daytime, ensuring that they get plenty of exercise (obesity is common in rabbits that are permanently confined to their hutch).

Finally, Joanne feeds her rabbits on the ideal diet, with plenty of fibre: a combination of complete nuggets with access to plenty of grass (in summer) or hay (in winter).

She is careful to monitor her rabbits' health and behaviour, and last month, noticed Cloud was sitting out in the rain.

This is not unusual: he enjoys being outside on damp days, but Joanne is always careful to dry him afterwards, so that he doesn't get chilled.

She uses a towel and then blow dries him with a hair drier. He enjoys having this done, turning around and grooming himself happily as she dries his fur.

On this occasion, as she was drying him, Joanne noticed that he had several bald areas of skin around the base of his tail.

Some of these areas looked red and sore, and when Joanne watched him later on, she noticed him nibbling at himself more than usual.

She checked his fur and thought that he had more dandruff than normal, so she decided to bring him to see me.

When I examined Cloud, I agreed that his skin was much more scaly than normal, but simple dandruff should not be enough to cause the baldness and itchiness.

I collected some of the flaky scales on a comb, then examined them under the high-power magnification of a microscope.

When I did this, I could see that the "dandruff" was actually a form of skin mite known as "walking dandruff", or to give it the correct name, cheyletiella. This is a common external parasite of rabbits, and it is known to cause itchiness and baldness.

The mite spreads easily from one rabbit to another, but the odd thing was that Cloud and TJ never meet other rabbits, so how could they have picked up a parasite?

It is impossible to know for sure, but the most likely source must be the straw bedding or hay that Joanne buys for them.

Treatment is simple: first, both rabbits needed to be treated for mites. I did this by giving them each an injection, although it's also possible to treat them using a spot-on product designed for rabbits.

Two treatments are needed, two weeks apart, to ensure that the mites are eradicated.

Second, Joanne had to carry out a thorough clean-out of the rabbits' living quarters, removing all hay, straw and sawdust, so that there is no chance of mites re-infesting.


I advised Joanne that cheyletiella can also affect humans, but if anyone in the household had a rash, the problem would probably resolve once the rabbits were treated.

When I saw Cloud for his follow-up injection two weeks later, the "dandruff" had cleared up, and new fur was already growing in to the bald areas.

Cloud and TJ are back to full health, and thanks to Joanne's careful attention, they are likely to continue to stay healthy for some time into the future.

> Rabbits can suffer from skin mites known as 'walking dandruff'

> Treatment involves injections or spot-on liquids

> All rabbits living in the same group need to be treated.

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