Pet rabbits & your health

The RWA Rabbit Health Liaison team regularly handle queries about inter-species disease risks. Typical questions include "what can my rabbit catch from the dog?" (answer – fleas!) or “are rabbits dangerous to pregnant women?" (answer – no!)

However, since media reports (21st August 2006) of a young farmer’s death from Pasteurella multocida septicaemia, the RWA has handled a series of queries from people asking if they can catch Pasteurella from their pet rabbit.

Go directly to information about Pasteurella multocida.

This article contains information about pet rabbits & your health (including some information on Pasteurella). We're going to run through some of the various problems that we can share with our pets, and our pets can share with each other... and also clear up a few misconceptions.

Firstly – there really is no need to panic!

When people talk about "health hazards" from pets, everyone thinks first and foremost of diseases. From this point of view, pet rabbits are brilliant, and for the most part do not pose a significant disease hazard to humans.

However, keeping bunnies is not totally risk free. Problems do sometimes arise - usually not from diseases, but from allergies, which are the most significant "health hazard" from pet rabbits.

• Allergies

Rabbits need constant access to hay (or kiln-dried grass) to maintain their health, but this can cause problems for humans suffering from hay fever type allergies. There's also a risk of becoming allergic to the rabbit itself, as rabbit fur can trigger allergies over a period of time.

Hence - especially if your rabbit lives indoors - it is advisable to take steps to reduce the allergen exposure to yourself and your family. For example, feed only high quality, dust-free hay, or use a kiln-dried grass. Keep sections of the house (especially bedrooms) rabbit-free zones, to ensure that you are not constantly bombarded with allergens, and vacuum regularly using a machine with a high quality filter. Groom your rabbit regularly to reduce the amount of dead fur flying round the house and, if you do start to react to rabbit fur, consider using products such as Petalcleanse. This is a wipe on, wipe off lotion that is applied weekly (to your rabbit, not you!) and reduces allergens on the rabbit’s fur.

• Bites and scratches

These are the next "hazard" on the list from bunnies. Although these injuries can be painful, they rarely become infected, and usually heal rapidly. However, it is always sensible to clean any bite/scratch thoroughly (soap and water is fine) as soon as possible; to cover any breaks in the skin before handling animals or meat; and to seek medical advice if any signs of infection (e.g. redness spreading out from the wound) develop.

What you can (perhaps, maybe, possibly…) catch from your pet rabbit

Catching an illness from a pet rabbit is so far down the list of hazards that it can, for the most part, be forgotten about. There are a few exceptions, but there is definitely no need to lose sleep worrying about catching a bug from the humble pet rabbit. In fact, we have had to seriously scrape the barrel to gather enough material on diseases to construct this article!

Diseases that humans can catch from animals are called "zoonoses". There are a few zoonoses reported from pet rabbits, but nothing really significant to normal healthy people.

Cheyletiella fur mites are commonly seen in pet rabbits; this condition is often known as ‘walking dandruff’. They can cause a mild rash in humans. However, we've yet to hear of a rabbit owner actually being affected. In any case, the rash on the person goes away when the rabbit is treated.

The bacteria Pasteurella multocida (one of the possible causes of snuffles, a chronic respiratory illness causing sneezing and nasal discharge) lurks in the mouth and nasal passages of many rabbits. Theoretically, this could lead to a Pasteurella wound infection if a rabbit bites a human, but in reality it is quite unusual for rabbit bites to become infected at all. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, bites from omnivorous or carnivorous animals are far more likely to become infected than those from a vegetarian bunny: cat bites are notoriously high risk for becoming infected, due to bacteria such as Pasteurella. Secondly, rabbits’ teeth are chisel-shaped, and rabbit bite wounds are wider at the top than the bottom, which encourages healthy healing. Nevertheless, it is always sensible to thoroughly clean any bite or scratch with soap and water as soon as possible, and ensure that tetanus immunisations are up to date.

Tetanus

Five tetanus immunisation injections are currently considered to offer lifelong protection against tetanus from low-risk injuries such as cuts and scratches. Hence, very few people actually need a booster when they cut themselves – most young adults in the UK have had 5 jabs. Children who are up to date with their immunisations are covered too. If you don’t know how many tetanus immunisations you’ve had in total, it’s worth checking with your GP, so you know whether you need to get a booster if you do cut yourself or get scratched by your bunny! For further information see http://www.immunisation.org.uk/

 

Another respiratory tract bacteria that can cause "snuffles" – Bordetella bronchiseptica - is sometimes found in healthy rabbits. This species of bacteria causes kennel cough in dogs, and is related to Bordetella pertussis, which produces whooping cough in humans. There are reports of B. bronchiseptica causing a mild, self-limiting coughing illness in humans, but only the severely immunocompromised need be concerned.

Rabbits can get fleas, which can then bite humans. The true rabbit flea is rarely found in pet rabbits, unless outdoor bunnies have come into contact with wild rabbits. Cat or dog fleas are much more common, so it should be no surprise that cats and dogs are the source of most rabbit flea infestations! Multi-species households need a multi-species flea control strategy, and this is much easier now that products are available specifically licensed for dogs, cats and rabbits. Never use flea control products that are not licensed for use in rabbits – some dog/cat flea treatments can kill bunnies.

Ringworm - which is actually a fungal infection, not a worm - can be passed from rabbit to human, but a companion bunny is probably more likely to catch ringworm from its owner.

Tularaemia, meanwhile, is a rare plague-like illness that is carried by wild rabbits in Europe and North America. It can be severe and sometimes fatal, but it's not going to bother pet rabbit owners - tularaemia is basically a hazard for those who hunt or handle wild rabbits.

Theoretically, salmonella, listeria and pseudotuberculosis can be passed from rabbits to humans, but the risk is vanishingly small and you are far more likely to catch these diseases via your food.

Overall, then, most rabbit owners don't need to worry about catching illnesses from their pet bunnies. However, there are exceptions. People who are very severely immunocompromised (e.g. due to chemotherapy; long term steroids; or AIDS) need to take extra care around animals (and people!) as their immune system may not be strong enough to protect them from infections that most people would just shrug off. Contact between immunocompromised humans and sick pets is particularly hazardous. Pet owners with medical conditions that seriously affect immune function should talk to their doctor and/or their vet for more specific advice.

For example, the rabbit parasite E cuniculi can cause problems in severely immunocompromised people. So, if you have a pet rabbit and also suffer a health problem that seriously depresses your immune system, you may want to talk to both your physician (to see if your particular type of immunodeficiency makes you particularly vulnerable to parasitic infections) and your vet (to see whether your rabbit should be treated to eliminate the parasite). If the answer to both questions is yes, your rabbits can be blood-tested for evidence of past exposure to E cuniculi and – if positive - treated with anti-parasitic drugs. This strategy will protect you both from the same potential health hazard.


… and what you can't catch from your rabbit

Toxoplasmosis is caused by a protozoal parasite, which can infect most mammalian species, including rabbits. Toxoplasmosis infection is a particular concern to pregnant women, because it poses a significant hazard to unborn children. Humans become infected by eating undercooked meat from infected animals, or by contact with cat faeces in litter trays or, (more commonly) contaminated garden soil. However, cats are the only species capable of spreading the disease when alive. This is why pregnant women are advised not to handle cat litter trays, or to wear gloves if they must do so.

Rabbit faeces are not a source of infection and live rabbits cannot spread toxoplasmosis. As the readers of this website are unlikely to consume their pet bunnies (!) toxoplasmosis can be crossed off the list of zoonoses that can be acquired from pet rabbits. Similarly, although rabbits can become infected with various species of tapeworms (see below), humans can only catch tapeworms from rabbits by eating them, so again, not an issue for the pet rabbit owner.

Rabbit litter trays pose no specific hazard to pregnant women, though standard hygiene precautions should always be taken and hands washed after dealing with rabbit urine and faeces.

Coccidiosis - another protozoal parasitic infection - can also be dismissed as a human health concern. The species of coccidia found in rabbits are species specific and should not infect humans. A similar parasite, cryptosporidium, can affect both rabbits and humans (it causes a diarrhoeal illness) and theoretically spread from bunny to human. However, this is unlikely - you are more likely to catch cryptosporidium from inadequately treated domestic water supplies, or when travelling abroad.

Viral haemorrhagic disease and myxomatosis - two deadly viral diseases pet rabbits ought to be vaccinated against - do not affect humans.

What your rabbit can catch from you

We're not aware of many diseases that rabbits can catch from humans (we have already mentioned ringworm) but whether this is because diseases don't pass from human to rabbit, or whether it is because we don't recognise or look for them, remains to be seen.

One recently recognised hazard that most rabbit owners will not be aware of is that rabbits are highly susceptible to herpes simplex virus or HSV, which causes cold sores in humans. HSV can cause a nasty brain infection (encephalitis) in rabbits, with features such as sudden head tilt and loss of balance that could mimic a dramatic middle ear infection, or E. cuniculi related problems. HSV infection is well studied in laboratory rabbits, but there are now at least two reports in the literature of previously healthy pet rabbits who have developed HSV encephalitis at the same time their owners had cold sores. We don't know yet how significant this risk is, but until more information is available, we would advise rabbit owners with an active cold sore to wash their hands before handling their rabbit and definitely not to kiss the bunny until the cold sore has gone.

What your rabbit can catch from other animals

As far as we are aware, parasites are the main hazard to your rabbit from other animals. Within the household, cats and dogs can bring home fleas to leap onto your rabbit (and you!). An integrated flea control strategy is recommended for multi-species households, and your local veterinary practice is the best place to go for advice, as they can supply more effective treatments than are available in pet shops and supermarkets. Always use products that are specifically licensed for use on rabbits as well as dogs and cats – deaths have been reported in rabbits following the use of some dog/cat flea treatments (e.g. Frontline).

Green food collected from fields and grass verges can be a source for worm infections. Various intestinal worms can be acquired from green food contaminated by wild rabbit droppings.

Tapeworms can be acquired if rabbits eat vegetation contaminated with carnivore faeces, usually fox droppings, although domestic dogs and cats are a possible source of transmission too. Rabbits are an ‘intermediate host’ for tapeworm infection - the worms cannot complete their lifecycle in the rabbit, hence rabbits cannot pass on tapeworm infections except by being eaten - but infected bunnies may develop tapeworm cysts in the skin (which may not pose much of a problem) or liver (which can be very serious). If you do collect green food from outside your garden (or if wild animals come into your garden) - do wash them thoroughly before use. Similarly, ensure that any dogs and cats you own are wormed regularly, particularly if they scavenge or hunt, for the protection of both you and your bunny!

What your rabbit can give to other animals

Just as pet rabbits don't pose a significant hazard to you, they are pretty harmless to other animals too. One exception may be guinea pigs, which (theoretically) are susceptible to serious respiratory problems if they catch Bordetella bronchiseptica. We don't recommend keeping rabbits and guinea pigs together in the first place as there is a very real risk of injury (usually to the guinea pig) but if you already have a rabbit/piggy pair living together happily, don't separate them.

There are two certainties in both human and veterinary medicine: there's no such word as "never", and advice changes as information becomes available. We have brought you the most up to date information we could find, but cannot accept responsibility for any harm that may result if we turn out to be wrong. However, we're only saying this because we would be daft not to..... we don't want to be sued in twenty years time if someone catches a disease from a rabbit that we don't even know exists at the time of writing! We share our homes with our rabbits just like you do, and as we said at the start.... don't lose any sleep! Being realistic…. contact with our fellow humans is far, far more hazardous than bunnies will ever be!

This article first appeared in "Rabbiting On" in Spring 2004.It was revised and updated by Dr Linda Dykes in August 2006. © Linda Dykes/RWA 2006

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