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Rabbit fleas

Dog and cat owners are fully aware of the need to regularly treat their pets for fleas to prevent infestations, but do rabbits get fleas, how are they treated and should rabbits be given regular flea treatment like dogs and cats?

Your questions answered

Can rabbits get fleas?

Rabbits can become infested with fleas, but it seems less common than dogs and cats, possibly because rabbits don't readily mix with other animals as much as dogs and cats do. 

If you keep your rabbit in a hutch and get cats or other animals coming into your garden then they are potential carriers of fleas, which can be passed onto your rabbit.

House rabbits may also contract fleas if they come into contact with other animals in the household.

What are the common symptoms?

As with infestations in dogs and cats, rabbits will exhibit similar symptoms. Your rabbit may scratch excessively and even make themselves bleed with the excessive scratching and bald or thinning patches of fur may become apparent.

Commonly, you will notice black flecks in the fur (this may not be so obvious in dark coloured rabbits); this is flea dirt (droppings). Since the flea dirt is dried blood, if you brush some of the flecks onto a wet piece of cottonwool, they will turn red; this is diagnostic of fleas on your rabbit.

Unless the infestation is advanced, you are unlikely to see any live fleas on your rabbit.

What type of fleas are rabbits normally infected with?

The most common flea found on rabbits is Spilopsyllus cuniculi (the European rabbit flea) which is a common vector for myxomatosis.

Dog (Ctenocephalides canis) and cat fleas (Ctenocephalides felis) are also commonly found on pet rabbits.

Are fleas dangerous?

Generally speaking fleas themselves are not life-threatening. However, if your rabbit has a heavy flea infestation, it is possible for them to become anaemic through blood loss, which can be dangerous.

The itching and self-inflicted trauma from flea bites may also be particularly severe in some cases.

The most dangerous consequence of a rabbit contracting fleas is that they act as a vector (carrier) for an often fatal viral disease of rabbits called myxomatosis. Always ensure that your rabbit is up-to-date with their myxomatosis vaccinations (given every 6 months), even if they are a house rabbit.

Can I treat my rabbit for fleas?

Yes, fleas need to be treated as soon as possible as they lay larvae on the rabbit, carpet and other material items, and infestation can occur very quickly.

Flea treatments are a common concern for rabbit owners, but a variety of products are available to help prevent and treat rabbits infested with fleas. 

The best treatments are 'spot on' treatments, these are little pre-measured pipettes filled with the correct amount of drug according to the animal's weight. The treatment is applied directly onto the skin on the back of the neck, so that the rabbit cannot lick it off.

Products containing imidacloprid, selamectin or lufenuron are effective and deemed safe to use on rabbits.

Many flea powders are available, but they may contain ingredients dangerous for rabbits. Do not assume that these products are safe just because they are available from your local pet shop. Herbal treatment should also be treated with caution as some natural products contain chemicals such as pyrethrin, which can be lethal for rabbits.

Flea dips (baths) and shampoos aren't very effective and do little to get rid of infestations since the eggs of the adult fleas will hatch out after the rabbit has been treated, and the infestation will continue. The ingredients in the dip/shampoo may also be toxic for rabbits, and these treatments can be stressful for your rabbit, and probably you as well!

A flea comb can be used, but as a single approach this probably won't solve the problem completely.

Flea collars often contain chemicals that are dangerous to rabbits and there have also been suspected allergic reactions reported, so are not recommended.

Ensure you clean out your rabbit's hutch and run thoroughly and if your rabbit is a house rabbit, you will need to treat the house with a specially designed spray which is safe to use around rabbits. You will also need to wash all their bedding, toys, etc. Regular vacuuming or steam cleaning will also help reduce the risk of flea infestation.

Be warned.

Common flea treatments for cats and dogs, but must NOT be used on rabbits.

Products containing fipronil, commonly known as FrontlineTM, must NEVER be used on rabbits. Deaths have been reported after using this product on rabbits. 

If you have a house rabbit and treat your dog or cat with fipronil, make sure your rabbit doesn't come into contact with your dog or cat for several days following treatment.

Multi-rabbit households

If one rabbit in the household is infested with fleas, then it is best to treat all rabbits in the household, to ensure that the infestation is dealt with.

Rabbits and other animals

Prevention is the best approach to flea problems.

It is important to keep up-to-date with flea treatment protocols for dogs and cats within the household, even if your rabbit lives outside, since fleas jump! Over the counter remedies purchased from pet shops and supermarkets are often ineffective, so it is best to speak to your vet who will be able to advise you and prescribe you a suitable flea treatment for your dog and cat.

Remember to treat your house regularly with a specially designed spray, which again you can purchase from your vets.

Should I implement a flea treatment programme?

If you have dogs and cats and they are kept up-to-date with their preventative flea treatment, then you shouldn't need to regularly treat your rabbit for fleas. 

However, if you don't implement this, have wildlife and/or cats coming into your garden, then it may be best to speak to your vet about a flea treatment programme suitable for your rabbit.

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