Rabbit syphilis – manage the problem

Sometimes referred to as Vent Disease or Venereal Spirochetosis, rabbit syphilis is a bacterial disease caused by the spirochete Treponema cuniculi.

Posted: 07 March 2018

Rabbit syphilis – manage the problem

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Males and females are both affected. It’s primarily spread between rabbits by sexual contact, so the more a rabbit is bred, the more chance it has at becoming infected. It can also be spread by direct contact between young rabbits and an infected adult. Both males and females are affected.

This disease isn’t zoonotic.

What are the signs of syphilis?

  • Genital lesions – look for sores and crusts in the genital area. They’re initially red and inflammed, developing into vesicles, papules and ulcers.
  • Facial lesions – similar sores can be found on the nose, chin, mouth and around the eyes. This is as a result of the bacteria spreading by self-grooming.  Up to 1 in 5 rabbits will develop facial lesions.
  • Pain – the lesions are painful, so the animal may show signs of stress and discomfort.
  • Anorexia – the pain from the lesions will make the animal depressed and often reluctant to eat.
  • Abortion and metritis – a pregnant female is also at risk

If you’re presented with a rabbit with suspicious lesions around the genital or facial area, you need to be able to offer some practical advice. Below is our short guide to help you help your client.

10 ways to manage ‘Rabbit Syphilis’

  1. Isolation – it’s important to keep the patient away from other rabbits as soon as syphilis is suspected to prevent spread.
  2. Make a diagnosis – take skin scrapes and swabs from the lesions and submit for culture. A serology test is available, but a positive result only develops approximately 8-12 weeks after exposure.
  3. Antibiotics – Penicillin G (injectable only). Give 4-6 repeats at intervals of 5 to 7 days. Remember: never give oral penicillin to rabbits. Most other antibiotics are ineffective. Lesions usually heal within 10–14 days and recovered rabbits can be bred without danger of transmitting the infection.
  4. Analgesia – meloxicam works well (refer to literature for doses)
  5. Cleaning – keep the wounds clean and free from contaminants. De-sloughing gels applied to the wound will aid healing.
  6. House hygiene – remove and clean bedding and wash all surfaces that the animal has come into contact.
  7. Diet – good nutrition is essential to help the animal fight the disease. Plenty of good quality feeding hay. See our range of feeding hay.
  8. Exercise – make sure the owner is allowing their pet to exhibit all its natural behaviour patterns. Exercise, digging and burrowing are important and can be facilitated using a variety of hides, boxes and tunnels.
  9. Careful monitoring – the pain from the lesions can be quite stressful and debilitating. Rabbits are prone to a variety of secondary complications from stress, including gut stasis. It’s there important to guide the owner and ensure they check the animal is feeding, drinking, urinating, defecating and producing normal caecotrophs. Monitoring weight, body condition score and faecal pellet production are just some of the tools we can use to monitor the animals health and recovery.
  10. Beware – apparently healthy rabbits can be asymptomatic carriers.

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