Fur Loss and Skin Problems in Rabbits: Common Causes and Treatments
by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.
There are many reasons a rabbit can lose fur, some of them completely normal, and others a sign of health or behavior problems.
Normal Shedding: Proper Care
A healthy rabbit will usually change her coat twice a year. If all things are normal, the shed areas will regrow fur as the old coat falls out.
Some unfortunate rabbits seem to shed all the time. This may be due to inbreeding causing a problem with the normal genetic response to day length and other seasonal cues, or to too much artificial lighting disrupting the rabbit's normal Circadian rhythms. In any case, when your rabbit sheds, even during a normal shed cycle, there are certain things that you, the caregiver, can do to make sure the shed is uneventful and comfortable for your bunny.
When a fastidious self-grooming animal such as a rabbit undergoes a shedding cycle, it's almost inevitable that some fur is going to be swallowed. Although rabbits do not typically get "hairballs" (with the exception of some of the long-haired breeds), ingested hair can be difficult to pass, and can make the bunny uncomfortable. The goal of the rabbit caregiver should be to reduce the amount of ingested hair as much as possible.
Correct Diet Will Help Push Ingested Hair Through the Intestine
Intestinal motility problems arise when a rabbit does not eat sufficient rough fiber and does not drink enough liquid to keep the intestinal contents well hydrated. Dehydrated intestinal contents are prone to form desiccated, difficult-to-pass masses of food and hair, and the situation can be made worse if the bunny is shedding/molting.
During a molt, it's important that your bunny have free-choice, unlimited fresh grass hay, plenty of fresh, wet greens, and plenty of fresh, clean water to drink. A heavy, ceramic crock is better than a sipper water bottle, as a rabbit will usually drink more from a bowl, and in a more natural position. Hay, wet greens and water will all keep the intestinal contents well-hydrated and easy to pass, and the bunny far less likely to suffer from any intestinal irritation related to ingestion of hair.
Don't worry if you see your bunny leaving "strings of pearls": fecal pellets strung together with twists of fur. If the fur is coming out. then things are working fine, though you might want to do more grooming to reduce the amount of hair the bunny swallows. Here's how.
Grooming Off Loose Fur Will Help Prevent Fur Ingestion
Daily grooming will help prevent discomfort during a shed cycle. A soft-tipped, wire brush or small, very fine-toothed flea comb will help you gently comb out loose fur. Careful plucking of loose fur tufts is also fair play, though many bunnies will object, and need to be groomed on a secure surface where s/he can't run off in protest.
A good way to remove loose fur that's not tufting is the Wet Hand Rubdown. Moisten your hands, and gently rub the bunny backward and forward over the entire length of the body. Loose fur will stick to your moist hands and form a thick sheet. To remove the felt, simply rub your hands together to make a roll, throw it away, and repeat the procedure until your bunny's loose fur is mostly removed.
In some cases, a bunny will undergo what we call a "coat blow," shedding great clumps of fur all at once, and sometimes even leaving small bald patches. If the bunny is healthy, within a few days the bald patches will become pigmented, and then start to grow hair. If this doesn't happen, however, the fur loss may be due to one of several disease processes, and you should consult your trusted rabbit veterinarian for help in determining what the problem is, and how to appropriately treat it.
If you do not already have a veterinarian who is experienced and familiar with rabbit medicine, please use the House Rabbit Society Veterinarian Listing to find one near you.
Abnormal Fur LossFur loss associated with
- crusty appearance of the skin
- flaky skin/dandruff
- open sores or inflammation
- Parasite Infestations (fleas, lice, mites, fungus):
- Sarcoptes scabei or Chorioptes sp. (mange mites)
- Cheyletiella parasitivorax (fur mites) or Leporacus gibbus
- Psoroptes cuniculi (ear canker mites)
- Ornithonyssus spp. (Tropical Rat Mite or Feather Mite)
- Trixacarus caviae (Burrowing Mange Mite)
- Ringworm Fungus (Microsporum spp.)
- Saliva Burn (fur loss under the chin, on the dewlap, and on the chest )
- Urine Burn (fur loss on the hindquarters only)
- Bacterial Infection
- False Pregnancy
- Overgrooming by self or bunny partner
- Fighting among rabbits
- Hormone Imbalance
Fur loss can be caused by several different kinds of mites that can infest rabbits, including mange mites (Sarcoptes spp.), fur mites (Cheyletiella spp. and Leporacus spp.), and mites causing ear canker (Psoroptes spp. or Chorioptes spp.) and other problems (see below). A severe flea infestation also can cause such severe itching that the rabbit scratches off his own fur. Fortunately, there are excellent, modern medications available that are safe for rabbits, and will kill these parasites quickly, as described at the end of this section. rabbits.
Tropical Rat (and Pigeon) Mites
Found in both subtropical and temperate regions is the Tropical Rat Mite (Ornithonyssus bacoti ), which feasts on many mammals, including humans. These can be extremely itchy, but also can be killed with ivermectin or selamectin. Permanent eradication of these mites is more challenging than of those that live on rabbits: because Ornithonyssus mites live permanently on a primary host (rats, and sometimes pigeons), the problem of mite transmission to your rabbit or other companion animals will persist until the population of primary hosts is removed from your local environment.
Burrowing Mange Mite
Also worthy of mention is a nasty, though fairly uncommon (in rabbits) mite, the Burrowing Mange Mite (Trixacarus caviae ) that can cause extremely painful itching. These may be quite difficult to visualize, even with skin biopsy. Although they are more common in Guinea Pigs (in which they can cause fatal seizures) than rabbits, these mites have been rarely reported on rabbits. Rabbits affected with Trixacarus caviae may itch so badly that they become aggressive and sullen, while showing no apparent symptoms of illness other than scratching. Fortunately, treatment with selamectin will kill these nasty parasites, affording the rabbit relief within 24 hours of medication. We have heard of several cases in which a formerly sweet-natured rabbit (already neutered) became inexplicably vicious. Attending veterinarians could find nothing obviously wrong, but it was only treatment with selamectin that solved the problem and allowed the rabbit to become his old, sweet self again. A mite infestation was never confirmed, but the circumstantial evidence leads us to wonder.
Rabbit-Safe Remedies for Mites, Fleas, and Ticks
Almost any species of mite can be killed with topical application of selamectin (Revolution or Stronghold) from your veterinarian. An older, related drug, ivermectin. is also effective, but is injected, and does not last as long in the system as selamectin.
Even though they may be labeled for use in rabbits by the manufacturer, over-the-counter products such as permethrin or pyrethrin-containing flea powders or shampoos are NOT recommended. They are neither as safe nor as effective as the aforementioned medications.
Similarly, although mineral oil or topical ointments instilled in the ears are sometimes suggested as treatments for ear mites, they are not effective in the long term, and may
make things worse, if there is underlying infection. For this reason alone, it is wise to always seek the help of a rabbit-savvy veterinarian to treat any of the problems listed below, and not try to diagnose or treat them yourself.
DO NOT, under any circumstances, use Frontline (fipronil) on your rabbit! Although this flea control product is apparently safe for other species, it has been implicated in many rabbit deaths due to severe neurological side effects. Check the package labeling, and you will see that the manufacturer now states that their product should not be used on rabbits.
We have found selamectin to be the most effective medication for persistent flea and mite infestations, and particularly for fur mites. Mange-afflicted little Tyler--shown below as "before", "during" and "after" selamectin treatment below--would agree!
Fur loss due to this microorganism is usually patchy, characterized by relatively round bald patches with distinct edges. The skin may be only slightly irritated, sometimes with tiny, raised red spots. Ringworm can be treated with topical application of miconazole- or ketoconazole-containing creams from your veterinarian (Do not use over-the-counter preparations for humans! These have not been formulated for use on an animal that grooms itself.). Fungal infections also can be treated with Program (lufenuron), which inhibits the formation of chitin (an important structural component of the fungus' cell walls). Always consult your veterinarian for the most appropriate medication for your rabbit's condition.
Other Possible Causes of Fur Loss
Parasites are not the only reason your rabbit may be losing fur. Here are some other possibilities.
Fur Loss Around the Mouth and Under the Chin: Dental Problems!
In some rabbits, fur loss is restricted to the area just under the chin, in the folds of the dewlap (the fleshy flap of skin and tissue under the skin), or down the chest. Often, but not always, the fur and/or skin there will be wet. In many, but not all cases, the rabbit will also develop suddenly picky eating habits. These can vary greatly among individuals, with some rabbits being willing to eat pellets, but not hay, others eating hay but not pellets, some refusing to drink, and still others refusing everything but the most favorite treats. In short, any change in eating preferences is usually a good enough reason for a dental exam by an experienced rabbit vet.
Signs like this are almost surely due to molar spurs or other dental problems such as a molar abscess. These will make the bunny drool. Since saliva is caustic, it burns the skin, making the wet area itchy and sore, and causing the fur to fall out. Some rabbits will actually chew at the irritated area so much that they develop open sores.
Although just about any rabbit can get molar spurs and other dental problems, they are more prevalent in short-faced breeds such as lops and dwarf rabbits, as well as in rabbits five years or older.
The solution to this problem is to find a very experienced rabbit vet who can do a deep oral exam to detect any molar spurs (some sensitive rabbits will show these signs even from very small spurs), and file them smooth, as necessary. If no spurs are visible, then head radiographs may be necessary to see if there are any signs of tooth rooth infection or other mouth problem that's causing the bunny to drool.
Fur loss around the rear end and belly: Urine Burn
In some rabbits, fur loss is restricted to the area between the hind legs, around the tail, and sometimes up the belly and onto the feet. If there is no fur loss anywhere else on the body, then the possibility that a urinary tract problem (e.g. urinary tract infection, bladder sludge, bladder stone) causing urine leakage should be considered. It is important to learn a little about specific urinary tract disorders in rabbits. so that you will know what questions to ask your veterinarian.
Like saliva, urine is caustic. If it collects in the fur, it will burn the underlying skin, causing fur to fall out and the skin to become red and raw. While the veterinarian is sorting out the cause of the urine leakage, and while medications are starting to do their work, you can keep your bunny comfortable and start the skin healing and fur growing back with a safe way to administer a rinse and/or dry Bunny Butt Bath. A rabbit should never be bathed completely, as this can cause so much stress as to be life-threatening. But a badly urine-burned behind must be gently cleansed, dried and protected so that the pain doesn't elicit worse problems, such as GI slowdown, or ileus.
Rabbits living in warm, humid climates are particularly susceptible to bacterial skin infections, since they often cannot stay sufficiently dry. Moisture (from rain or just from atmospheric humidity) collects in the fur, especially around the hindquarters, just above the tail and the backs of the thighs where the rabbit cannot easily reach, and the skin becomes friable, stinky, and dangerously prone to deadlyi myasis (fly strike).
The best way to prevent this is to keep your rabbit in a dry habitat, and if your bunny is outdoors, to constantly check for signs of skin irritation due to too much moisture. Fly strike can occur and develop so quickly that missing fly eggs laid on bacteria-laden skin and fur can become a life-threatening situation in as little as twelve hours.
If your vet diagnoses bacterial skin infection, the bunny may need to be shaved down over the affected areas, and appropriate medications administered, preferably guided by the results of a culture and sensitivity test to see which rabbit-safe antibiotic will be most effective against the particular pathogen your bunny has.
Nest building due to false (or real) pregnancy
If your bunny is female and unspayed, you may witness her pulling tufts of fur from her chest, belly and sides, then rushing off to line a nest she's made of household items (such as the stuffing of your couch and pillows). If there's no way your bunny could be pregnant except by Immaculate Conception, then she's having a false pregnancy. This means it's time to have her spayed to avoid the risk of uterine cancer, mammary cancer, and other health problems associated with an intact female reproductive system that's not being used.
If your bunny is actually pregnant, please see our section on how to care for a surprise litter of babies. and how to avoid this in the future.
Overgrooming by a bonded companion
You'll have to catch them in the act to determine whether this is the cause. Overgrooming is not a normal behavior, and can be a sign of boredom. Try letting your bonded bunnies have more free running time, or provide them with a variety of new toys to distract them from the grooming behavior, and break the cycle. It's important that your rabbits have a large enough running space so that the groomee can get away from the attentions of the groomer if s/he wishes to do so.
Tufting/fighting among rabbits
If you have a group of rabbits living together, there's always the possibility that they're having turf wars while you're not there. Check the bunny for any scabs or cuts. These would be an indication that there's fighting going on when you're not watching.
If the bunnies are fighting, it's important to have them all spayed and neutered. for their health and longevity, and your peace of mind. Severe fighting should be absolutely prevented, as serious injuries can result, not to mention permanent hatred between the warring bunnies. For tips on how to bond bunnies and how to mend broken bunny bonds, please read this information from the House Rabbit Society.