Myxomatosis is a terrible and usually fatal viral disease of rabbits. It is present throughout the wild rabbit population and is easily transmitted to their domestic cousins.
What causes it?
Myxomatosis is caused by the Myxoma virus, which is a member of the poxvirus family – it is quite closely related to smallpox. The virus mutates quite easily, so in some years outbreaks are more severe than in others. The virus was deliberately released in the UK in the 1950s in an attempt to control the wild rabbit population.
It is highly contagious, and particularly deadly because it can hide from most rabbits’ immune systems, meaning that it can replicate and spread throughout their system unhindered.
How is it spread?
The virus can be spread via biting insects (such as mosquitoes and Cheyletiella fur mites); it can also be spread directly from rabbit to rabbit via fluid droplets. As a result, any contact between wild and domestic rabbits is risky. The virus may also be able to survive for a period of time on food bowls, water drinkers, hutch walls, and even human skin or clothing, so it is vital to keep your garden or hutch rabbit proof to prevent unwanted intruders! It’s also really important to wash your hands and change your clothes before fussing your own rabbit if you’ve had any dealings with wild ones.
What are the symptoms?
There are three different syndromes that can be caused by the virus.
Of these, by far the most common is Classical Myxomatosis. This results in a painful and relatively slow death; the typical symptoms include (usually in sequence):
- Runny eyes
- Swelling of the eyes and genitals
- Nodular swellings on the head and (sometimes) body
- Discharge of pus from eyes and nose
- Death, which usually occurs once clinical signs appear; however, infected rabbits may linger for up to a week
There are also two atypical forms of the disease. Respiratory Myxomatosis causes pneumonia and is usually rapidly fatal, sometimes presenting as sudden death. On the other hand, Nodular Myxomatosis is much less severe, and usually causes sore eyes and skin swellings only. If a vaccinated rabbit is unlucky enough to contract the disease, they will usually only develop the Nodular form.
Can humans be infected?
Technically yes, the virus can infect human cells. However, it cannot cause disease, because it cannot hide from the human immune system, or replicate inside human cells, so is eliminated from the body very rapidly.
Can it be treated?
It depends on which form is present:
- Respiratory Myxomatosis cannot be treated and is almost universally fatal.
- Classical myxomatosis causes severe and prolonged suffering; in addition, the chances of recovery even with intensive care and aggressive treatment is very low. As a result, it is usually unethical to even attempt it.
- Nodular Myxomatosis, however, can be treated with antibiotics (against secondary bacterial infections), pain relief, bathing of the eyes and any sores, and intensive care nursing.
Is there any way to prevent it?
Yes, there is a highly effective vaccine – it is our opinion that all domestic rabbits in the UK are at risk (including house rabbits), and therefore all rabbits should be vaccinated.