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Myxomatosis in Rabbits

A special Edition for Rabbit Awareness Week


MYXOMATOSIS, or Myxo, as it is commonly known is a highly contagious, often fatal disease which affects rabbits. It is life-threatening and unfortunately, few rabbits survive if they have not been vaccinated against it.

It is a man-made disease which was discovered in a laboratory in 1896, its purpose was to control the rabbit population and protect crops. It was first field tested in Australia in 1938, with the first full scale release in the early 1950’s.

Its release was devastatingly effective and reduced the estimated rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million in two years. Genetic resistance was observed soon after the first release and descendants of the survivors developed partial immunity in the first two decades. Resistance has been slowly increasing since the 1970’s and the disease now kills approximately 50% of infected rabbits.

In an attempt to increase that rate, a second virus (rabbit calicivirus) was introduced into the rabbit population in 1996.

The disease reached the United Kingdom in 1953. The first outbreak to be officially confirmed was in Kent. It was encouraged in the UK as an effective rabbit control measure, this was done by placing sick rabbits in burrows. As a result, it is understood that 99% of rabbits in the UK were killed by this outbreak, although populations soon recovered, and the practice is now illegal.

Myxomatosis was deliberately introduced to Ireland by Farmers in 1954. The skin of a diseased rabbit had been sent by post from the United Kingdom and then rubbed on healthy rabbits. These rabbits were then transported to every part of the country and by the 1955, myxomatosis had spread to every part of Ireland. By the 1960’s the rabbit meat industry had collapsed.

Whilst wild rabbits have developed a resistance, some deadly strains still exist which can be fatal to both wild and domestic bunnies. Most rabbit die within 14 days of encountering the disease, however some cases report that it can be as quick as 48 hours.

How Do Rabbits Catch Myxo?

Whilst it can no longer be deliberately placed into the environment as a population control tool, rabbits can still catch myxo by direct contact with other rabbits who are infected and by mosquitos and fleas that have previously bitten an infected animal. There is a strong suspicion that midges and mites can also pass on the disease.


Symptoms may include:

  • Swelling of the ears, nose, mouth and genitals,
  • Conjunctivitis and milky discharge from the eyes
  • Purulent (pus) discharge from the nose
  • Inappetence and loss of appetite (not eating)
  • Lethargy
  • Fever
  • Lesions and small skin tumours

There is no cure for this virus and your vet will be able to determine the best course of treatment; euthanasia may be recommended to alleviate suffering.

Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Viral Disease

(RVHD), also knows as Rabbit Haemorrhagic Disease (RHD) OR Rabbit Calici Virus (RCD) is another extremely serious, life threatening disease of domestic and wild rabbits – it causes internal bleeding and death.

There are two strains, both of which are highly contagious and survival rate is extremely low.

  • RVHD1 – introduced in the 1980’s
  • RVHD2 – this is the newest strain and has only recently been recognised in the UK.

Prevention is Protection


Rabbits can be vaccinated from 5 weeks of age and will then require a yearly booster. The injection can protect them from Myxo and the two strains of Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic disease (RVHD). Vaccinated rabbits can still contract the disease, but the signs and symptoms are usually extremely mild and treatable.

The RVHD2 vaccine is a separate vaccine, which is not as commonly used or known about by owners yet. They can both be used in the same rabbit to protect against the different strains however they will need to be given at different times – speak to your Veterinary Surgeon today about protecting your bunny!

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