Treponematosis - rabbit syphilis
Esther van Praag, Ph.D.
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Rabbit syphilis is a bacterial disease caused by the spirochete Treponema cuniculi. The bacterium is universal and found all over the world. It infests wild and domestic or pet rabbits. The transmission of the bacterium is not well understood. It may be
· Direct, between adult rabbits during mating;
· Indirect, passed through the milk from an infected doe to her offspring.
Other modes of transmission cannot be excluded since active syphilis infections have found in pet rabbits that were living individually, without contact with other rabbits.
Incubation time for the disease is long, 3 to 16 weeks. Treponema cuniculi can be dormant for a long period of time. A rabbit can thus remain asymptomatic during several years. A stressful event or suppression of the immune system can trigger the onset of the bacterial disease.
The incidence of syphilis in house rabbits is not known, but it is likely more common than previously thought. The disease is not zoonotic, and cannot be passed from rabbits to other animals and humans.
The classical form of syphilis affects the junction between the mucosa and the epithelium of genital organs, the anus and/or the face, mainly the eyelids and nostrils.
Lesions develop slowly. Large thick crusts will cover the damaged ulcerated skin. Secretion of a white creamy exudate bleeding is possible.
The immune response to the infecting agent is slow. For this reason, the infection can spread to the surrounding areas and other susceptible regions on the body (e.g., from the anus/genitalia to the face) when left untreated.
Lately, an atypical form of treponematosis has been observed in rabbits. The infection develops on the face or chin only while the genital and perineal areas remain unaffected. The infected area will present with crusty lesions. If left untreated, the infection will increase in size slowly. The skin is raw, inflamed, with deep ulcerations, and may bleed or exude a white fluid.
Administration of the narrow spectrum antibiotic penicillin G (benzathine/procaine: 42.000 - 84.000 UI/kg, SC, IM), 4-6 repeats at intervals of 5 to 7 days, is the treatment of choice against rabbit syphilis. (Rabbits should NEVER be administered penicillin orally; it can lead to severe diarrhea).
Most other antibiotics will not cure the infection. Mostly, healing of the skin lesions is observed during the treatment, but relapse will occur as soon as the treatment is stopped as the Treponema cuniculi bacterium is not killed. This is particularly the case of fluoroquinolone antibiotics. Clinical signs and skin lesions develop rapidly after the treatment is stopped, often in a more severe form than before.
If the rabbit is in pain, analgesics can be administrated (e.g. meloxicam).
It is imperative to monitor the rabbit's eating during the treatment. Indeed, dying bacteria release toxins inside the rabbit's body and blood circulation and appetite may be affected. Inappetence can last 2-3 days, but the rabbit usually begins eating again on its own. It is essential that the antibiotic is not stopped to avoid onset of bacterial resistance. The rabbit should be encouraged to eat by its own and drink. If this is not the case, force feeding food with a syringe and subcutaneous fluid administration is necessary.
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Many thanks to Ariane Heller (St-Cergue, Suisse) Rémy Favre, the photographer of the rabbit rescue "La Colline aux Lapins” (Switzerland),
for the pictures of the affected rabbit.