Self-mutilating behavior in rabbits
Esther van Praag Ph.D.
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Some rabbits engage in self-mutilation to the point of severely injuring themselves. This behavior can include chewing the skin down to the bone, and can lead to the loss of a digit. Rather than diagnosing self-mutilation as a psychotic problem, possible causes should be examined and ruled out when a rabbit shows this behavior.
1. Hypersensitive reaction. This involves the immune system, and is difficult to assess. Such reaction can be triggered by medication, e.g. intra-muscular injections of ketamine/xylazine can cause skin irritation, itching and pain, 3 days post-injection.
2. Infestation of the skin by parasites, such as fur mites, burrowing mites or rodent mites causing severe itching of the skin.
3. Atopy, or hereditary allergic reaction, which leads to pruritus/itchiness of the skin.
4. Frustration in non-castrated female or male rabbits, driven by hormones to build a nest or find a partner respectively.
5. Contact dermatitis - inflammation of the skin or rash, caused by contact with an irritating or allergy-causing substance.
6. Neurological disease, e.g., compression of a nerve due to the presence of an hematoma, mass, injury.
Presence of a foreign body in the fur, e.g. seeds
from grass, oat, burrs or awns (bristle-like appendages found on grasses)
that causes irritation, itchiness of the skin and – depending on the
Compulsive self-mutilating behavior has additionally been linked to environmental factors (e.g. boredom), and to genetic predisposition in specific breeds of rabbits. These rabbits start to mutilate the pruritic skin of their digits, more commonly in late summer and autumn (hormonal problem ?). Histological studies ruled out the presence of skin disease, bacterial, fungal or parasitic infection, or neurological problems. When genetic predisposition is determined as the cause, the condition is treated with psychotic drugs.
F. Iglauer, C. Beig, J. Dimigen, S. Gerold, A. Gocht, A. Seeburg, S. Steier and F. Willmann. Hereditary compulsive self-mutilating behaviour in laboratory rabbits. Lab Anim 1995;29:385-393
During the last few years an increasing number of cases of extensive automutilation has been observed in a rabbit breeding colony of Checkered crosses. Digits and pads of the front feet were traumatized. No other behavioural abnormalities or signs of disease were evident. Self-mutilation was seen both in stock, breeding and experimental animals, in rabbits kept singly in cages and in those housed in groups on the ground, in rabbits kept in different buildings and under the care of different staff members. This behavioural abnormality of Checkered crosses has also been observed in animals after being placed into other institutions or private homes. No evidence of an agent responsible for the occurrence of self-injury could be found with parasitological, mycological, histological, clinical or haematological examination. Twelve to 16 animals are affected yearly in a colony varying in size between 130 and 230 rabbits.
Following complete healing, relapses occurred up to 3 times per year, on either the same or the opposite front foot. In the last 21 cases episodes of automutilation could be regularly interrupted with the dopamine antagonist, haloperidol. Similar signs of automutilation were never seen in animals of another breeding line kept in the same building and under the same conditions nor in animals brought in from other breeding colonies.
A relatively high coefficient of inbreeding can be presupposed in this 15-year-old breeding colony of Checkered crosses. A genetic predisposition for the behavioural anomaly described appears very likely.
The treatment will depend on the cause of the self-mutilating behavior.
Often, the administration of a pesticide (e.g. ivermectin) has solved the problem, even when no skin parasites or their eggs were detected after a skin scraping or adhesive tape test.
Neutering the rabbit will help fight sexual frustration, and regulate other behavioral problems such as spraying and marking territory.
Boredom can easily be dealt with by giving the rabbit toys, opportunities to exercise and explore its environment, cardboard to tear, branches to chew, hay to play with and eat, etc.
Compulsive self-mutilating behavior can be brought under control with the administration of the tranquilizer haloperidol (0.2-0,4 mg/kg, BID).
Thanks are due to Tal Saarony, for the permission to use pictures of Motek and Gozal, and for her critical reading. Thank you to Gozal, Motek, Sniffy, Grijsje, and Stampi for their patience and their cooperation in taking the numerous pictures.
For detailed information on self-mutilation in rabbits,
“Skin Diseases of Rabbits”, by E. van Praag, A. Maurer and T. Saarony
408 pages, 2010.
Beyers TM, Richardson JA, Prince MD. Axonal degeneration and self-mutilation as a complication of the intramuscular use of ketamine and xylazine in rabbits. Lab Anim Sci. 1991; 41(5):519-520.
Iglauer F, Beig C, Dimigen J, Gerold S, Gocht A, Seeburg A, Steier S, Willmann F. Hereditary compulsive self-mutillating behaviour in laboratory rabbits. Lab Anim. 1995; 29(4):385-393.
Vachon P. Self-mutilation in rabbits following intramuscular ketamine-xylazine-acepromazine injections. Can Vet J. 1999; 40(8):581-582.