Also known as alopecia, hair loss in rabbits is a common concern among owners. While shedding is perfectly normal in rabbits, abnormal fur loss associated with flaky skin and dandruff, crusty appearance, inflammation, and open sores are causes for concern.
Rabbits lose patches of fur due to parasite infections (lice, fleas, mites, and fungus), urinary tract disorders, dental issues, hormonal imbalances, and bacterial infections. Other causes include false pregnancies, overgrooming partners, and fighting between rabbits.
In many cases, hair loss can be accompanied by severe itching which can be painful and uncomfortable. Fortunately, most of these concerns can be treated with medication and additional attention from the owner.
Why Do Rabbits Lose Their Fur?
Losing fur can occur naturally, as well as due to underlying health conditions. Hair loss is defined as a complete or partial hair loss.
All rabbits shed their fur throughout their life cycle and there is no limit to how much fur a rabbit can lose at a time.
Symptoms of hair loss can progress slowly or suddenly. The pattern or degree of hair loss, along with other signs and symptoms, can help you determine the cause of alopecia.
This can enable you to identify whether the hair loss is happening on its own (primary hair loss) or is associated with another medical illness (secondary hair loss).
What is Normal Shedding?
A normal rabbit will shed its fur every three months. If the molting process occurs normally, all areas will regrow fur as the shed hair falls out. Normal molting in rabbits follows a distinctive pattern.
Your rabbit will start losing fur from its neck, followed by shedding down the neck, back, stomach, and tail. The process takes 2-6 weeks.
The amount of fur a rabbit sheds and the length of the molting period varies from one rabbit to another.
Your rabbit may lose fur in clumps, resulting in bald patches. In normal shedding, this should be a consistent process. However, for patchy hair loss, it’s always best to ensure that your rabbit is molting normally and is not pulling out its own fur as a result of stress, boredom or poor health.
Disease and infections can also lead to patchy hair loss in rabbits, but they’re always accompanied by other visible symptoms, such as crustiness, itchiness, redness, and sores.
It’s also important to keep in mind that natural molting is a seasonal process in rabbits. If your rabbit loses excessive amounts of fur throughout the year, a trip to the vet is needed.
What is Abnormal Shedding?
Your rabbit’s skin and coat should be a window to its health. Conditions that cause abnormal levels of fur loss range from irritating to life-threatening. Some of these conditions can even be contagious to other species.
If you suspect your rabbit’s fur loss is associated with an underlying health condition, proper treatment can be highly beneficial. Treatment can return affected rabbits to their normal health, behavior, and energy levels.
What Are the Causes Abnormal Fur Loss in Rabbits?
Any type of fur loss, whether it’s patchy or general is considered a cause for concern if it is associated with the following:
- Flaky skin and dandruff
- Crusty skin appearance
- Inflammation or open sores
Such types of fur loss are often caused by a myriad of factors, including:
|Parasite infestations (fleas, mites, lice, and fungus)||– Mange mites (Sarcoptes scabiei or Chorioptes sp)|
– Fur mites (Cheyletiella parasitivorax)
– Ear canker mites (Psoroptes cuniculi )
– Burrowing mange mites (Trixacarus caviae)
– Tropical rat mites or feather mites (Ornithonyssus spp.)
– Ringworm fungus (Microsporum spp.)
|Dental problems||Saliva burn (fur loss on the dewlap, under the chin and on the chest)|
|Urinary tract disorders||Urine burn (hair loss on the hindquarters)|
|Other health issues||– Bacterial infections|
– Sore hocks (fur loss on the feet)
– Overgrooming (caused by self or partner)
– Fighting among rabbits
– False pregnancy (nesting behavior)
– Hormone imbalance
– Abscess and lesions
Fur loss can be caused by a severe flea infestation, which can lead to severe itching. Itching can cause loss of fur when the rabbit scratches its skin repeatedly. The same goes for fleas.
Fur loss can also be caused by many different kinds of mites that affect rabbits, including:
- Mange mites
- Fur mites
- Ear canker mites
Fortunately, parasitic infestations can be treated with modern medications that are safe for lagomorphs. These treatments kill parasites rapidly, leaving your rabbits itch-free and symptom-free, thus healing the cause of fur loss.
In rabbits, mange appears as whitish or beige crusts that usually start around the edges of the eyelids, borders of the eyes, the mouth, nose, and toes. It’s caused by the mite, Sarcoptes scabiei and other species of Sarcoptes.
Mange crusts give off an unpleasant, musky smell, particularly in the ears. Leaving the condition untreated causes the crustiness to progress until raw lesions cover extensive regions of the body, causing itching and subsequent hair loss. This increases the risk of bacterial or fungal infections.
Therefore, even the mildest cases of mange should be treated immediately. Worsening of the symptoms gives rise to severe complications, making treatment more difficult. These parasites are not difficult to eliminate and treatment often leads to immediate positive results.
Ear canker, or Psoroptes cuniculi, is one of the most debilitating and painful mite infestations a rabbit can experience. Symptoms of ear mites include:
- Intense irritation
- Crusting and scabs down the ear canal
- Your rabbit may dislike being touched at the ears due to pain
- Hair loss around the ears
- Shaking of the head
- Ear flapping
- Scratching at the ears more than usual
More severe signs of ear mites in rabbits include spasms of the eye muscles and twisting of the head (torticollis). In the long-term, ear mites can cause skin loss from the ears and infections that can damage the inner ear and reach the central nervous system.
The treatment for ear canker in rabbits is 3 treatments of ivermectin injections once every 10-14 days, or one moxidectin injection every 10 days for two treatments. Mild infections may be treated with ear drops.
All animals in contact with the affected pet should be treated as well even if they don’t show any symptoms. Your vet may also prescribe painkillers to relieve pain and irritation.
Fur mites or Cheyletiella parasitivorax, lead to more subtle symptoms than those of ear canker or mange. The itching caused by fur mites is also not as severe as other types of mites.
Fur mites often occur as flakes in the skin that resemble dandruff. As the infestation progresses, your rabbit’s fur may begin to fall off leaving bald patches.
However, some types of fur mites are not easily identified upon visual inspection or on skin scraping. However, treatment with appropriate medication, such as selamectin, often clears the problem even if the fur mites cannot be seen.
Tropical Rat Mites
Tropical rat mites (Ornithonyssus bacoti ) are found in both subtropical and temperate regions. They feed on rabbits and many mammals.
Tropical rat mite infestations can be extremely itchy, resulting in patchy hair loss in rabbits.
These mites can be killed with ivermectin or selamectin but permanent elimination is more challenging for tropical rat mites that live on rabbits. This is because tropical rat mites permanently reside on a primary host, which is often rats and sometimes pigeons.
Therefore, the transmission of the mites to your rabbits and other companion animals will continue until the primary hosts (rats or pigeons) are removed from your local environment.
Burrowing Mange Mite
Though fairly uncommon in rabbits, the burrowing mange mite can lead to extremely uncomfortable and painful itching, which can further lead to severe hair loss.
Even with a skin biopsy, burrowing mange mites can be difficult to visualize.
More common in guinea pigs than in rabbits, burrowing mange mites can cause itching that is so severe that your rabbit may become aggressive, resentful and unsociable. Note that even the calmest rabbit can become unruly and grumpy when infested with burrowing mange mites.
Furthermore, your rabbit may not show any symptoms of disease other than scratching.
Burrowing mange mites can be treated with selamectin, offering relief to rabbits within 24 hours of treatment.
Your vet may not be able to find anything that’s obviously wrong, however, treatment with selamectin may alleviate physical and behavioral issues.
Things to Avoid with Parasite Infestations
Avoid permethrin or pyrethrin-containing shampoos and flea powders. Even though they’re advertised for rabbits, they’re not safe or effective like selamectin or ivermectin.
According to Acta Veterinaria Scandinavica, selamectin or ivermectin are effective drugs in treating mite infestations in rabbits.
Dips and Baths
Reports have also been received of severe shock or deaths in rabbits after the use of baths of insecticidal dips that are usually considered safe. Products involved include:
- Lime sulfur dips
- Carbaryl dips or carbaryl shampoo
- Pyrethrin dips or pyrethrin shampoo
- Baby shampoo
Complications and deaths are often associated with the stress of bathing, dying, and dipping. It’s not just the chemicals themselves. Chilling, liver problems, and overheating should also be taken into consideration.
Look out for signs of shock, such as weakness, severe depression, and pale mucous membranes. If problems develop, immediate care, such as providing warmth, corticosteroids and warm IV fluids will be needed.
Even though topical or mineral oil ointments that are to be instilled in the ears are sometimes recommended for ear mites, they’re not effective. They may even make matters worse if there is an underlying infection.
Therefore, it is critical that you avoid diagnosing or treating any parasite infestation on your own. Always seek help from a veterinarian who has experience with rabbits for the best possible treatment.
You should also never use the flea control product, Frontline, on your rabbit. Fipronil may be considered safe for other species, but it has been associated with severe neurological effects and deaths in rabbits.
Ringworm takes its name from the raised red circular lesion it causes with a clearing middle. Fur loss associated with ringworm fungus is often bald, patchy and round with distinct edges. Ringworm fungus may cause slight irritation to the skin, sometimes accompanied by tiny, raised, red spots.
In rabbits, scaling, crusting, and bald spots are more common than the red ring. It commonly occurs on the face, head, and ears in rabbits.
Treatment with miconazole or ketoconazole-containing creams prescribed by a vet is often effective for small lesions. Avoid using preparations designed for humans as they’re unsafe for animals that groom themselves.
Fungal infections in rabbits can also be treated with Program (lufenuron) which stops the formation of a vital structural component of fungal cell walls, called chitin.
Fur loss may be restricted to the region under the chin, in the folds of the dewlap or down the chest. In many cases, this type of fur loss is also accompanied by wet skin or fur in these areas.
Usually, rabbits will also develop sudden picky eating habits. This can vary among rabbits, with some being more willing to eat pellets but not hay, others refusing to eat pellets and some even avoiding water. Some rabbits may refuse everything except for their favorite treats.
The above signs are often related to dental issues such as molar spurs or molar abscess. These conditions make rabbits drool. Drool, or saliva, is caustic, which means it burns the skin. This makes the wet areas sore and itchy, causing the fur to fall out. Some rabbits may even chew at the itchy areas, causing open sores.
Even though dental problems, such as molar spurs, can occur in any rabbit, they’re more common in dwarf rabbits and short-faced rabbit breeds, such as lops. Rabbits five years or older also have a higher risk of dental issues.
Fur loss on the around the mouth and the chin can be treated by solving the underlying dental issue. A dental exam will allow your vet to detect any molar spurs. These can be corrected by filing them smooth.
If no spurs are visible, your vet may perform head radiographs for any signs of tooth infection or other mouth issues that may cause the drooling.
If fur loss is restricted to the area around the tail, between the hind legs and sometimes on the feet and up the belly, chances are your bunny has a urinary tract problem.
Urinary tract problems include urinary tract infections, bladder stones, and bladder sludge. These problems can cause urine leakage. Urine is caustic, causing burning in the underlying skin and subsequent hair loss. Urine burns can also cause the skin to become red and raw.
If you suspect your rabbit is suffering from a urinary tract problem, take it to a vet immediately. Keep your rabbit comfortable while your veterinarian finds the cause of urine leakage and while medications begin to kick in.
Your vet may recommend helping your rabbit’s skin heal with a dry butt bath for rabbits. If your rabbit’s behind if burnt badly, you may have to keep it dry and protected and cleanse it gently as recommended by your vet to prevent future complications, such as GI slowdown or ileus.
Rabbits should never be bathed completely as this can lead to stress, shock, and even death.
Pododermatitis (Sore Hock)
Pododermatitis (sore hock) is common in rabbits that have been housed on wire flooring, or hard, wet or rough surfaces. However, the condition may also occur in rabbits that have never been caged.
Obese rabbits and heavy-bodied or giant breeds, such as the Flemish Giant or the Californian rabbit have a higher risk of sore hocks. Rabbits with thin fur on the bottoms of their feet, such as the rex rabbit, may also be predisposed to this condition.
In mild cases, providing a soft and absorbent resting surface, such as cotton or fleece toweling that cannot be chewed on can help. You’ll also need to clean the underside of the foot and apply a padded wrap for 1-2 weeks to help treat the condition.
If your rabbit is obese, weight reduction is a possible cure. Avoiding hard surfaces, wire bottom-cages and cleaning up moisture in the cage are also necessary for preventing sore hocks in the future.
Hocks with severe infection or ulceration may require X-rays to determine if the infection has reached the bone, along with culture/sensitivity testing and appropriate antibiotics.
If the infection has penetrated the bone and only one foot is severely affected, amputation may be the only way to alleviate the pain.
Rabbits housed in warm, humid climates are more prone to bacterial skin infections because their skin can never stay dry enough.
When moisture from humidity or rain accumulates in fur the rabbit cannot easily reach (especially around the backend, the tail/back of the thighs), the fur becomes smelly, friable and severely prone to flystrike. Over time, this can cause fur loss on the affected areas.
The best way to avoid flystrike is to keep your rabbit in a dry habitat. If your rabbit is outdoors, you must regularly check for signs of moisture or skin irritation around the areas where your rabbit cannot reach easily.
Flystrike is a condition that occurs rapidly. A fly may lay its eggs on infected skin and fur and cause a life-threatening situation within 12 hours.
According to Preventive Veterinary Medicine, risk factors for flystrike in rabbits include warm, humid temperatures and rabbits that are 5 years of age or older.
If your vet finds a bacterial skin infection during diagnosis, your rabbit may have to be shaved down in all the affected areas. Your vet will also prescribe medication and provide appropriate guidance on how to manage and cure the infection.
A culture and sensitivity test will help determine what antibiotic will be most safe and effective against the type of bacterial infection your rabbit is suffering from.
False or Real Pregnancy
Rabbits exhibit their nesting behavior by pulling out tufts of fur from their chest, sides, and belly and lining their nests with the fur and other household items, such as couch and pillow stuffing. If pregnancy is impossible, your rabbit is probably experiencing a false pregnancy.
Rabbits show signs of false pregnancy or nesting should be spayed immediately to avoid the risk of uterine cancer, mammary cancer, and other health concerns associated with an intact reproductive system.
Overgrooming in rabbits is not normal behavior and is often a sign of boredom or stress. Your rabbit may overgroom itself, or be overgroomed by a bonded partner.
To treat overgrooming, try letting your rabbits have more playtime or free running time. Provide them with a variety of new toys to keep them distracted from their obsessive grooming behavior.
It’s also helpful to have your rabbits have large running spaces so that the rabbit getting groomed can keep away from the groomer if needed.
Fighting Among Rabbits
If you have multiple rabbits living together, there’s a high chance they fight when you’re not there. Always look for any cuts, scabs, or fallen fur. These are often indications of a fight going on while you’re away.
If your rabbits are fighting, make sure they’re all spayed and neutered. Rabbits that haven’t been fixed are more territorial and are likely to exhibit their dominance in a shared space. Spaying and neutering are also important for your rabbit’s health and longevity.
While some play fighting is okay, severe fighting should be avoided to prevent serious injuries and permanent grudges between rabbits.
Although this isn’t common in rabbits, it can be a cause of fur loss in any mammal. If your vet suspects that your rabbit’s fur loss may be associated with a hormonal imbalance, he may order a blood sample for an analysis of your rabbit’s endocrine systems, such as its thyroid function.
Rabbits can lose patches of fur due to a wide variety of reasons. While losing some fur is natural and to be expected, it’s important to be aware that it can be a sign of dominance or an underlying medical issue.