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Ear Mites in Rabbits

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Ear mites create a disease called ‘ear canker’ in rabbits. The mites cause inflammation, irritation, and discharge that can drive the infection to reach into the middle and inner ear. To stop this, early identification and treatment are necessary.  

What are They?

Rabbit ear mites, or Psoroptes cuniculi, are a natural parasitic problem that causes the condition known as ear canker. Considered as one of the most prevalent mites of rabbits, it also produces infection in cavies, horses, goats, antelopes, sheep, and cattle.

If left untreated, canker can lead to secondary bacterial diseases of the skin or penetrate the middle and inner ear, leading to neurological disorders and fatal meningitis.

This mite can be seen in brown or black color. It is just large enough to be noticeable to the naked eye. The saliva and feces of the mite create damage and inflammation in the delicate skin of the ear. There may be up to 10,000 mites in a single infected ear, so the damage can be very harsh.

Type

P. cuniculi is a large, non-burrowing mite, rounded to oval in shape, which can be observed by the eye of an infected animal. Oftentimes, however, the mites penetrate the deeper regions of the external ear canal where they are not noticeable.

The mite is only evident when on the external folds of the ear and inside the ear pinnae (ear flap).

Mites enter the skin at the base of hairs and use bell-shaped suckers to feast on the host’s lymphatic fluids. The mucus and fecal substance from the mites cause an inflammatory reaction resulting in harsh itching.

Life Cycle

Depending on environmental circumstances, the cycle of P. cuniculi is about 21 days.

Mites will lay their eggs in the ear wax or dead skin of the host. The eggs will hatch into larvae in about four days. At this point, the larvae have six legs and will dwell in this stage for four days and then begin to molt. After another three to 10 days, and they will become eight-legged protonymphs. 

The protonymphs will then molt into adults, which will mate with one another and lay eggs.

The mites can last on the host for four to 21 days. The survival rate is highest when the temperature is low and the humidity is high (greater than 75%).

Early stages

In its early stages of infestation, the ear mites penetrate the deeper parts of the rabbit’s external ear canal. At this stage, the mites won’t be noticeable and you may not realize that there is a problem. A regular visit to the veterinarian can lead to early diagnosis by examining the ear canals of your rabbit and noticing the first deposits. 

Moderate to advanced stages 

If the mite infestation is not diagnosed and treated immediately, it will worsen and the problem will be easily visible. The ear mites will multiply, pointing to more crusting and inflammation and spreading from your rabbit’s ear canal to its pinna. If the condition is left untreated, it may lead to a secondary bacterial infection of your rabbit’s skin.

Transmission

A rabbit can catch the disease from contact with an infected rabbit or food, bedding, or objects that bear the mites or its eggs. People cannot get the disease but can pass it by carrying mites or eggs on hands or clothes after touching an infected rabbit.

It is believed that pre-existing moist dermatitis produces a suitable environment for the mites to infest.

Rabbit ear canker is very contagious and commonly spread by direct contact from an infected to a non-infected animal. Mites easily crawl from one to another. The mites can also be spread through contact with the environment when an animal scratches or shakes, creating flakes of the mite-infested canker.

Transmission is more apparent when large numbers of rabbits, or other susceptible hosts, are housed near to one another. Excellent examples would be overcrowded hutches, pet shops, shelters, rabbit breeding facilities, and wild rabbit warrens.

What Breed of Rabbits is at Most Risk?

Ear mite infestations are highly infectious. Care is needed to restrain the infestation by isolation, as it can be very damaging to litters of young rabbits.

Lop-eared rabbits, especially Dwarf Lops, can be affected more seriously. That’s because the dropped ear flap provides a warm, moist environment for the mite. 

Signs and Symptoms

An initial infestation may be overlooked if it starts deeper in the ear canal. Owners may see ear scratching and head shaking at this initial stage. Other signs involve redness, heat, and inflammation of the ear canal.

As the mites reproduce, the infestation extends to the outer ear flap and, at this point, is obvious. It is not uncommon to have only one ear infested.

The host animal will usually be very agitated at this stage, itching and scratching at its ears and head repeatedly. The self-trauma of itching and scratching wounds the ear skin even more, resulting to inflammation, itching, and scratching.

The inflammation also makes the serum and white blood cells to ooze onto the skin surface confining the mites, feces, and skin cells and then drying out. This leaves the crusting, scabbing, and dense scale or gray, flaky skin debris connected to the inside of the ear flap. Underneath the crust, you will notice that the skin is moist, hairless, and raw.

The crusting and scabbing can reach the head and neck, as well as other parts of the body. Ear drooping can also be the effect of the weight of scabbing around the outside of the ear.

Skin inflammation 

Initially, you will notice scaly, peeling skin in the ear as rabbits tend to scratch their ears with their hindlegs. Eventually, this will lead to fur loss, skin inflammation, and wounds. The forelimbs may become engulfed with discharge and inflamed from rubbing at the ears. 

Head or ear shaking

As the mite bodily fluids aggravate and inflame the skin. A rabbit cannot scratch their ears, so they shake their heads to try and relieve the discomfort they’re encountering.

Thick discharge around the ear base

The yellow or brown discharge adheres closely to the skin and fur. Eventually, due to pain and the weight of the discharge as it progresses, their ears start to sag.

Head tilt

This severe sign may be present if a secondary bacterial infection happens. If very sick, or the rabbit is critically affected, they may stop eating and hide. 

If left untreated, ear canker can start secondary bacterial infections, in addition to the pain and discomfort. A foul smell to the ear is also an indication of an infection.

Head tilt and hints of being off-balance are also symptoms you should look out for.

Treatment

Visit your vet as soon as you notice any signs of disease. Your vet will perform a thorough examination of the ears to ensure that this is an ear mite infestation, as it is only visible with an otoscope. Alternatively, a sample of earwax may be inspected under a microscope to confirm the presence of mites or eggs.  

It is also essential to treat the infected animal and its environment to prevent re-contamination.

While treating the animal, it is advised to also transfer the infected animal from its living environment to give the mites and eggs a possibility to die off. A large-sized box or container with clean, disposable bedding makes an ideal temporary housing.

Two main treatment alternatives are available for treating ear mites. Systemic treatments employ oral, injectable, or dermal absorbed antiparasitic drugs. Systemic treatments are typically preferred because they require fewer repetitive dosages, ease of giving, and better results. On the other hand, topical treatments utilize antiparasitic medications directly to the infected spots as drops, powders, or oils.

P. cuniculi can be treated with avermectin drugs, including Ivermectin and Selamectin. Injections or oral doses of Ivermectin must be repeatedly done for at least 14 days for better effectiveness. Moxidectin, another avermectin, has also shown effectiveness against ear canker mites.

Eliminating the crust and scabs can be very painful to the animal and there is discussion as to whether or not this should be done. If treated precisely, the medications will support easy removal of the crust within a few days or it will start to fall off on its own within 10 to 14 days of treatment.

Because rabbit ear mites can last for up to three weeks off a host animal, it is essential to decontaminate hutches, cages, burrows, feeding sources, and other items in the infected animal’s habitat.

Physically eliminate all contaminated and potentially contaminated bedding. That’s because it is almost impossible to chemically disinfect the large surface area of bedding. And it doesn’t matter if you use paper, straw, hay, or wood chips.

It is best to just take it all out and replace it with fresh, clean bedding.

Leaving your pet’s environment free of all rabbits, or other animals, for 4–6 weeks will make sure that it becomes mite-free. Treat the hutches, cages, and bedding with an insecticide that is suited and harmless for the animal. Always read the description carefully before applying any insecticide chemical, as some insecticides are considered toxic to rabbits and cavies.

Some hutches, particularly those made of porous wood, can be challenging to clean. In these cases, it might be easier to just replace a hutch or cage. If the animal’s housing is near and accessible to wild animal groups, consider transferring or modifying it to prevent wild mite-carriers from coming into contact with your animals.

Nursing

During the treatment process, all bedding and food must be disposed of and provide fresh ones. Shredded paper bedding may be used since it is easy to destroy and replace each day.

Hutches, brushes, toys, food bowls, and drinkers should be sanitized daily and thoroughly washed. That way, the rabbit is not affected by the cleaning agent. Wash any blankets or fabric toys at 60 degrees. In this way, any mites or eggs will be eliminated, preventing re-infection.

Do this for a month, as rabbit mites tend to linger in environment for 21 days.

All close-contact rabbits should also be examined and treated because, as mentioned earlier, mites are very contagious.

After the treatment process ends, your rabbit should still be checked to ensure that there is no more sign of disease remaining. 

Treating the environment

Rabbit ear mites can survive for up to three weeks away from the host animal. Therefore, your rabbit’s habitat must be treated to avoid re-infection.

  • First, set up temporary enclosures for your rabbit, using a large box or crate and bedding that can be thrown away each day.
  • Remove and throw off any bedding in your rabbit’s environment.
  • An insecticide that is safe for rabbits can be applied to the hutch or cage. Make sure to read the label first or speak with your veterinarian just to be sure that what you are using is not harmful to your rabbit; in the case of wood hutches, replacement may be the best choice as it is difficult to clean and remove mites that are in the wood.
  • No rabbits should be in their habitat for 4 to 6 weeks to make sure that the mites are completely gone.

Medications

Medication is frequently topical, in the form of a spot-on. It eliminates mites but not eggs so it is necessary to kill the new larvae as they hatch. This means treating your pet bunny fortnightly for six weeks. 

The crusting discharge near the ear makes the skin very sore. However, you mustn’t try and take the crusts out yourself. This will create ulceration of the skin beneath and is very painful for your pet.

When the infection is managed, the crusts will dry out and fall off, enabling the skin beneath to heal slowly and without producing any discomfort. 

The rabbit may require oral or injectable antibiotics if there is still a secondary bacterial infection. If you think that there are eardrum ruptures, you can have your pet sedated and x-rayed to confirm.

Pain relievers in the form of anti-inflammatory medications may also help. In some cases, nails can be trimmed to reduce the trauma associated with scratching. 

Prevention

Check your pet rabbit’s ears frequently for any dry skin, scaling, or peeling. Be alert for any progress in scratching or head shaking. An early indication could be scratch marks and wounds around the ears.  

Watch your rabbit’s behavior, be aware of their normal activity levels, appetite, and temperament. That way, you can pick up shifts quickly. 

Examine any new rabbits thoroughly before introducing them to your existing herd. Keep their enclosure clean and collect your hay and bedding from a reliable source. Be very vigilant if they have any contact with wild rabbits. 

How to Stop Re-infection?

Mites can survive off the host and can exist within the environment for 21 days. If an ear mite infection is verified, full decontamination of the enclosure is required. Treatment of the rabbit should continue to cover a period exceeding 21 days. 

For example, the prescribed Ivermectin protocol is one treatment topically. Apply the correct size of Xeno® 450 Spot-on or Xeno® mini Spot-on for the weight of the animal every 14 days. Do the treatment at least three times.

Any new rabbits joining a group or household should have a careful clinical examination to ensure they are parasite-free.

Final Thoughts

As with any common ailment, prevention has always been the best medicine. Ear mites in rabbits occur and spread most quickly in overcrowded situations, so don’t try to house too many animals in one enclosure.

Another significant factor for ear mites seems to be stress. The animals get stressed out, and all of a sudden ear mite infections begin to pop up left and right.

Straw bedding tends to shelter mites, so shift to a different kind if that’s what you use. You can also pre-treat the animals with a mild mixture either once a week or whenever you do other necessary grooming, like nail trimming. A fusion of mineral oil with a few drops of apple cider vinegar, and a few drops of healing essential oil (e.g., tea tree oil) can surely stop mite infection.

More than anything, keep in mind that a mite infection is not comfortable for a rabbit to go through. Making sure it’s taken care of is an animal health and safety concern.

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