All about fleas
Fleas are an external parasite that can infect most mammals, including rabbits. Fleas are a nuisance causing itchy bites. Heavy infestations can cause life-threatening disease for rabbits so early detection, rapid treatment, and prevention with rabbit-safe products is important to reduce risks of flea infestation for your rabbit, and their environment.
What are fleas?
Fleas are a tiny external parasite that infects mammals with fur. The most common flea found on rabbits is Spilopsyllus cuniculi (the European rabbit flea). The dog flea (Ctenocephalides canis) and cat flea (Ctenocephalides felis) can also infect pet rabbits.
Fleas feed on the blood of their host, ingesting 15 times their body weight in blood each day. Fleas are very prolific breeders with the females laying up to 50 eggs per day. There are four stages in the flea life cycle: egg, larvae, pupae, and adult. The total life cycle will take anywhere from two weeks to many months. In warm, humid conditions, and with a sufficient supply of hosts, fleas can quickly build into large populations in the environment. In cooler, dry conditions, the eggs can sit dormant until the conditions improve. This is why controlling a flea population can be a challenge.
How do rabbits get fleas?
Rabbits can become infested with fleas if they visit an environment that is infested with fleas, or if a flea-infested animal comes into their environment. Eggs from an infested animal can drop into the environment and hatch a few days later, or adult fleas can transfer directly from one animal to the other.
Like cats and dogs, rabbits can get fleas. Rabbits seem to be less commonly affected than cats and dogs as they are very efficient at grooming and keeping their fur free of parasites.
How can I tell if my rabbit has fleas?
Fleas bite their host to consume a blood meal. The bite can be painful and irritating, and the flea’s saliva in the host’s skin can cause irritation, redness, and swelling that can be very itchy for several days. Your rabbit may be seen to suddenly scratch, as if feeling a bite, and then after the bite, it may scratch excessively for days, causing the fur to fall out in tufts and the skin to become reddened. Tiny red bites may be seen. In some cases, rabbits can scratch so excessively that they cause thinning of the fur, baldness, and even bleeding.
Fleas may be present even if you don’t see any scratching. You can check your rabbit’s fur for signs of fleas. Fleas may be seen running through the fur, but an easier tell-tale sign is ‘flea dirt’ - small black flecks in the fur. Flea dirt is the flea’s faeces consisting of digesting blood. Wiping a patch of flea dirt with a wet piece of cotton wool will dissolve the flea dirt, turning the cotton wool red; this is evidence of fleas on your rabbit. Alternatively, ruffling the rabbit’s fur over a black piece of paper can show up the white eggs that are falling out of the fur. You can also use a very fine flea comb to comb the rabbit’s fur and look on the comb for evidence of fleas, flea dirt, or the eggs. If you are not sure, check with your veterinarian.
Are fleas dangerous?
In small numbers, fleas are generally not life threatening. In severe cases, or in cases where the rabbit has an allergy to flea bites, the excessive scratching can cause such damage to the skin that a skin infection can occur and if not treated promptly, this can cause more serious wounds where ongoing treatment is required.
With high flea populations, blood loss can be severe leading to anaemia (low red blood cells) resulting in weakness due to poor oxygen transport in the body. This can be fatal in severe cases.
The most dangerous consequence of a rabbit contracting fleas is that Spilopsyllus cuniculi (the European rabbit flea) is a common vector for myxomatosis (Myxoma virus) – this disease is often fatal. Always ensure that your rabbit is up to date with their myxomatosis vaccinations (given every 6 months), even if they are a house rabbit.
Can I treat and prevent fleas?
If your rabbit has fleas, or you want to prevent fleas from becoming a problem, you can take action in a number of ways. If your rabbit has fleas, you should treat the rabbit with a flea preparation as soon as possible so the population doesn’t get out of control.
Rabbits are particularly sensitive to flea medications – many treatments made for dogs and cats can be fatal to rabbits so contact your veterinarian if you are unsure how to treat your rabbit.
Products containing imidacloprid, selamectin or lufenuron are effective and deemed safe to use on rabbits. Most of these products are presented as little pre-measured pipettes filled with the correct amount of medication according to the animal's weight. The treatment is applied directly onto the skin on the back of the neck, an area that is difficult for the rabbit to lick off.
Many flea powders are available, but they may contain ingredients that are dangerous for rabbits. DO NOT assume that these products are safe just because they are available from your local pet shop. Herbal treatment should also be treated with caution as some natural products contain chemicals such as pyrethrin, which can be lethal for rabbits.
Flea dips (baths) and shampoos aren’t very effective and do little to get rid of infestations since the eggs of the adult fleas will hatch out after the rabbit has been treated, and the infestation will continue. The ingredients in the dip/shampoo may also be toxic for rabbits. Giving your rabbit a dip/shampoo can be stressful for your rabbit, and probably you as well!
A flea comb can be used, but as a single approach this probably won't solve the problem completely.
Flea collars often contain chemicals that are dangerous to rabbits and there have also been suspected allergic reactions reported, so are not recommended.
Ensure you clean your rabbit’s environment thoroughly, and if your rabbit is a house rabbit, you will need to treat the house with a specially designed spray which is safe to use around rabbits. You will also need to wash all their bedding, toys, etc. Regular vacuuming or steam cleaning will also help reduce the risk of flea infestation.
If one rabbit in the household is infested with fleas, then it is best to treat all rabbits in the household, as the infestation is likely to spread.
Rabbits and other animals
Prevention is the best approach to flea problems. Keep dogs and cats up to date with flea preventative treatments, even if your rabbit lives outside, since fleas jump! Over the counter remedies purchased from pet shops and supermarkets are often ineffective, and can be very toxic to rabbits, so it is best to speak to your vet who will be able to advise you and prescribe you a suitable flea treatment for your dog and cat.
If you have a flea infestation in your house or yard, treat your house as directed by your vet with a treatment recommended by the vet. Be sure to treat for enough time, eg several months, to ensure that all fleas in the life cycle have been killed or stopped from reproducing.
Common flea treatments for cats and dogs must NOT be used on rabbits unless specifically directed by your veterinarian.
Products containing fipronil, commonly known as FrontlineTM, must NEVER be used on rabbits as this medication is fatal to rabbits. If you have a house rabbit and treat your dog or cat with fipronil, make sure your rabbit does NOT come into contact with your dog or cat for several days following treatment.