Pet Factsheets

Lice infestation

Signs of a flea and lice infestation
©Aidan Raftery

Rabbits can host a variety of parasites on their fur and skin. These are termed as ectoparasites, since they live on the outside of the rabbit. Lice fall into this classification and can be a problem for pet rabbits.

What are the signs of a lice infestation?

Clinical signs of a lice infestation may include pruritus (intense scratching), bald patches within the fur or thinning of the fur. The skin may also have scratches and wounds from where the rabbit has been itching.

With advanced infestations, the rabbit may appear very agitated, restless and may also lose weight and eat less because they spend so much time scratching. Anaemia may also be present, especially in very young rabbits, as lice feed by sucking the rabbit's blood. This is especially noticeable in albino rabbits which will appear very pale. Severe anaemia can cause weakness and even death.

What is a rabbit louse?

The rabbit louse is Haemodipsus ventricosus, and is a sucking louse, but is thought to be rare in pet rabbits. They are normally found along the back and on the sides of the rabbit as well as around the rump area. Adult lice are usually visible with the naked eye and can be seen moving. The eggs (nits) are oval in shape and are laid and firmly attach to the shafts of the hair, these can also be seen with the naked eye. The entire lifecycle from egg to louse takes 2-5 weeks where environmental conditions are at an optimum.

Can my rabbit be treated?

Ivermectin injections at 7-10 days apart for 3-4 treatments are normally effective. Treatment needs to last long enough to eradicate the eggs as they hatch. Spot on ivermectin treatments can also be used.

Imidacloprid (Advantage®) is effective in dogs and could also be used in rabbits.

DO NOT USE fipronil (Frontline®) in rabbits as it has been associated with toxicity and deaths.

All in-contact rabbits should be treated otherwise it's likely they will continue to infect each other.

Can lice infect my rabbit with myxomatosis?

There has been some discussion as to whether or not the rabbit louse can act as a vector for myxomatosis. In theory, if a louse from a myxomatosis infected rabbit found its way onto a domestic rabbit this is potentially possible, although in reality is an extremely unlikely possibility.

However, it is essential that all rabbits are vaccinated against myxomatosis.

Can rabbit lice be transferred to humans?

This has not been documented, since the lice are species-specific, but it is wise to get your rabbit treated as soon as you notice any symptoms, and to clean the environment after every treatment.

Immunosuppressed individuals should avoid handling rabbits known to have lice.

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