An abscess is a walled-off pocket of infection. Abscesses can be found in soft tissue or in bone. They are generally found where there has been an injury or in the jaw because of dental problems.
Rabbit abscesses are very different from what you might find in a cat or a dog. They are harder to treat. The pus that fills them is solid, not runny, and lancing the abscess won’t cause it to drain. For abscesses in soft tissue, where possible rabbits need surgery to get all the infected tissue out, (this is known as debridement) including an area of tissue surrounding the pus, which is where the infection actually is.
If surgery is impossible, then the vet will prescribe long-term management with antibiotics and other drugs.
Following surgery, wounds may be filled with antibiotic beads or impregnated packing material or kept open to heal from the inside, and out. The rabbit is also treated with injected or oral antibiotics and painkillers. The antibiotics should prevent what is known as ‘seeding’. This is where any escaped bacteria from the original abscess move to other parts of the body and set up new pockets of infection and new abscesses.
How do abscesses start?
In soft tissue, there may be a bite, a scratch, or a puncture by a hayseed, a splinter, or stitches that haven’t been removed after surgery. But in most cases, in rabbits, the abscess involves the tissues of the head and arises from teeth or bone involved in dental disease.
Bacteria get into skin or muscle and trigger the rabbit’s immune system to send defending cells. It’s these defence cells, along with dead bacteria and dead tissue, that form the pus, and any surviving bacteria are in the tissue that surrounds the pus.
That’s why it’s so important to take out the whole abscess and some surrounding tissue in the initial surgery.
It’s a swab from the capsule wall that is generally taken for culture and sensitivity testing (C&S). This finds out which bacteria are causing the infection and which drugs to use to have the best chance of killing them.
Bone abscesses are usually found in the jaw but can be found in the area around the ear as well as in other locations. They are much harder to treat. Surgery is needed, but there is the danger that too much of the bone is infected for it to be kind to go on. Euthanasia may be a kinder option, and a detailed conversation between yourself and your veterinary surgeon will be necessary to determine the best option.
After surgery, it’s very important to make sure there is no contamination of the wound. Keep your rabbit on easily laundered bedding (VetBed is ideal for this), and keep hay away from the wound as far as possible, depending on where the wound is. If the wound is around the rear end, keeping it clean is going to be particularly difficult.
Care of abscesses has improved enormously in recent years. With immediate treatment by a rabbit-friendly vet and good nursing care, the most effective treatment and the right antibiotics, the outlook can be very good. Even with all of these, in some cases, things don’t go so well, so if you find lumps and bumps on your rabbit, you need to give him the best possible chance of recovery by getting him to your vet as quickly as you can, and following advice on treatment to the letter.