Rabbits are clean and for the most part there are very few health risks involved with sharing our lives with them. However, some people may experience problems and it is always wise to know what signs to look out for and steps to take to try and prevent any problems occurring. It should be stressed that health problems from people contracting things from rabbits are rare, and owners should not lose sleep over them!
Firstly – there really is no need to panic! When people talk about “health hazards” from pets, everyone thinks first and foremost of diseases. From this point of view, pet rabbits are brilliant, and for the most part do not pose a significant disease hazard to humans.
However, keeping bunnies is not totally risk free. Problems do sometimes arise – usually not from diseases, but from allergies, which are the most significant “health hazard” from pet rabbits.
Rabbits need constant access to hay (or kiln-dried grass) to maintain optimum dental and digestive health, but this can cause problems for humans suffering from hay fever type allergies. There’s also a risk of becoming allergic to the rabbit itself, as rabbit fur can trigger allergies over a period of time, especially if your rabbit lives indoors. It is advisable to take steps to reduce the allergen exposure to yourself and your family. For example, feed only high quality, dust-free hay, or use a kiln-dried grass. Keep sections of the house (especially bedrooms) rabbit and hay-free zones, to ensure that you are not constantly bombarded with allergens, and vacuum regularly using a machine with a high quality filter. Groom your rabbit regularly to reduce the amount of dead fur flying round the house.
Bites and scratches
Although these injuries can be painful (rabbits have very sharp teeth and claws!), they rarely become infected, and usually heal rapidly. However, it is always sensible to clean any bite/scratch thoroughly (soap and hot water is fine) as soon as possible; to cover any breaks in the skin before handling animals or meat; and to seek medical advice if any signs of infection become apparent (eg redness/tracking spreading out from the wound).
What you can (in theory) catch from your pet rabbit
Diseases that humans can catch from animals are called “zoonoses”. There are a few zoonoses reported from pet rabbits, but nothing really significant to normal healthy people: Cheyletiella fur mites are commonly seen in pet rabbits; this condition is often known as ‘walking dandruff’. They can cause a mild rash in humans which is often itchy. If your rabbit is diagnosed with Cheyletiella and you are concerned that you or a family member may have contracted it, then it is advised that you seek advice from your GP.
The bacteria Pasteurella multocida (one of the possible causes of snuffles, a chronic respiratory illness causing sneezing and nasal discharge) lurks in the mouth and nasal passages of many rabbits. Theoretically, this could lead to a Pasteurella wound infection if a rabbit bites a human, but in reality it is quite unusual for rabbit bites to become infected at all. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, bites from omnivorous or carnivorous animals are far more likely to become infected than those from a herbivore rabbit: cat bites are notoriously high risk for becoming infected, due to bacteria such as Pasteurella. Secondly, rabbits’ teeth are chisel-shaped, and rabbit bite wounds are wider at the top than the bottom, which encourages healthy healing. Nevertheless, it is always sensible to thoroughly clean any bite or scratch with soap and water as soon as possible, and ensure that tetanus immunisations are up to date.
Five tetanus immunisation injections are currently considered to offer lifelong protection against tetanus from low-risk injuries such as cuts and scratches. Hence, very few people actually need a booster when they cut themselves – most young adults in the UK have had five jabs. Children who are up to date with their immunisations are covered too. If you don’t know how many tetanus immunisations you’ve had in total, it’s worth checking with your GP, so you know whether you need to get a booster if you do cut yourself or get scratched by your bunny!
Another respiratory tract bacteria that can cause “snuffles” – Bordetella bronchiseptica – is sometimes found in healthy rabbits. This species of bacteria causes kennel cough in dogs, and is related to Bordetella pertussis, which produces whooping cough in humans. There are reports of B. bronchiseptica causing a mild, self-limiting coughing illness in humans, but only the severely immunocompromised need be concerned.
Rabbits can get fleas, which can then bite humans. The actual rabbit flea is rarely found in pet rabbits, unless outdoor bunnies have come into contact with wild rabbits. Cat or dog fleas are much more common, so it should be no surprise that cats and dogs are the source of most rabbit flea infestations! Multi-species households need a multi-species flea control strategy, and this is much easier now that products are available specifically licensed for dogs, cats and rabbits. Never use flea control products that are not licensed for use in rabbits – some dog/cat flea treatments are dangerous to rabbits, especially Fipronil, which is marketed as several spot on products, including Frontline and has been responsible for countless rabbit deaths.
This is actually a fungal infection, not a worm – can be passed from rabbit to human, and vice-versa! Both the infected rabbit and human/s require treatment. Theoretically, salmonella, listeria and pseudotuberculosis can be passed from rabbits to humans, but the risk is vanishingly small and you are far more likely to catch these diseases via contaminated food.
E. cuniculi is a parasite that is responsible for causing a host of health problems in pet rabbits. Studies showed that 52% of clinically healthy rabbits had been exposed to the parasite at some point in their lives. How many of these would go on to develop clinical signs of the parasite is unknown. E. cuniculi can infect humans, but is only thought to be a risk to severely immunocompromised individuals. If you do have an extremely poor immune system it would be advisable to speak to your doctor regarding the risks.
Most rabbit owners don’t need to worry about catching illnesses from their pet bunnies. Exceptions to the rule would be, people who are very severely immunocompromised (eg due to chemotherapy; long term steroids; or HIV/AIDS). These individuals need to take extra care around all animals (and people!) as their immune system may not be strong enough to protect them from infections that most people would just shrug off. Contact between immunocompromised humans and sick pets is particularly hazardous. Pet owners with medical conditions that seriously affect immune function should talk to their doctor and/or their vet for more specific advice.
What you CAN’T catch from rabbits
This is caused by a protozoal parasite, which can infect most mammalian species, including rabbits. Toxoplasmosis infection is a particular concern to pregnant women, because it poses a significant hazard to unborn children. Humans become infected by eating undercooked meat from infected animals, or by contact with cat faeces in litter trays or, (more commonly) contaminated garden soil. However, cats are the only species capable of spreading the disease when alive. This is why pregnant women are advised not to handle cat litter trays, or to wear gloves if they must do so. Rabbit faeces are not a source of infection and live rabbits cannot spread toxoplasmosis. Similarly, although rabbits can become infected with various species of tapeworms (see below), humans can only catch tapeworms from rabbits by eating them, so again, not an issue for the pet rabbit owner. Rabbit litter trays pose no specific hazard to pregnant women, though standard hygiene precautions should always be taken and hands washed after dealing with rabbit urine and faeces.
Another protozoal parasitic infection, and can also be dismissed as a human health concern. The species of coccidia found in rabbits are species specific and should not infect humans. A similar parasite, Cryptosporidium, can affect both rabbits and humans (it causes a diarrhoeal illness) and theoretically spread from rabbit to human. However, this is unlikely – you are more likely to catch Cryptosporidium from inadequately treated domestic water supplies, or when travelling abroad.
Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease
Deadly viral diseases pet rabbits must to be vaccinated against, do not affect humans.
What your rabbit can catch from you
We are not aware of many diseases that rabbits can catch from humans. We have already mentioned ringworm, but whether this is because diseases don’t pass from human to rabbit, or whether it is because we don’t recognise or look for them, remains to be seen. One hazard that most rabbit owners will not be aware of is that rabbits are highly susceptible to herpes simplex virus or HSV, which causes cold sores in humans. HSV can cause a nasty brain infection (encephalitis) in rabbits, with features such as sudden head tilt and loss of balance that could mimic a dramatic middle ear infection, or E. cuniculi related problems. HSV has been reported in literature having affected rabbits who developed HSV encephalitis following close contact with their owners who were suffering from HSV cold sores. It isn’t know how significant this risk is, but until more information is available, we would advise rabbit owners with an active cold sore to wash their hands before handling their rabbit and definitely not to kiss the bunny until the cold sore has gone.
What your rabbits can catch from other animals
As far as we are aware, parasites are the main hazard to your rabbit from other animals. Within the household, cats and dogs can bring home fleas to leap onto your rabbit (and you!). An integrated flea control strategy is recommended for multi-species households, and your local veterinary practice is the best place to go for advice, as they can supply more effective treatments than are available in pet shops and supermarkets. Always use products that are specifically licensed for use on the species intended. Green food collected from fields and grass verges can be a source for worm infections. Various intestinal worms can be acquired from green food contaminated by wild rabbit droppings.
Tapeworms can be acquired if rabbits eat vegetation contaminated with carnivore faeces, usually fox droppings, although domestic dogs and cats are a possible source of transmission too. Rabbits are an ‘intermediate host’ for tapeworm infection – the worms cannot complete their lifecycle in the rabbit, hence rabbits cannot pass on tapeworm infections except by being eaten – but infected bunnies may develop tapeworm cysts in the skin (which may not pose much of a problem) or liver (which can be very serious). If you do collect green food from outside your garden (or if wild animals come into your garden) – do wash them thoroughly before use. Similarly, ensure that any dogs and cats you own are wormed regularly, particularly if they scavenge or hunt, for the protection of both you and your bunny!
What your rabbits can give to other animals
Just as pet rabbits don’t pose a significant hazard to you, they are pretty harmless to other animals too. One exception may be guinea pigs, which (theoretically) are susceptible to serious respiratory problems if they catch Bordetella bronchiseptica; a bacterium that many rabbits carry sub-clinically in their nasal cavity. We don’t recommend keeping rabbits and guinea pigs together in the first place as there are real health and welfare issues since the species are so different and require company of their own kind.
There are two certainties in both human and veterinary medicine: there’s no such word as “never”, and advice changes as information becomes available. We have brought you the most up to date information we could find, but cannot accept responsibility for any harm that may result if we turn out to be wrong. However, we’re only saying this because we would be daft not to….. we don’t want to be sued in twenty years time if someone catches a disease from a rabbit that we don’t even know exists at the time of writing! We share our homes with our rabbits just like you do, and as we said at the start…. don’t lose any sleep! Being realistic…. contact with our fellow humans is far, far more hazardous than bunnies will ever be!
This article first appeared in “Rabbiting On” in Spring 2004.It was revised and updated by Dr Linda Dykes in August 2006. © Linda Dykes/RWA 2006, and by Claire Speight RVN in December 2012. Reviewed by Richard Saunders BSc BVSc CBiol MSB CertZooMed DZooMed (Mammalian) MRCVSin Feb 2013.