When to use them, what to choose and how to use them safely

By Dr Brigette Lord, Rabbiting On Veterinary Adviser

This article first appeared in Rabbiting On, Summer 2018

Most of the time, good hygiene is all that is needed to keep your pet rabbits’ environment healthy and prevent the spread of disease. Unfortunately there are times when your rabbit may be at an increased risk of catching a contagious disease, for example if another rabbit in the household is ill with a contagious disease. The role of disinfection is to lessen the spread of potential contagious material.

Preventing disease spread

Another definition for disinfection is “A process which reduces the number of organisms present to a level where they do not pose a threat to health”. Common contagious and fatal diseases in rabbits are the myxomatosis virus, rabbit viral haemorrhagic disease strain 1 and 2 (RHVD 1 & 2) and Encephalitozoon cuniculi, now classified as a fungus. Other contagious diseases include fungal dermatitis (ringworm) and viruses and bacteria that cause diarrhoea (e.g. Escherichia coli, Clostridium, rotavirus). The key to effective disinfection is good hygiene. All bedding (hay, shavings, paper, straw, blankets), and litter soiled by urine and faeces should be removed and disposed of. All surfaces of the enclosure, hutch or room should be washed with washing up liquid and water first. After they are dry the surfaces should be wetted thoroughly with a suitable disinfectant. Potentially contaminated surfaces include: cage or run floor, walls, ceiling, door, and door latch, door handles, hay racks, water bottle clips, and any other cage furniture which cannot be removed. individual items that can be removed should be cleaned and then thoroughly wetted in the disinfectant. Disinfection should not be carried out in the same room as the rabbits. Most disinfectants may cause irritation to the eyes, skin and if inhaled or ingested irritation to the respiratory or digestive system. The user should always follow the directions on the bottle and wear appropriate personal protection like gloves, goggles, possibly a mask or scarf, to reduce inhaling or swallowing droplets of disinfection. Old clothes are probably sensible.

What to choose?

Selecting the appropriate disinfectant for the suspected or diagnosed disease organism can be helped by comparing different properties of the disinfectants (see table). Factors including what organisms the disinfectant can kill, how practical and safe they are to use for the owner (and rabbits when re-housed), cost and availability will all need to be considered. Using bleach is very effective, cheap and readily available, and only requires short contact times, but great care must be used to avoid injury to the user during the application of bleach. The cage/hutch/run may also need to be left to air dry in a well ventilated space for up to 24 hours before it is safe to rehouse the rabbits. Bleach may not be practical for cleaning the area in the home where a house rabbit lives. Temporary accommodation away from the disinfection site is required for the rabbits during the cleaning and disinfection process. Virkon S or Anigene HLD4V have longer contact times but are much less toxic so easier to use safely, and the animals can be rehoused once their accommodation is dry. This would allow them to be in their run or a room for just a few hours. Bear in mind that the area they are temporarily housed in will also need to be cleaned and disinfected, so allowing them to be free range in your house may not be sensible.

Wooden housing is always difficult to clean effectively
Photo credit: C Ball
Vanodine has not been tested with rabbit diseases

How to use them?

The concentration, strength or dilution of the disinfectant is important. All disinfectants are relatively effective at destroying or inactivating most viruses and bacteria. However, high concentrations and a long contact time is required to kill egg-like strudtures (parasite eggs, cysts, oocysts and spores). Cleanliness is the key to reducing the amunt of contagious material. Some disinfectants are inactivated by faeces, urine, blood, food and debris, so even if they claim to “clean and disinfect”, cleaning followed by a disinfection stage is required. These disinfectants can be used to clean, but heavily soiled areas, solid faeces or hardened food in bowls should always be removed first for the best results.

Allowing the disinfectant to be in contact with the contagious material for long enough, also known as the contact time is essential, before rinsing with plenty of water – “the solution to pollution is dilution”. Always use them at the concentrations stated by the manufacturers; stronger concentrations may be dangerous, weaker concentration ineffective. See table for comparing different disinfectants and how to use them for concentrations and contact times. Disinfectants are designed to clean hard surfaces such as floors, metal or plastic cages or trays. Wooden hutches will always be a challenge to fully disinfect as there are many cracks and crevices that can collect contagious material and they are difficult to clean and disinfect completely. Making sure the wooden hutch or frame of the run is as clean as possible before being meticulous and thoroughly wetting all surfaces and corners with a suitable disinfectant, left on for the longest recommended contact times, will help. Steam cleaning may be useful after washing and before disinfection, to help get into the hard to reach areas. Never mix any disinfectant with other household chemicals or other disinfectants, as this may release harmful gases. Rinsing with plenty of water after the correct contact time is sensible to make the environment safe and pleasant for your rabbit again.

Disinfection is not recommended as part of routine care of your rabbit as it is not required and all the disinfectants have a strong smell. This can be unsettling for your rabbit and repeated exposure may irritate the delicate lining of the respiratory system (nose, sinuses and bronchi of the lungs). Cleaning removes the majority of disease causing pathogens.

Anigene has a longer contact time but is less toxic
Virkon S is effective in a soiled environment

References and further reading

All accessed 23/02/18

  • Disinfectant concentration measured as Number of Parts Water to One Part Disinfectants. 1:50 means 1 litre disinfectant to 50 litres water or, for a smaller volume, you could make up 100ml disinfectant to 5000ml (5 litres) water.
  • Note: Other benzalkonium chloride disinfectants and inorganic peroxygen compounds may be available in addition to those named above