Because of the similarity of the disease, rabbit syphilis got its name in reference to human syphilis. In rabbits, syphilis is also a venereal disease.
The causative bacterium is strictly host-specific, i.e., not transmissible to other animals or to humans. Rabbit syphilis is also called spirochetosis or treponematosis, which refers to the genus of the causative bacterium. The medical profession refers to rabbit syphilis as spirochaetosis paraluiscuniculi or spirochaetosis cuniculi for short.
The causative agent of syphilis – a host-specific bacterium
The bacterium with the sonorous name Treponema paraluiscuniculi belongs to the genus of spirochetes, those bacteria with helically twisted cells. A layer of glucosamine glycan is deposited on their cell wall.
They are quite sensitive to oxygen, but need it in low concentrations to be active. The temperature range in which Treponema paraluiscuniculi lives is also narrow, at 30 to 37 degrees. Thus, with an optimal pH of 7.2 to 7.4, they are exposed to perfect conditions within their host.
Treponema occur in diverse genera, but are strictly host specific. Thus, the genus Treponema paraluiscuniculi occurs only in rabbits, whereas syphilis in humans is caused by the genus Treponema pallidum.
Origin of rabbit syphilis
The transmission of rabbit syphilis occurs through direct contact of body fluids with infected animals and is thus usually passed on through the sexual act as a so-called mating disease.
However, transmission of rabbit syphilis can also occur through the mother rabbit to her young, either at birth, by licking or while suckling. Similarly, biting is a possible, although much less common, risk of rabbit syphilis infection.
The incubation period, the time between infection and the first signs of illness, can be weeks to months.
Symptoms of rabbit syphilis
The first clinical signs after the sometimes quite long incubation period are strictly circumscribed hair loss around the nose, mouth, eyes and genital region.
Redness and swelling can then soon be seen on the now visible skin surface. Edema and vesicles subsequently form and secrete a watery to purulent mucous secretion.
Deeper in the skin, small nodules may form that burst open like ulcers.
By licking these intensely itchy lesions, the pathogens are subsequently spread to other parts of the body, a so-called smear infection. These crusty scabs, which can take on quite bizarre forms, can be joined by other bacteria to make matters worse and lead to a superinfection with further ascending inflammations.
If left untreated, these can assume the proportions of blood poisoning and ultimately lead to death.
Diagnosis of rabbit syphilis
Diagnosis is usually based on the typical symptoms of rabbit syphilis. Although it is possible to detect the pathogens under the dark-field microscope with the aid of a skin scraping, this is not relevant in practice and is usually not practiced.
Sufficient for a confirmed diagnosis of rabbit syphilis with appropriate therapy are anamnesis and the characteristic body signs.
Therapy of rabbit syphilis
The treatment of choice for rabbit syphilis is the administration of penicillin. Control of spirochetes is one of the few indications for penicillin use in rabbits.
At the same time, the intestinal flora must be protected from the effects of antibiotic therapy by appropriate administration of probiotics.
Since rabbits are very sensitive to oral (via the mouth) administration of penicillin – the rabbit’s gram-positive intestinal flora is destroyed by the antibiotic – injection therapy over several days is necessary.
For the skin lesions, the veterinarian often prescribes a locally acting antibiotic ointment to prevent possible secondary infections with other bacteria.
If biting has occurred in advance, deep wounds may require additional surgical wound care.
Naturopathically, the skin lesions can be rubbed with colloidal silver, coconut oil or Pinus Fauna. Internally, feeding horseradish (slowly) can have a supportive effect.
In any case, the husbandry conditions must be additionally scrutinized. The sick rabbit must also be separated from its conspecifics until it has recovered. However, visual contact with the other rabbits of the community should be maintained, since the stress provoked by the separation is not conducive to healing.
Rabbit syphilis can be treated very well and has positive healing prospects. However, rabbits that have survived syphilis infection should be excluded from breeding. There may still be latent bacteria in the body even after the disease has been overcome, which can be transmitted during mating.
Preventing syphilis in rabbits
Optimal and species-appropriate housing conditions should be a matter of course for keeping a rabbit healthy in human care. Furthermore, diseased animals and rabbits with healed syphilis should be excluded from breeding.
In general, it is advisable to visit a veterinarian with new additions to the herd in order to exclude contagious diseases. When rabbits are socialized, care should also be taken to avoid biting, as this can also transmit syphilis.
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