Fleas and your rabbit
Many people forget that rabbits can get fleas too! Although rabbits get fleas less frequently than their cat or dog counterparts, they can catch the itchy critters from other family pets or from wild rabbits.
If you are concerned that your rabbit may have fleas, read our expert advice below or book an appointment with your local vet.
More about fleas and your rabbit
Fleas are small, wingless insects that, despite their inability to fly, can travel huge distances by jumping. To survive fleas must feast on warm blood, and they aren’t fussy – most household pets can be bitten by fleas, and sadly humans are also at risk too.
Did you know there are over 2,000 species of flea? Rabbits, if they do get fleas, are most likely to pick up the cat flea; although there is a rabbit-specific flea, this is seen much more rarely.
Flea Reproduction Cycle
- An adult flea lays eggs. She must have fed to lay (an adult flea that cannot find food will die before laying). She can lay up to 500 eggs in her lifetime!
- The eggs are small and white, and while they are often laid on the host, they aren’t attached in any way. This means as your pet moves around your home the eggs will slide off, and get buried into carpet fibres, cracks in the floor, soft furnishings, hutch corners and pet bedding. It is estimated that if you have fleas in your home, half of the population will currently be in egg form.
- Eggs will hatch into flea larvae within twelve days. These larvae are like the caterpillar stage of butterflies – completely different to the adults. Larvae do not feed on blood, and instead feed on organic debris in the home. They don’t like the light, so tend to burrow deeper into wherever they are. This means you rarely see them, although they actually make up about 35% of the flea population in your home.
- After approximately 1-3 weeks, larvae will spin themselves a cocoon and start to change into adult fleas. The developing larvae in side are now called pupae. Approximately 10% of the flea population in your home at any time will be pupae.
- It is the pupae that make fleas so difficult to eradicate. In favourable conditions, pupae will hatch into adult fleas within days to weeks, but in unfavourable conditions pupae can remain dormant in their cocoons for months! They are also sticky, so are hard to remove with light vacuuming or sweeping.
- When conditions are right an adult flea will emerge. They must locate a new host quickly, and feed, in order to start the life cycle again and lay their eggs. These adult fleas are not fussy, and can jump on a rabbit, even if they originated from a dog or cat!
It is unusual for rabbits to get fleas unless another household pet, such as a cat or a dog, has fleas first. These fleas then jump from one pet to another, and can put your rabbit at risk. Outdoor rabbits may also contract fleas from wild rabbits.
Some rabbits may not show any signs of a flea infestation, but signs of a flea infestation can include:
- Your rabbit nibbling or biting at their skin. If you have more than one rabbit, or any other furry pets in the home, you may see them also itching. You may even be itching yourself, and see red bumps on your skin where fleas have bitten, especially if your rabbit lives inside.
- Flea dirt. Flea eggs are white and hard to spot, but flea dirt (a mixture of flea poo and dried blood) can often be seen on the skin of pets who have fleas. This looks like little reddish brown specks, and can be mistaken for grains of soil. A good test to see if specks on your rabbit’s coat are actual dirt or flea dirt is the wet paper test. Get some damp paper towel or cotton wool and gently wipe up some of the specks. If the area around the speck turns reddish-brown, it’s flea dirt.
- Live fleas. You may be able to see live fleas in your rabbit’s coat if you part the fur or stroke them backwards. Fleas are very fast though, and can be difficult to spot! Along the spine and around the neck are good places to look.
- Anaemia. In heavily infested rabbits, a flea infestation can cause so much blood loss that the rabbit becomes anaemic. This can look like weakness, and pale gums.
- Hair loss and scaling. Patches of hair loss, and dandruff-like skin scaling may be seen on your rabbit, giving them a moth-eaten appearance.
Some of these signs can also be seen with other skin parasites or diseases. If you see any of these signs, getting your rabbit checked out by your local vet can make sure you get the right diagnosis and treatment.
Although fleas are rare in rabbits, they do come with a large risk. Fleas are capable of transmitting the rabbit virus myxomatosis, which is almost always fatal.
Thankfully, rabbits can be vaccinated against myxomatosis, which provides protection against this serious disease. For more information on vaccinating your rabbit, look here.
Vets do not recommend routine treatment against fleas as it is quite uncommon. In households with cats and dogs, keeping their flea protection up to date should provide protection for your rabbits too.
If you do see signs of fleas in your rabbit, your vet can recommend rabbit-safe treatment which is easily applied.
If your rabbit already has fleas, don’t panic! Although an infestation can take time to eradicate, your vet will help provide you with everything you need to get on top of fleas in your home or hutch.
To take a look at which of our household pets can get fleas, have a look at our dedicated flea homepage.
For Indoor Rabbits
- Treat all rabbits, cats and dogs in the home with flea treatment.
- Check other furry family members carefully to check they are not also infested, and treat if required.
- Treat ALL through your home.
- Treat cats and dogs with flea treatment regularly going forward.
The initial population of fleas can be reduced by:
- Flea treatment for all pets.
- Flea-killing house spray (make sure to read to safety label).
- Carpet cleaning.
- Regular hoovering and sweeping, including in the darkest and hardest to reach areas – Don’t forget to throw away the dust bag from your vacuum cleaner after every use, else the flea larvae may escape back out!
- Hot washing fabrics at over 60 degrees, as this will destroy any fleas.
By doing all the above you can dramatically reduce the number of fleas in your home. The flea treatment for your pets will turn them into walking ‘flea killers’ and means that adult fleas will die without producing any more eggs. By treating the house, you will kill or remove many of the eggs and pupae that can be found in the home.
For Outdoor Rabbits
- Treat all rabbits, cats and dogs in the home with flea treatment. Check other furry family members carefully to check they are not also infested, and treat if required.
- If any indoor pets have fleas, make sure to treat the house as well as the outdoor hutch.
- Clean and disinfect the hutch thoroughly. Make sure to read the warning labels carefully on any cleaners, and do not put your rabbit back into a treated hutch until it is safe to do so.
A common flea killer used on cats and dogs is fipronil. This ingredient is safe for cats and dogs but can kill rabbits. Never treat your rabbit with a flea treatment that your vet has not confirmed is rabbit-safe. Veterinary prescription products are available that are fully licenced for rabbits, and getting one of these from your vet is the safest and most effective way to treat fleas on your rabbit. Keep cats and dogs who have been treated with a fipronil-based product away from rabbits for several days.
Rabbit flea treatments are most commonly in the form of spot-ons. Please note that flea dips and shampoos are not recommended for rabbits.
Our main UK fleas are not very fussy, and are more than happy to snack on an unsuspecting human! Making us itchy and sore, flea bites are often an unpleasant herald of the presence of fleas in the home.
Flea bites can also cause more than itchy skin. Bartonella (also called cat scratch disease) can be transmitted by flea faeces; either by being accidentally ingested, or by getting into small breaks in the skin. Causing a low grade fever and swelling of the lymph nodes, bartonella infection can often be mistaken for the flu, and in many cases resolves on its own. Sadly, however, in some people bartonella infection can develop and cause chronic fatigue and headaches, and may become very debilitating.