Sunday 16 June 2019

Myxomatosis virus can spread rapidly in rabbits

Pete Wedderburn

THE RABBIT in this photo is called Gloria. When she was brought in to see me a month ago, she had that dreadful disease called Myxomatosis. .

This is usually an automatic death sentence for rabbits, but there was something about Gloria that made her different. There was a sense that her desire to live was unusually strong. We decided that her theme song must surely be that old disco classic "I Will Survive", by Gloria Gaynor

Gloria is a pet rabbit who was abandoned. She was found in a driveway in a built up area. The suspicion is that her original owner got rid of her when they realised that their pet rabbit was sick. They just drove down the road, opened their car door, and dumped her on the cold tarmac. Judy found her there, hunched up and miserable, with bulging, swollen eyes.

Judy brought Gloria down to see me, and as soon as I laid my eyes on the poor animal, I felt gloomy. I have never seen a rabbit survive Myxomatosis. Why should this one be any different?

There was no doubt about the diagnosis: Gloria had the classic swelling of the eyelids, with pus accumulating behind them. When I teased her eyelids open, white globules of infectious material spilled out. There were other key signs: she had swellings on her underside too.

Myxomatosis is caused by the Myxoma virus which originates as a mild disease in American rabbits. It's a different story with European Rabbits. The virus causes a rapidly progressive disease that starts with puffiness around the head and underside. Affected rabbits become listless, lose their appetite, develop a fever and often go blind. Secondary bacterial infection causes pneumonia and other complications. Death follows, sometimes in days, but often not for several weeks. The virus spreads easily from one rabbit to another, by direct contact or via fleas, which are common in wild rabbits.

In one of those classic examples of man meddling with nature, Myxomatosis has been used to control wild rabbit populations around the world. It started in Australia , where the Myxoma virus was released in 1950. As a method of pest control, it was devastatingly effective, reducing the estimated rabbit population from 600 million to 100 million in two years. After being introduced to the UK in 1953, it destroyed 95% of the native rabbit population. The virus arrived in Ireland in 1954, and again, wild rabbits were decimated. The use of the virus in this way has been controversial: rabbits suffer greatly before they die. Many readers will have found "Myxy" rabbits themselves, lying collapsed and close to death in the countryside. You don't need to be an expert to realise that it's a dreadful way to end a life.

A small proportion of wild rabbits somehow survive, and their offspring also have an ability to combat Myxomatosis. As a result, it's estimated that one-in-three wild rabbits now survive the disease. It's still a problem for Ireland's wild rabbits, but at least it has not caused the extinction of one of the country's oldest mammals.

Myxomatosis is an immense issue for pet rabbits. A vaccine is available and it's strongly recommended that all young rabbits should be given this, as well as annual boosters. Without vaccination, there's minimal natural resistance in the strains of rabbits that are kept as pets, so when they pick up the disease, it's nearly always a death sentence. If you read any textbook about rabbit care, the advice is invariably that euthanasia should be carried out on humane grounds if a pet rabbit is suspected to have Myxomatosis.

So what happened with Gloria? As soon as I saw her, I reached for the bottle of euthanasia solution. The chance of a recovery was minimal. It would be much kinder to give her an instant escape from her suffering.

Yet as I examined her, I had a sense that she had not lost the will to live. After I'd cleaned her swollen eyelids, she peered out at me, her beady brown eyes full of curiosity and interest. I offered her a little food, and she tucked into it hungrily. She did not seem like an animal that was ready to die.

I brought Gloria home with me that day, and we started a twice daily routine that was to continue for a month. I set up a cage for her on top of our Aga in our kitchen: maintaining a high environmental temperature is a key part of defeating the Myxoma virus. She was given twice daily antibiotics and pain relief, and her swollen eyes were cleaned regularly with Aloe Vera gel. Progress was slow. On many occasions, I wondered if I was making a mistake. Her eyelids continued to be so swollen that she could not see out, and on some days, she seemed unhappy. Was I wrong to put her through this?

Yet she continued to enjoy her food: every day, she tucked into large bowlfuls of rabbit mix and a selection of greens. As long as she wanted to eat, I reckoned that this was a sign that she wanted to live.

It took four full weeks of nursing for her to turn the corner: the eyelid swelling finally began to regress. I am confident now that she's going to make a full recovery: the battle has not been in vain.

As Gloria herself might say: "I've got all my life to live, I've got all my love to give, and I'll survive, I will survive!"