Rabbit Coccidiosis
Four empty rabbit tractor, a sad sight after a coccidiosis infestation.

Rabbit coccidiosis is an extremely contagious infection caused by protozoa parasites that can infect the digestive tract or liver of rabbits. It can be difficult to diagnose and treat. Last week, we had to cull twenty young rabbits after an outbreak was discovered on our homestead.  

Both my husband and I were heartbroken. I coped by sitting in the car eating chocolate sunflower butter cups writing this while my husband mowed the grass where the rabbit tractors used to be.  

Unfortunately, for many of us who don’t have farming in our background we can do lots of reading on the basics of raising rabbits, but the hard lessons often come with tragic situations.  We’ve had to learn the hard way that raising rabbits is not an easy homestead project. 

Rabbit Coccidiosis

We’ve never dealt with rabbit coccidiosis on our little farm.  We’ve only been farming for about a year so I guess we were due for a hard lesson (if all the hard work and reseach isn’t hard enough).  I don’t think I’ve been this emotional about a loss before. The animals in our care matter a lot to me and to see what was going on inside the sick rabbits we found was traumatizing.

The problem with hepatic cocci is there are very few signs and symptoms.  We’ve had slow growth problems this year, which are gradually improving, so the slow growth rates weren’t as big of a flag as they should have been.  

On Friday, as I was running out the door to give a tour at Whiffletree Farm, I found the first rabbit laying almost unable to move in the tractor. I had to make a quick decision.  The head tilted back and the lethargy told me this rabbit was too far gone and trying to save it would prolong it’s misery. I humanely dispatched and put it in the fridge to necropsy later.  

Right before we were to necropsy that rabbit we found another in a different tractor, in the same position, near lifeless.  We necropsied both and the sight was disgusting. There was hardly any meat on their frames, their livers took up almost the entire cavity and were covered in cocci spots.  

I am not one to medicate my animals, but this was too urgent.  We bought corrid and started treatment.

But, today, we had to make a real decision.  Were we going to fight a long, exhausting battle to try to save these rabbits? One that might not succeed?  One that would require daily sanitization of every cage?

Ultimately, we decided it was best for both us and the rabbits if we culled them.  My husband, kindly, dispatched them for me. I was in such a state of emotion and shock it was hard for me to handle. I did come and look at a kit from the third litter and while not as dramatic, there was definitely an infection and little muscle tissue.  

I talked to quite a few breeders and specialists as we struggled to make this decision.  A good $300 was on the line as well as months of work. Ultimately, we couldn’t guarantee that these rabbits would be able to make a full recovery and seeing the skin and bones inside these rabbits it would be difficult and a long journey to help them recover.  

Rabbit Coccidiosis: Rabbit in the Grass

The Cause of Rabbit Coccidiosis on Our Farm

I do think we pinned down the problem.  We struggled with the cost of non-GMO feed, but weren’t willing to move to conventional due to our principles and our customer base.  So, we trialed a custom loose feed that would be a much cheaper option. We were on the feed for about two months until we noticed several rabbits with loose poops.  We pulled them off immediately and worked hard to find another solution (which we did, but is a topic for another post). A month after we pulled the feed the first rabbit went down.  We think the feed was too high starch which led to yeast overgrowth and a weakened immune system. The animals were suffering from bloat (common with yeast overgrowth). I talked to our local ag lab and the doctor there agreed that it was hepatic cocci and said rabbits are just prone to this.

Coccidiosis Prevention

Talking to farmers I respect, the solution all leads back to one thing: strong immune systems and genetics.  

All rabbits are exposed to cocci, but rabbits with weak immune systems and genetics are the ones that deal with infection.  We will need to cull hard for immunity as we expand and continue to improve our rabbitry with good genetic lines.

Daniel Salatin was nice enough to help me out again and willing to let me share his response here:

Welcome to the wreck!  Rabbits get cocci from the ground.  That is where it lives.  When the rabbits are on the ground (tractors) they can and will get it.  IF they have not been bred or selected for hardiness. I may have told you that I went though a time at my starting point where I lost 80% plus!  But the ones that lived had bunny’s that did a bit better, and better and better….25 years later, my rabbits can go in pens on grass and do great.  I still get a liver now and again with a few spots but not enough to hurt the growth rate much.

Daniel suggested we do one of three things.

  1. Work through this and selectively breed for hardiness for 2-3 years.
  2. Get stock that has already been selected for hardiness.
  3. Cut and carry to the cages.  

We are going to do a combo of all three. We will continue to select for hardiness among our rabbits and buy stock accordingly, but will settle on hanging cages for a little while until we feel confident that our kits have been bred well to be hardy enough to handle the ground.

Research has also shown that feeding rabbits twigs from trees rich in tannins, such as oaks, can prevent rabbit coccidiosis up to 60%

So, I need to look at this as an exciting project, just like all the other goals I have set for our rabbitry.  While we wait for our hard work to pay off there we can enjoy the quail, ducks, and sheep that are thriving and making exciting developments.  It sure is nice when only one of the animals falls apart at a time!

Rabbits & Coccidiosis: When Things Fall Apart