I’ve had this very contagious disease pop up a couple of times in my meat herd, usually as a result of pasturing my young rabbits. You can very easily tell if you have sick bunnies: they lose their appetites, their backbones become visible and noticeably palpable, they act listless and they develop chronic diarrhea. Don’t lose hope though, you can almost always bring sick rabbits back to perfect health without resorting to pharmaceuticals if you catch it early enough.
I was given a bottle of some foul brown liquid from a breeder when I acquired my first rabbit pair, and was instructed to add it to the water for five days on, five days off and five days on again as a coccidia preventative. I dutifully did so at first, and my bunnies hated it. I didn’t know any better. The bottle still sits half full on the shelf almost four years later and I will likely never use it again. Instead I’ve developed a natural method for treating this often deadly disease. Of course now my main focus is prevention and it hasn’t been an issue since then.
Coccidia is a parasite that is found pretty much everywhere in the soil. Young rabbits are more susceptible to it than adults. If you have rabbits on pasture or feed fresh greens there is always the possibility of infestation. It’s passed on through rabbit feces via cysts. If one young bunny in a colony has it, they probably all do. The best prevention is to keep rabbit environments clean, raise rabbits on wire-bottomed cages, move pastured rabbits to fresh ground frequently, dry or thoroughly wash fresh greens and keep bunnies away from soil that has recently been occupied by other types of livestock or pets, especially chickens and dogs.
All right, so the worst has happened, your bunnies are sick. If they have the symptoms listed above and have been exposed to pasture/greens, they probably have coccidiosis. Here are the immediate steps to take:
Clean. You must disinfect the environment or get your rabbits to fresh pasture immediately. I recommend getting them off the ground completely if they become sick and putting them into a wire-bottomed cage where feces can drop away and not recontaminate them. You can either use bleach or white vinegar to thoroughly clean all cages, water vessels and toys. Be sure to rinse well in fresh water after disinfection. Wire-bottomed cages with appropriately-sized spacing (1/2″ by 1″) are not cruel. Rabbits have well-furred feet that are adapted to rough surfaces and their nails hang down naturally through the wire adding to their comfort.
Water. If you don’t already do this, begin adding apple cider vinegar to the water. One tablespoon per 32 oz. water bottle is sufficient, but you may add as much as you want as long as your rabbits will still drink. This acidifies the gut, adds trace minerals and is excellent for overall gastrointestinal health. I use small amounts of ACV in my rabbit water all year round. It helps prevent algae growth, promotes good health and if you take your rabbits to a show in a different town, the drinking water there will still taste familiar to them. I’ve also noticed increased vigor in all my bunnies once I made this permanent addition.
Blackberry. This is the most vital element to combating the parasite. Blackberry leaves and vines are one of the most important medicinal plants for rabbits and luckily they grow as invasive weeds in most places in the world. You’ll likely never have to drive far to find some, even in the dead of winter. Provide your rabbit with as much fresh or dried leaves and vines as they can eat. Don’t worry about the thorns, your rabbit will likely eat them first. Avoid giving the blackberry drupes (fruit) themselves if possible, although a few here or there will not hurt. Blackberry is a powerful anti-diarrhea herb for rabbits and in many cases, prolonged loose stools are the real reason your rabbit will lose the battle with coccidia. Also be sure to provide plentiful dry grass hay and clean pelleted food. Stop feeding any other vegetable or fruit treats. Promptly remove any food that becomes soiled or contaminated with feces.
With this regimen initiated at the very first signs of sickness, I have rarely lost a bun to the disease. Your rabbit may sustain some level of liver or intestinal damage from the parasite, but in most cases they go on to live perfectly normal and healthy lives. If you butcher meat rabbits that have been infected, you may notice yellow or white spots on the liver as a result. Affected livers like these should not be consumed by humans. To see photos of an infected liver, you can check out my previous post on hepatic coccidiosis here.
Keep those bunnies healthy! 🙂