Rabbits shouldn't itch themselves any more than you would. If your pet rabbit seems excessively itchy or scratches a lot, then it may have a problem that needs to be addressed. Various things, from mites to allergies, can cause a rabbit to itch or scratch, but thankfully these are treatable.
Why Do Rabbits Itch and Scratch?
When an animal experiences severe itching and scratching, it is called pruritus. In a rabbit, it can be due to any number of things. No matter the cause, it's important to get it taken care of right away for the health of your rabbit.
Cheyletiella parasitivorax are microscopic mites that live in the fur of rabbits. Cheyletiella are blood-sucking parasites that have to bite your rabbit in order to feed, which causes your rabbit to itch or scratch.
Fur mites are also referred to as "walking dandruff" because they are often seen moving the dead skin around on rabbits, creating the appearance of mobile skin cells. They may start off in a small area on your rabbit, but if left untreated, they can spread all over its fur, into the environment in which they live, and even to other rabbits and pets. Even if your rabbit never goes outside, it can get fur mites from food or bedding that you bring into the home.
While not as common as some other parasites, lice do infest rabbits. They are species specific, so humans and other pets that aren't rabbits cannot get them.
Many people don't think that rabbits can get fleas, but the reality is that any pet with fur can. Fleas, like fur mites, are blood-sucking parasites that bite rabbits, which in turn causes them to itch or scratch.
Fleas lay about 40 eggs every day, so even if you only see one or two adult fleas on your rabbit, they've probably already laid hundreds of eggs. Fleas can also bite humans, but people are not viable hosts to these pests, so they cannot survive solely off of human blood.
Indoor rabbits can get fleas just like outdoor rabbits. Other pets in the household can give your rabbit fleas and they can be tracked in from the outdoors. Fleas can also find their own way into homes just like other insects, such as ants and spiders.
A flea comb will help you find fleas and flea dirt. Flea dirt is their cylindrical feces that will turn red if rubbed into a wet cotton swab. This is a good trick for distinguishing the digested blood from normal environmental dirt.
Your rabbit can develop dry skin which can make them itch or scratch. Rooms with very low humidity, dusty environments, poor diets, and bathing your rabbit too often with inappropriate shampoos can all contribute to or cause your rabbit to have dry skin. If you can determine the cause of the dry skin, then you should be able to reverse it. For temporary relief, there are rabbit-safe spray products available.
Psoroptes cuniculiis are ear mites that cause itching and scratching. They can be spread from rabbit to rabbit, so wash your hands after handling a rabbit with itchy ears. You may notice hair loss around the ears, scabs, or the ears may look especially dirty. A head tilt, flopped ear, or head shaking are also signs of an ear mite infestation, and it doesn't always affect both ears. If you notice any of these things, your rabbit needs to be seen by a veterinarian.
Just like people, some rabbits can be sensitive to certain things and even have allergies that cause them to itch or scratch. Usually, these allergies are environmental and not food-based, so changes can be made with bedding, cleaners, and air purifiers to make your rabbit more comfortable at home. Common environmental allergens to rabbits are laundry softeners and detergents with pets who have blankets.
Rabbits can also be allergic to parasites, such as fur mites and fleas. This will make an infestation of these pests even more irritating to your pet.
In addition to allergies, rabbits can also be irritated by certain items, especially if they aren't meant for rabbits. Shampoos, conditioners, sprays, and air fresheners can all be irritants to rabbits. If you use a new product, such as a shampoo, and the next day your rabbit is itching, it may be because it was too harsh for your rabbit's skin. This is often seen with products meant for dogs that are used on rabbits.
Caused by two main types of fungus (Trichophyton mentagrophytes and Microsporum Canis), ringworm is a fungal infection that causes hair loss, itching, and red "ringworm" lesions in rabbits. People can contract ringworm from a rabbit.
The main cause of ringworm, as well as mites and fleas, is direct contact with an infected rabbit. When you bring a new rabbit into your home, be sure to keep it separate from your other rabbits until you are sure it does not have an infection. Rabbits can also contract ringworm from brushes that were used on a rabbit with ringworm and dirty environments.
Urine scald—feces that has remained in prolonged contact with your rabbit's skin—and generally unclean environments may cause your rabbit to develop a skin infection. These can be very itchy and should be treated right away.
How to Stop Itching and Scratching
The methods used to stop a rabbit's itching and scratching depend on the cause. However, a number of these problems are solved through the same means and can be prevented by keeping your rabbit's environment clean.
- Fur mites are highly contagious to other rabbits. If you have other pets in your house and your rabbit is diagnosed with Cheyletiella, care should be taken to not spread these parasites to other animals. Wash your hands after handling your rabbit and throw away the food and bedding in its cage.
- For fur and ear mites, lice, and fleas, freeze all unused food and bedding that you purchased from a pet store or online. The parasites can be brought into your home with such items, so freezing them before use is also a good way to prevent an infestation.
- If your exotics vet diagnoses your rabbit with mites, they will most likely prescribe a medication, such as Selamectin. It will kill the infestation without harming your rabbit. Over-the-counter products are typically not safe for rabbits and you should always consult your veterinarian prior to administering any product.
- If you find fleas or flea dirt on your rabbit, then you need to treat your rabbit and all other pets with fur in the household with a safe medication, just like you would for fur mites. You will also need to clean and treat the environment. Some rabbit owners will use boric acid powder in their carpeting and various flea sprays and room bombs sold at pet stores. If you choose to use these products, make sure your rabbit is out of the room you are treating for at least 24 hours.
- If your rabbit has environmental allergies, use fragrance-free softeners and detergents meant for babies or sensitive skin to wash their blankets. If symptoms continue, look to other possible allergens within your rabbit's environment and try to correct those.
- Ringworm is usually treated with topical ointments or oral medication prescribed by your exotics vet.
- Skin infections typically require prescription medications. An anti-itch spray is available that is safe to use on rabbits, but if the root of the problem is not addressed, it is merely providing temporary relief.