Water and Feed Problems in Rabbits – 2007 Epidemic

Laurie, who wrote most of the articles on the Nature Trail, underwent a difficult period in summer 2007 during which she lost a great portion of her rabbit herd.  The cause of the epidemic took a long time to determine, but thanks to her dedication to solving the problem, we can learn a lot from her experience.  Thank you, Lauire, for all you’ve shared with us!

Here it is in her words:

What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Today was the first day of school for us. I am very happy to kiss summer good-bye. I’m generally ready for school, fall, the holidays, and cooler weather, but this year, I have another reason to want to kiss the summer good-bye. It was a horrible time for my rabbitry.

I started the summer, actually late spring around Memorial Day, with 136 rabbits, from adults to babies. Today, I have 21 adults in my herd proper, 12 rabbits for sale (available at the Greensboro, NC, show, September 15), 2 rabbits on hold, 2 cued up to go to the processor, and 12 juniors for a total of 49 Holland Lops.

In between, we buried 55 rabbits, had 18 rabbits butchered out, and sold the balance with no babies coming up to replace them. I hadn’t bred bunnies since early May – until yesterday.

At first, there were just a few deaths. I chalked them up to spring weather being so mercurial. But when deaths 9-12 came very close together on June 16, 2007, I took a body and a fecal sample from a live, but obviously sick rabbit to my vet (who has raised rabbits for 25 years). He performed a gross necropsy and fecal flotation test. He saw no problems except in the intestines – swollen, fluid filled intestines.

  • What I Learned: the correct response to any intestinal problem is to immediately put the rabbits on hay and water – I delayed this step far too long. It was an “I-could’ve-had-a-V-8 moment.”

He found some coccidia in one sample, so we assumed that was the problem and began treatment. We used a sulfa drug (SMZ) for 4 days while awaiting amprolium to come in. After several days on amprolium, there was no improvement and the deaths continued to escalate.

  • What I Learned: coccidia is usually present in some quantity in a rabbit herd at all times; it can be a red herring that distracts you from what’s really going on.
  • What I Learned: most large animal vets keep amprolium, the main ingredient in corrid, on hand at all times.

We decided that it was time to send some rabbits to the state, but I hit some roadblocks because my vet’s contacts were in NC and I live in VA. And my local extension office has a vacancy, so it took the secretary a week to get me an answer of where to take my rabbits, but it was just the number of a wildlife rehabilitator. After numerous phone calls, I finally found that my lab was in Wytheville, VA. I took 2 samples to them on June 27, 2007.

  • What I Learned: there are six regional labs in Virginia. I was able to call our state vet’s office to find out which lab serves my area.

I mentioned to the lab vet that I planned to test my water. He replied that everyone always wants to do that, but that’s never the problem. So, I decided to put that low on my to do list. That was a mistake.

  • What I Learned: “Never” is too hard a word to use. It is sometimes the water. I’ve heard from two other breeders who have had water problems. If you are having problems with your rabbits and its intestinal, have your water tested. If there are no problems, you can just rule it out.

Although I have a long list of things that are not the problem, the final report after five weeks was “no diagnosis.” An unrevealing and unhelpful presumptive diagnosis of mucoid enteropathy or dybacteriosis is included in the report. “Treatment is often unrewarding,” it says – tell me about it !!!

According to the report the cause was not salmonella, not campylobacter, not a lung problem presumably (eliminating pastuerella Sp.), not a liver problem, not K99 E coli, not clostrial organisms (spiroforme or difficile), not enterotoxemia, and not Tyzzer’s.

Feed was tested for Aflatoxin (5.8 ppb) and vomitoxin (2 ppb). Aflatoxin would have to be 20 ppb before it could be considered a cause of illness. But I wondered if it contributed.

  • What I Learned: labs have to set the sensitivity for these mycotoxins – and there are more than two types – to a level low enough for rabbits. Levels that can be tolerated by other species can kill a rabbit.

After a few days into the necropsy, it was confirmed that the problem was indeed lower intestinal and not coccidia, I took my rabbits off of feed and put them on hay and water treated with probiotics. The deaths continued for several days more and then stopped.

  • What I Learned: the information from a necropsy doesn’t come in all at once, if the lab is being responsive to the needs of an ongoing problem. They can tell fairly soon which major system of the body/bodies are being affected.

During the next three weeks, I had them entirely off of feed for 9 days, gradually added back feed over the period of five days, and then had them on full feed for a couple of days before backing them back down 1/3 normal rations. (I had changed lines of feed to a 16% protein (previously on a 17% extruded); both were made by the same company.) I noticed unformed cecal matter throughout the barn and wanted to force them to eat more hay.

  • What I Learned: I should have kept my rabbits on hay and water for three weeks. Because my rabbits were in poor shape, I was worried about malnutrition, though, and probably started them back on pellets too soon.

Then I lost 3 orphans. The first two I attributed to being orphaned, though they were old enough to possibly survive without a mother when the dam died (at 3 ½ weeks). But the third clearly had symptoms like the others (swollen, fluid filled abdomens).

I continued to lose rabbits from my youngest group (born between May 30 and June 2). They were in the nest box when this began. That group started dying when they got out of the nest box and started eating pellets. Then when I took every bunny off pellets, they stabilized. When pellets were reintroduced, that group started dying again, so I took every bunny off of pellets again. More hay and water.

I had 18 rabbits butchered out in late July or early August. At that point, I felt that a rabbit had to be really worth fighting for to stay in the barn. Some of those rabbits were so out of condition that I didn’t think they’d ever make it back to any kind of smooth condition.

Sixteen showed no problems, all 18 showed no liver or lung problems, but two had swollen, fluid filled intestines. None of these rabbits were from my youngest group of rabbits, the ones that have been dying over the last five weeks.

In early August, I switched brands of feed and started flushing my water system every day while trying to get my water tested. I haven’t had any deaths since then.

I had the feed tested. It was supposed to be a 16% protein. The test said it was 10.4%. It also said the acid detergent fiber was 55%. My research finds that levels over 25% can be problematic. The total available nutrients were 48%.

  • What I Learned: when you have extruded feed tested, you should make sure that the lab is quite aware that it is extruded. Labs know how to handle extruded feed differently than pellets, but they often don’t think of a rabbit feed as possibly being extruded.

We finally got our water tested. The first sample was used for the wrong test. The second sample sent arrived after the 30-hour limit. Finally the third sample was tested. The water in the house was clear, but the barn water showed coliform, but not E coli, at a level of 2.0.

This past weekend, we drained our water system and filled it with a Vanodine solution. After three hours, we flushed it out. We’ll wait a couple of weeks and have the water tested again. If it’s clear, fine and dandy. If not, I guess we’ll be digging up water lines to see where we might have a breach.

So I spent my summer shoveling manure to keep a non-existent coccidia outbreak down, bleaching cages, sanitizing feeders & crocks & my feed can, changing out hay, changing feed, changing feed, changing feed, changing feed, talking to labs, driving samples back and forth, reading everything I can think of on the internet, reading veterinary medicine books, and mourning my losses. In my spare time, I tried to recover from being shocked by lightening while in the barn.

But this summer officially ended on Labor Day. We’re into a totally new season. I’m expecting much greater things from this season.

Atlhough I have few rabbits left, I only lost three grand champion does. One I had planned to sell, so my herd only lost two does – with 10 legs each. Over Panache, I cried my heart out. I’m so grateful to still have her brother Lord. I lost a generation of babies. So I’ve mainly suffered a setback and not a devastating blow.

I realize that there are many breeders out there today who would love to work with rabbits like mine. I should count myself very lucky. Here are my survivors:

  1. GC Camelot’s Merlin (mostly retired)
  2. GC The Nature Trail’s LaForge (retired)
  3. GC The Nature Trail’s Rio
  4. GC The Nature Trail’s Crazy Horse
  5. GC The Nature Trail’s Myrddin
  6. GC The Nature Trail’s Lex
  7. The Nature Trail’s Kerry
  8. GC The Nature Trail’s Java
  9. GC The Nature Trail’s Padawan
  10. GC The Nature Trail’s Lord
  11. GC The Nature Trail’s MLK
  12. GC The Nature Trail’s May
  13. GC The Nature Trail’s Lexus
  14. GC The Nature Trail’s Hope
  15. GC The Nature Trail’s Jamillia
  16. The Nature Trail’s Jocasta
  17. GC The Nature Trail’s Francesca
  18. GC The Nature Trail’s Padme
  19. GC The Nature Trail’s Arabica
  20. The Nature Trail’s Rizzo (my lilac tort)
  21. GC The Nature Trail’s Roxie

So instead of feeling sorry for myself, I’m concentrating on the wonderful rabbits I have. As I mentioned before, I bred bunnies yesterday and today – six yesterday and two today. I’m looking forward – to fall, to babies, to heathy bunnies, to shows (though not was many), and to enjoying my bunnies again.


  How I Coped

If you read yesterday’s BLOG, you may be wondering how I coped with losing favorite bunnies and hot prospects, dealt with so much death, struggled through the work, worked through my lightening strike injuries, and coped with the fears that I would lose everything. Well, like the Beatles said, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

I was absolutely floored by the support I got from my rabbit friends. Sure, Andrew was great through the whole thing, clocking many bunny hours. But my bunny friends could have simply written me a nice note each and that would have been enough. But no, they went far beyond the call of duty!

A group of rabbit friends “up north” (meaning northern Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland) sent me a hydrangea in full bloom and a box of Godiva chocolate. I had been on a diet for six months when the chocolate arrived. I was absolutely thrilled – nothing tastes better than a favorite you’ve been without for a while. Over the next couple of weeks, I ate 25 of the 26 pieces. I enjoyed each one immensely – Godiva is my all-time favorite chocolate. But more than that, each time I had a piece, I thought about the support from my friends.

I still have the hydrangea on my countertop. There’s but one living leaf left. I hope that it’s still alive when the weather cools. Maybe it will come back. But if not, it did its job already.

Another friend showed up at my house one Saturday morning with 8 bales of hay. They were “in lieu of flowers.” And what a great substitute. My bunnies were on all hay by that time and we’d disposed of our old hay and had only gotten some fair bales as substitute. The hay was a lifesaver and, again, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of support.

One of my Maryland friends wrote me almost daily for weeks on end. She offered ideas and possible solutions. She let me cry on her shoulder over and over again. It was so nice to have an outlet for all of my frustrations and sadness.

One of my friends in Kentucky, who also wrote frequently offering tips and insight, offered me the use of 10 of her cages to get some of my rabbits safely away. I couldn’t take her up on her offer because, at that time, I wasn’t sure whether her rabbits could be affected, but it was the kindest of offers.

Another friend offered to pick up my sale bunnies so they wouldn’t be affected, but I had to decline for the same reason.

I did decide, though, to separate six rabbits and bring them inside the house. Can you imagine how hard it was to pick just six to save? Another friend in NC dropped everything and made me six cages with trays in one day. Talk about going beyond the call of duty! I was so relieved to get those bunnies out of the barn, not knowing what was causing what at that stage. (The six were Rio, Lex, Java, Jamillia, Merlin, and Padawan).

I lost track of how many people, upon hearing about my situation, wrote to tell me which The Nature Trail’s bunnies they had. They offered to breed two rabbits from my stock to produce pure The Nature Trail’s offspring for me. They offered me the use of the bucks. They offered me young does from my lines. It was such a comfort to know that if the worse should happen, I would be able to pick up the threads of my work and go on. I was so glad that I had sold some of my favorite bunnies to breeders nearby – and to breeders with such big hearts.

There were other emails asking what they could do to help. I usually couldn’t think of anything, but it made me feel good to have the offers.

And I can’t forget my veterinarian. He was so sympathetic throughout. I’ve never had rabbits euthanized by a vet before, but one day, when I had to go there anyway, I took five that were obviously not going to make it. He impressed me so much with the gentleness that he used when handling the bunnies. I had already had so much death that it was a comfort to see them go with no struggle or stress.

With all of the kindness shown to me, I think the biggest test was when it was time for me to start showing again. Would I be welcomed back? Would exhibitors trust that I would never intentionally put anyone’s rabbits at risk? So before the show, I emailed several exhibitors to ask how they felt. They were all positive. Several told me that they hoped that I had a successful show – to help balance out some of the unfortunate summer in some way.

So I went and I did well. After the show, I got a huge hug from one of my bunny friends. It was so nice to be celebrating with my friends after having leaned on them all summer for support.


Comment by Cole Run:

You go girl!!!!!

You are so much more wiser now and as you said, suffer minimal losses (it could have been lots worse).

Love you!

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