Lily, Jessica and Sahara – their owner was wondering about getting her rabbits vaccinated.

Rabbits have featured in Lucy’s life for as long as she can remember. She was given her first pet rabbits, Flopsy and Mopsy, when she was only three years old, and since then she has had a continual succession of rabbits in her home. She can remember all of their names and personalities.

When she moved into her own home two years ago, one of the first things that she did was to acquire her own brood of pet rabbits. Her boyfriend Jack was more of a dog and cat person, and was not keen at first, but when she took him to the pet shop and he held his first young rabbit, he was an immediate convert. They now have five rabbits: the three in the photograph, plus Slash and Blue. They are all young females, less than two years old. They share the house with Lucy and Jack, and they are clean creatures, sharing a large litter tray which is changed regularly.

Lucy has had all of her rabbits neutered, and she has seen for herself that this operation makes her rabbits more docile and friendly.  She keeps herself up-to-date with the latest advice on rabbit care, making sure that her rabbits have the healthiest lifestyle she can provide.

During the summer months, she likes to let the rabbits out into the garden every morning, so that they are able to enjoy more exercise and grazing on the lawn. The rabbits enjoy the extra freedom, and in the evening, they are usually easy to bring back inside: Lucy opens the back door, calls “go home”, and they all come hopping back inside. At first, she worried about possible hazards such as neighbourhood cats, but she soon realised that the rabbits are able to look after themselves. They are muscular, powerful creatures, and they also know when to summon help. If they feel anxious for any reason, they thump the ground with their hind legs. Lucy can easily hear this sound from inside the house, and she comes out to make sure that there is nothing undue happening. So far she has been summoned because of cats sitting on the back wall, dogs sniffing at the side gate and even a helicopter hovering overhead.

Lucy is worried about one hazard that her rabbits would not be able to run away from: viral infections. She has heard that vaccines are available, and she wondered what she should be doing for her pets. They don’t mix with any other rabbits, but could they still pick up an infection? Should she get them vaccinated?

There are two serious viral infections affecting rabbits in Ireland, and they both cause deadly diseases in rabbits.

The first disease is well known: myxomatosis. This disease decimated the wild rabbit population when it first arrived in Ireland fifty years ago, and it is still around today. It causes swellings around the head and body of the rabbit, and affected rabbits eventually go blind and die. Treatment is usually futile, and animals suffer greatly during the course of the disease.

Myxomatosis is spread by insect bites (such as fleas and mosquitoes), as well as by direct contact between rabbits. Rabbits that spend time outside in the summer are particularly at risk, especially if wild rabbits visit the garden. Lucy’s garden is fully walled in, so wild rabbits have no access, but she has seen mosquitoes around, especially at the peak of the summer, so her rabbits are definitely at risk.  A vaccine against myxomatosis is the safest way to make sure that her rabbits will be protected.

The second common viral disease to affect rabbits is called Viral Haemorrhagic Disease, abbreviated to VHD. This is a new disease, only arriving in Ireland during the past fifteen years. It is a swift and efficient killer. Almost all rabbits who catch VHD die within a day or two. The virus causes massive internal bleeding, but it acts so rapidly that sometimes there is no outward sign of disease at all. Owners just find their rabbits dead in their cage. VHD is increasingly common, and it can sweep through a colony of rabbits. I have seen situations where families have lost three or four pet rabbits in less than a week because of VHD.

VHD is spread by direct contact between rabbits, but more worryingly, the virus can also be carried some distance by other methods. It can be brought in on hands or clothes e.g. after visiting a rabbit in someone else’s home. The virus can be carried on people’s shoes after walking in a local meadow. It can be transported by birds or insects flying into a garden. The virus is very difficult to kill, and there are even reports of it being blown into an area on the wind.  It is impossible to guarantee that any rabbit can be kept clear of exposure to the VHD virus. A vaccine against VHD has recently become available, and this is definitely the safest option, especially when a colony of rabbits is involved.

Lucy has five rabbits, and she has decided to get them all vaccinated against both viral diseases. Unfortunately, the two vaccines cannot be given at the same time, and so two visits to the vet will be needed.

Lucy’s oldest rabbit so far lived to be eight years of age: with luck (and vaccinations) her current family of rabbits will also be with her until they reach ripe old age.


  • Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorhhagic Disease are two deadly viral diseases that can affect pet rabbits in Ireland
  • Rabbits are less vulnerable if they are kept indoors
  • Vaccination is recommended for all rabbits, but especially those that spend time outside

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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.

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