Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Myxomatosis Outbreak

An outbreak of Myxomatosis in the Village has been keeping me busy recently. After being introduced to the UK in the early 1950s to control the Rabbit population, Myxomatosis rapidly decimated Rabbit numbers by 99% in its first two years here.

This particularly nasty insect borne disease causes a Rabbit's head to swell, skin tumours to form around its eyes and conjunctivitis to develop,all of which results in blindness (making it easy for dogs to catch them). It also weakens the Rabbit's immune system, allowing secondary infections (often Pneumonia) to develop, which will eventually kill the the infected animal. Unfortunately (despite increased genetic resistance among Rabbit populations) the disease still remains present across much of Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

My suspicions were first raised on a recent walk to the local forest, during which my brother and I found nine rotting Rabbit carcasses stretched out across a 200m long footpath. I'm told the stench was horrible (thankfully hay-fever had blocked up my nose!), as not even the Crows would touch these obviously diseased corpses, instead leaving them to decompose. 

Sure enough we eventually found a poorly Rabbit, which was just sitting in the middle of the footpath. Its eyes had sealed over and it seemed completely oblivious to us standing around it, nor did it seem to care when we picked it up and carried it on the long journey home. This animal was just too far gone, and unfortunately had to be euthanised by the vets at Tiggywinkles. 
This unfortunate Rabbit had to be euthanised. Note its swollen eyes and the loss of hair around its face- both symptoms of Myxomatosis. 
Contrary to popular opinion, however, Myxomatosis is not necessarily the death sentence it might seem. Some individuals develop immunity after suffering from a bout of "Myxy", and if caught early enough (before secondary infections have a chance to take hold) can completely recover in the sterile and controlled conditions of a wildlife hospital. This was the case with a Rabbit I was called to last year, which was actually found at my School. It was a young Rabbit, and although its eyes hadn't properly sealed over yet, it was easy to tell that the animal was suffering from Myxomatosis. Thankfully, because we got the Rabbit to hospital before the disease got too bad, it eventually made a full recovery. 

Having said this, not much can be done about treating the disease in the wild. So all we can do for now is monitor the local population for sick Rabbits, and get any we find into Tiggywinkles as quickly as possible.

My top tips for rescuing rabbits:

1. Always support both ends of the Rabbit
Rabbits have weak spines which are easily damaged during their frantic kicking as they try to escape you. So support both ends of the Rabbit to make sure it can't kick.

2. Keep handling to a minimum
Rabbits get very stressed when handled, which will quickly kill them if prolonged for any length of time. So put the Rabbit into a dark, quiet container as soon as you have captured it

3. Block off all escape routes before you attempt a rescue
Even a blind Rabbit can run fast, and there is nothing more annoying than searching through bushes for an animal that has darted into the nearest vegetation to hide. So always block off any escape routes before you attempt a rescue. A finely-meshed net may also come in handy in capturing a Rabbit casualty.

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