Pet Factsheets

Exfoliative dermatitis - an itchy business

This condition is uncommon and is more commonly seen in older pet rabbits than in young rabbits. Clinical signs develop as a result of a higher than normal rate of skin turnover.

What is exfoliative dermatitis?

Exfoliative dermatitis is an abnormal skin condition resulting in scaling and flakiness on the surface of the skin as well as significant hair loss. The condition can come on suddenly or progress over time, depending on the cause. The condition itself may cause discomfort for the rabbit and it can be unsightly. Patchy hair loss can also reduce the insulating and protective capacity of the rabbit's coat leading to increased stress for the animal.

What are the signs?

A rabbit with exfoliative dermatitis will have large areas of skin that are scaling and flaky. High skin turnover is associated with inflammation so the skin may appear red and thickened and the animal may have a fever or swollen lymph nodes. There may be partial or complete hair loss and the skin is usually dry although sometimes can appear moist with scabs and foul-smelling areas. The condition can occur spontaneously over a large area of the body or it can progress from a small dry flaky area on the head, later spreading symmetrically to both sides of the head, neck, abdomen and pelvic region.

Your rabbit may scratch a lot or show signs of discomfort. Self-trauma from scratching can also occur, leading to secondary infection. Clumps of hair may be seen in the rabbit's environment or within the animal's faeces.

What causes exfoliative dermatitis?

Exfoliative dermatitis can have various causes. It may be idiopathic (meaning that it arises spontaneously with an unknown cause), drug-induced (usually from allergic reactions to antibiotics), or secondary to other underlying diseases such as autoimmune disease (where the immune system attacks the body) or cancer.

It is commonly associated with other skin conditions such as hair follicle inflammation or destruction of the sebaceous glands.

How will my vet diagnose the condition?

It is important to accurately diagnose the problem in order to provide the best treatment. Diagnosing the presence of exfoliative dermatitis involves determining the cause of the problem.

A range of tests may be needed to rule out other causes. Skin scrapings and tape impressions can determine if skin parasites like mites or yeast (Malassezia spp) are the cause. Skin cultures can also be performed to look for fungi, follicle inflammation or sebaceous gland abnormalities. In most cases, skin cultures can be performed quickly and painlessly but if a biopsy (collecting a piece of skin) is required, then sedation or a general anaesthetic may be needed. Chest radiographs can determine the level of inflammation present and samples can usually be taken quickly with minimal pain, but in rabbits that are easily stressed, sedation may be required.

Other tests may be needed if there are additional signs, eg if a rapid heart rate or fever is detected, an ECG tracing might be needed to assess whether the heart has been affected by secondary infection or if there is an additional concurrent disease present.

Can it be treated?

Treatment depends on the cause.

If there is a tumour present, surgery and radiation therapy may be needed, or euthanasia if surgery is not an option. Medications may be prescribed to address autoimmune disorders, fungal conditions, infection and inflammation.

Medicated baths, ointments, lotions and dressings may be needed in some cases to address skin lesions. For mild cases, brushing may help remove dead skin and keeping a clean and hygienic enclosure can help reduce bacterial contamination and promote fast healing.

How can the condition be prevented?

In some cases, it is difficult or impossible to prevent exfoliative dermatitis. To help prevent issues that may contribute to the condition, ensure that the rabbit is happy and healthy. The rabbit's environment should be safe, secure and non-stressful. Ensure the housing offers shelter as well as space where the rabbit can exercise and exhibit normal behaviour.

  • Provide environmental enrichment such as companionship with another rabbit, places to hide, nesting material, toys to play with, wood for chewing, herbs to browse and soil to dig in.
  • Prevent overcrowded housing that can be stressful and promote unnecessary spread of disease.
  • Reduce the likelihood of territorial aggression by avoiding housing the rabbit in close quarters with more than one other companion and with others that are un-neutered or of the same sex.
  • Ensure a strong immunity, and a healthy gut that will help prevent faecal soiling of the fur by offering good quality grass hay as the staple diet with high fibre pellets and fresh green vegetables to supplement.
  • Minimise environments where parasites can thrive by removing soiled bedding and faeces promptly and by regularly cleaning and drying the housing environment.
  • Reduced the likelihood of over-grooming by ensuring the rabbit is well-groomed, especially if it is long-haired.
  • Ensure prevention of disease by having your rabbit seen at least yearly by your vet for an all over check-up, dental examination and vaccinations, if recommended.
  • Provide rapid treatment of disease by consulting with your vet at the first sign of any abnormal signs such as lack of appetite, changes in drinking or urination, changes in activity level, hair loss, scratching, excessive grooming, drooling, teeth grinding, changes in hair coat, faecal soiling, fly strike, limping, among others.

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