Keeping your dog safe around rabbits

Q: My dog eats a lot of rabbit droppings in the yard. Do I need to be concerned about that? 

— Colin 

Dear Colin,

This is a common complaint that I hear from pet owners!  It is important to note that eating rabbit droppings does not mean that your dog has a dietary deficiency; it’s just a gross habit.  In addition, the types of parasites that rabbits can pass in their stool, do not cause infections in dogs.  

Veterinarians will sometimes see evidence that a dog has been eating rabbit droppings by finding the parasite, coccidia, in the stool.  The rabbit form of coccidia doesn’t cause harm to the dog and simply passes through the intestinal tract.  There is a dog form of coccidia that can cause infection and then diarrhea.  Skilled veterinary technicians are able to distinguish the difference between the rabbit coccidia and the dog coccidia.  

Dogs can get parasites from rabbits however, if they eat the entire rabbit.  Rabbits can carry tapeworms, and the cysts of the tapeworm can be imbedded in the muscle tissue of the rabbit.  If your dog has eaten a rabbit, your veterinarian will likely recommend that your dog receive a tapeworm dewormer.

Rabbits can also carry fleas and ticks.  Not only could your dog potentially get fleas or ticks from the rabbit if he came into contact with it, but these parasites can carry two very serious bacteria: Tularemia and the plague!

Tularemia is caused by a bacteria called francisella tularensis. Dogs can get infected with Tularemia either by eating a rabbit, or by coming into contact with a tick that has recently fed on a rabbit.  Humans can also get Tularemia from rabbits.  Tularemia is found in Minnesota, but luckily there have only been 5 reported cases in the last 10 years.  A patient with Tularemia will exhibit flu like symptoms including poor appetite, fever and enlarged lymph nodes.

Rabbits can also carry the Plague!  Yes, the same bubonic plaque that wiped out 30 to 50 percent of the population of Europe in the 14th century thus causing a massive labor shortage and changing the economic and political structure of modern societies permanently!  Luckily, there has never been a reported case of plague in humans in Minnesota.  (The nearest human plague case was in Illinois).  Plague is still present, however, in the lower western United States.  According to the CDC, about 5-15 people contract the plague every year in the United States.  Plague is spread by fleas.  When a flea bites its victim, it can spread the plague bacteria, yersinia pestis.  Symptoms include fever, chills, swollen lymph nodes and sometimes death. 

In short, rabbit droppings won’t harm your dog, but they are a clear signal that rabbits are visiting your environment, and making sure that your dog is protected with a flea and tick product and discouraged from hunting rabbits, is a good idea. 

Dr. Teresa Hershey is a veterinarian at Westgate Pet Clinic in Linden Hills. Email her your pet questions at [email protected].