Sadly, from time to time, rabbits can be affected by cancer, which can take many different forms. Some cancers are more common than others and this factsheet will aim to look at those more commonly seen in pet rabbits.
What is cancer?
Cancer is a general term used for a class of diseases in which abnormal cells divide without control and are able to invade other tissues. Cancer cells can spread to other parts of the body through the blood and lymph systems destroying other healthy tissues in a process called metastasis.
There are many types of cancers, some more common than others. Most cancers are named after the organ in which they originate or type of cell that is initially affected. When the damaged cells start dividing uncontrollably they can form lumps or masses called tumours which can then interfere with the function of organs, or they can release substances, e.g. hormones, that can alter the way the body functions.
Symptoms related to cancer can be quite variable depending on where the cancer is located, if and where it has spread, and how big it is.
What types of cancer are there?
The main categories of cancer are:
Adenoma: usually arise from glandular tissues.
Carcinoma: begins in the skin or in tissues that line or cover internal organs.
Sarcoma: begins in bone, cartilage, fat, muscle, blood vessels or other connective or supportive tissue.
Leukaemia: starts in blood-forming tissue such as the bone marrow and causes large numbers of abnormal blood cells to be produced and enter the bloodstream.
Lymphoma and myeloma: begin in the cells of the immune system (white blood cells).
Central nervous system cancers: begin in the tissues of the brain and spinal cord.
How will I know if my rabbit has cancer?
Uterine adenocarcinoma This is undoubtedly the most common tumour seen in female rabbits and is reported to affect up to 80% of unspayed female rabbits by the age of five.
Some breeds, including Dutch, Dwarf lop, English, Netherland Dwarfs, Tan, French Silver, Havana, and Polish rabbits seem to be more predisposed, but rabbits of all breeds could be affected. There is no evidence to suggest that does who have had litters in the past are any less likely to be affected.
Affected rabbits may show clinical symptoms of reproductive failure such as abortion or still-born young. As the disease progresses the doe may become anorexic, depressed, lethargic and begin to lose weight. Blood in the urine (haematuria) may develop as well as bloody vaginal discharge. Once advanced, secondary tumours in the lungs may develop leading to problems breathing (dyspnoea).
Sometimes this process may take place over a period of 1-2 years as the tumour is normally slow growing, so owners may not notice anything wrong until the disease has reached an advanced stage.
Mammary carcinomas and adenocarcinomas
Again these tumours are common in unspayed adult female rabbits.
The clinical symptoms are similar with benign and malignant mammary tumours. The development of irregular-sized discharging nipples might be indicative of the disease. These tumours are not normally painful, although secondary infection and ulceration can sometimes be seen.
Although reported in rabbits, testicular neoplasia is a rare clinical finding.
These may involve enlargement of one or both testicle(s). The affected swollen testicles are normally non-painful and firm. Reproductive failure may be seen in breeding bucks.
There is the potential for secondary metastatic spread of these tumours to other organs, especially the lungs, with breathing problems becoming apparent if this is the case.
How is cancer diagnosed?
Symptoms may be very indicative in some cases. Uterine adenocarcinomas are often suspected by your vet palpating a lump in the caudal abdomen. Imaging techniques such as x-rays or ultrasound can then be used to detect the mass in the abdomen. Advanced imaging, such as computed tomography or magnetic resonance imaging scans are also diagnostic, although rarely used due to high cost.
Diagnosis of mammary carcinomas and adenocarcionmas can be made by obtaining a small sample of the cells from the mass(es) by fine needle aspiration, and looking at the cells under a microscope. Confirmation of the diagnosis can only be obtained by removing the tumour and sending samples to a specialised laboratory to perform a histopathological examination. Before embarking on treatment of these types of cancer, a full clinical workup should be carried out, including x-rays of the chest, to ensure no spread of the disease has already occurred. Chest x-rays should be repeated 3-6 months after surgery to check the cancer hasn’t spread to other organs.
Can cancer be treated?
If detected in time, most types of cancer can be treated with surgery. Ovariohysterectomy (spaying) is advised for all female rabbits at an early age to prevent uterine neoplasia from developing. Spaying is also usually the best treatment option in cases where a tumour is already present, as long as secondary tumours have not become established within the lungs. If this is the case, the prognosis is very poor as appropriate chemotherapy has not been reported for this type of tumour in rabbits; under these circumstances the kindest thing for your rabbit is to have them put to sleep.
When mammary carcionmas and adenocarcinomas are involved, a partial or complete mastectomy (surgical removal of all mammary gland tissue) and spaying is the treatment of choice. Benign tumours may not require treatment but are often removed due to the size to which they can grow. If the neoplastic tumours have spread into bone marrow, the lungs or lymph nodes, this carries a very poor prognosis and surgical intervention will not cure the disease.
Castration is the treatment of choice for testicular neoplasia; if there is no spread of the disease into the lungs then this should be curative of the disease. As with other primary tumours, if there is a spread into the lungs then treatment is often futile and euthanasia is in the best interests of the rabbit. To prevent the disease, castration of all non-breeding male rabbits is advised.
What other tumours can rabbits suffer from?
Other types of tumours that have been reported in rabbits include:
Papilloma: benign growths which can have a cauliflower appearance and can sometimes bleed. Papillomas that develop in the mouth are considered non-cancerous.
Basal cell carcinoma: a type of skin cancer which can be benign or malignant and looks like a reddened patch of skin. They are often slow growing and appear over a period of time. Although they can spread locally, they rarely metastasise and spread to other parts of the body.
Osteosarcoma: tumours that affect the bone and are considered rare in rabbits. Clinical symptoms may include lameness and hard swellings on the legs.
Lymphoma: cancer of the lymphatic system.
Tymoma: these tumours are found less frequently in rabbits. The only clinical symptom might be protrusion of the eyes from the globe. These cases are usually complicated because the eye is secondarily involved, but the primary cause might be somewhere else. A thymoma may, in fact, be slowly growing in the chest, compressing the vessels that transport blood to the head resulting in this particular clinical symptom.
The key to eliminating the most common types of cancers seen in rabbits is to get them neutered at a young age, as most cancers seen in rabbits are those affecting the reproductive systems.
Of course, your rabbit may be affected by other types of cancer but treatments are constantly advancing, so always be advised by your vet.