Alopecia – hair loss

Alopecia is also known as hair loss, and it typically means partial or complete hair loss on areas of the body where hair is normally found. Alopecia can occur in virtually all animals with hair and is normal in some situations (such as baldness in human males). In most animals, however, it is usually an abnormal condition which can come on suddenly or progress over time, depending on the cause. Alopecia can be unsightly and reduce the insulating and protective capacity of a rabbit’s coat, potentially leading to increased stress and/or development of other conditions for the animal.

A rabbit with alopecia can have small areas of localised baldness, larger patch areas of hair loss, or even generalised hair loss over much of the body. Other signs of hair loss include clumps of hair seen in the rabbit’s environment or within the animal’s faeces. If the rabbit ingests too much of the hair, this can lead to intestinal blockage.

Alopecia is generally caused by disease which disrupts normal growth at the hair follicle, or from physical extraction of the hair. The pattern of hair loss on the body and the extent to which it has occurred will help determine the cause of the problem.

Physical extraction occurs when the rabbit pulls hair out as a result of hormonal or psychological influences, e.g.:

  • Pregnant does (female rabbits) may pull out their own hair from around their dewlap and stomach. This fine hair is used to line the burrow before giving birth. Does are more likely to pull large quantities of hair if they are stressed or if there is not enough quality nesting material present. Similar hormonal changes in a doe with false (or pseudo-) pregnancy can cause the same behaviour.
  • Compulsive hair chewing (barbering) and over-grooming are abnormal behaviours usually related to stress such as overcrowding (territorial bullying) or as a result of insufficient dietary fibre. For animals that self-traumatise, baldness will typically be isolated to those areas of the body that the animal can easily reach with its mouth, leaving the head, face and back of the neck unaffected. For animals that are chewed upon by others, the pattern of hair loss tends to be along the spine or on the head.

Internal disease causing alopecia has many different causes and appearances, eg:

  • In rare cases, rabbits are born with a hereditary condition causing alopecia.
  • Autoimmune disorders, nutritional deficiencies, tumours or side effects from medications commonly result in multiple areas of hair loss or larger areas of hair loss.
  • Trauma from scratching viral, bacterial, fungal or parasitic infections can cause localised patch alopecia with flaky or scabbed skin.
  • Small localised patches can result from trauma as a result of wounds, including bite wounds or other injuries such as burns.
  • Heavy moulting can result in larger areas being affected but does not usually result in complete baldness of these areas.

In many cases, the cause of alopecia can be determined by observing the pattern of hair loss and patient history. If a diagnosis isn’t readily apparent after a thorough physical examination, your vet may need to explore further causes to determine the source of the problem. Some of these diagnostic procedures include microscopic examination, lab tests and diagnostic imaging.

Microscopic examination

Samples of skin or hair are examined to look for fleas, lice, mites, fungus, bacteria or yeasts. Usually collecting these samples is painless or relatively painless for your rabbit. Results may be quick if the source is obvious but more complicated cases require sending the sample to an external laboratory. Testing for fungal infection by culture may take two weeks.

Laboratory tests, biopsies and radiography

Blood tests, urine tests, biopsies and radiography may be useful in determining if there is an autoimmune disorder, tumour, internal infection or other hidden cause. This can usually be done quickly with a day stay in hospital, and results are usually back within a few days if samples are sent to an external laboratory.

Fortunately, in most cases of alopecia, the hair will eventually grow back but specific treatment may be required.

Medications may be necessary to treat heavy parasitic, bacterial or fungal diseases. Wounds, hormonal and autoimmune conditions may require treatment of symptoms until the clinical signs resolve. Tumours may require removal and chemotherapy. Improvements in nutrition and husbandry can help resolve behavioural causes of alopecia. The time period and cost of treatments depend on the cause of the alopecia.

To help reduce the incidence of alopecia, ensure your 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 places to hide, nesting material, toys to play with, wood for chewing, herbs to browse, and soil to dig in. Prevent overcrowded housing which can be stressful and promote unnecessary spread of disease. Reduce the likelihood of territorial aggression by avoiding housing your rabbit in close quarters with others that are un-neutered or of the same sex.

It is also important to ensure a strong immunity and healthy gut function (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.

You can reduce the likelihood of over-grooming by ensuring your rabbit is well-groomed, especially during periods of moulting or if it is a long-haired breed.

Finally, ensure prevention of disease by having your rabbit seen at least yearly by your vet for an all-over health check and dental examination. You should 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, and limping.