If you’re an animal lover, it’s only natural that you’d want to keep all your pets as closely integrated as possible. If chickens are a new addition to your home, there’s a good chance you’ve already got other pets, such as cats, dogs, or in this case rabbits.
Rabbits are one of the most docile creatures you can keep as a pet, so it’s unlikely there will be any deliberate fighting between your rabbit(s) and hens. Yet keeping them in close confines isn’t recommended because of the risk of spreading disease, and because of their different nutritional needs.
We’ve all swooned over images of chicks and baby rabbits at Easter, but alas this fairytale ideal only serves to crush us when we look into the practicalities of making such scenes a reality!
Now admittedly I might be a little over cautious when it comes to keeping rabbits; I suffered the loss of a pet rabbit from myxomatosis as a child, and have been wary about keeping one ever since; although in fact the risk can be virtually eliminated with an effective course of vaccinations throughout the life of a rabbit.
Nonetheless infections are an ever present risk for both chickens and rabbits, and although not all are serious, all are best avoided. The major issue is that certain infections can affect both chickens and rabbits, so keeping the two animals together obviously risks twice as much illness afflicting your backyard population than you might otherwise have.
Furthermore, whilst many infections are species specific (ie. the strain of an infection that affects chickens won’t infect rabbits and vice versa) this doesn’t stop one animal from aiding in the spread of a disease to the other, even if they themselves are unaffected.
Which Diseases Can Affect Both Chickens and Rabbits?
This is a disease that affects the digestive tract of affected animals as a result of infection by the coccidia protozoa (a protozoa being a single celled organism). As it’s a condition that affects the digestive tract it is most often transmitted by animals consuming infected feces. As far as I can tell it is species specific, however it isn’t unheard of for both chickens and rabbits to consume feces, whether their own or otherwise. Either way, it only takes for the feces of one to have been in contact with the feces of the other on the ground for problems to potentially arise.
Coccidiosis In Chickens
In chickens coccidiosis infection is most serious in chicks and young hens, however it can be fatal even in mature hens. Even more unfortunate is how quickly the condition can take hold; in some cases a hen can appear to be fine on one day and dead the next.
That’s the worst case scenario however, and oftentimes you will get a few clues that something is up by the hen(s) appearing generally unwell, whether that’s them being listless, appearing underweight, not eating, or going off lay. The biggest clue however is diarrhea and signs of blood in the feces as a result of the infection damaging the lining of the intestines.
Coccidiosis In Rabbits
Just as with chickens, young rabbits are most at risk from coccidiosis infection, and the symptoms are also very similar. The severity of the symptoms vary between rabbit species, and most who are infected won’t display any symptoms at all, rather they are simply carriers of the infection. Indeed healthy looking chickens may inadvertently carry a rabbit specific coccidiosis infection.
If you have been keeping your chickens and rabbits together and you do suspect your rabbit is infected, taking them to the vet is obviously your first port of call. As long as the condition is not too severe, adequate recuperation and a course of medication can bring your rabbit back to good health.
Scrupulous cleanliness is imperative to prevent the spread of infection to rabbits, so getting them out of the chicken coop and into a clean hutch is essential. Even then you’ll need to be very attentive to keeping the hutch clean.
One of the biggest risks is that rabbits can reinfect themselves by eating their own infected feces, so cleaning this out on a daily basis is essential.
Salmonella is a well known bacterial infection that affects almost every type of animal, which is one of the reasons it is so infectious and potentially dangerous.
Salmonella is of particular concern among those who keep poultry because of the risk of transmission to people via infected eggs. Of course this can always be mitigated by cooking eggs before eating them, but it’s still not ideal to have salmonella infecting your flock if you can avoid it. Salmonella infection can be quite a serious condition in humans, particularly in the very young, very old, and those with compromised immune systems.
Hens can contract salmonella by many means, although in theory so long as you purchase them from a reputable breeder that vaccinates against such diseases, you shouldn’t find that your flock becomes infected.
Rabbits should also be free of the infection if they have been vaccinated, although having a penchant for coprophagy (eating their own feces) makes rabbits somewhat more prone to ingesting salmonella infected material that may be present on the ground.
By keeping rabbits and chickens together, you increase the risk of transmission between one species and another, and because oftentimes animals can be carriers of salmonella but present no symptoms, it may be difficult to tell that the infection is present at all.
Salmonella in Hens
More often than not hens will be infected with salmonella but not present symptoms, possibly because the bacteria is so well established in hens that they have adapted to not present symptoms. Whilst this is great for the hens, it is dangerous for you or anyone else who is in contact with them, as you won’t have any indication that you are liable to infection yourself.
Adopt all the best practices you can in terms of cleanliness within the coop, ensuring rats are not able to infiltrate and eat stray feed, and replenish feed water daily.
Salmonella in Rabbits
Salmonella is actually thought to be pretty rare in rabbits, so on paper they aren’t likely to pose a huge threat as far as passing on the bacteria to your hens is concerned. Nonetheless you should never say ‘never’, and knowing how problematic salmonella can be in hens, in terms of the risk to human health, it probably isn’t worth the risk of keeping the two animals together.
Another bacterial infection that is known to cross between different animal species, or more scientifically speaking, is ‘zoonotic’, is pasteurella. In this case the route of transmission that is more problematic is from chickens to rabbits, largely because the bacteria is known to exist within the upper respiratory tract of poultry, and even cats and dogs, without them suffering ill health because of it.
Rabbits on the other hand will suffer respiratory disease should they be infected with pasteurella, so keeping them alongside chickens presents a very real risk of this, despite the infection being relatively uncommon.
Pasteurella Symptoms in Rabbits
Like other bacteria, pasteurella exists in several different strains, some of which are more problematic than others. In rabbits the infection may be mild or severe depending on which strain they are infected with, and in some cases they may not present symptoms at all unless they are already run down as a result of another infection or stress.
The symptoms of pasteurella infection are much like that of a cold or flu in humans; runny nose, sneezing, and later a thicker nasal discharge. If the rabbit rubs their face with their paws (as they are somewhat prone to doing) then the infection can spread to their eyes, resulting in conjunctivitis, or ears resulting in ear infection.
A vet will be able to make a judgement call as to whether or not antibiotics should be prescribed for the infection or not; the decision won’t be taken lightly because using antibiotics can also wipe-out good bacteria in the gut of the rabbit, which can cause problems of its own.
Caring and Living Set Up Requirements
Preventing disease is the most important reason for keeping your hens and bunnies separated, however there are other less potentially physically harmful, but nonetheless important reasons why you should, especially where chicks and baby rabbits are concerned.
Babies of each species are vulnerable to the behaviour of the adults of the other who won’t be at all sympathetic to their needs, with chicks potentially being squashed by an adult rabbit, and baby bunnies not being adequately nursed by a mother who is distracted by the swarm of hens around her.
Unsurprisingly chickens and rabbits have vastly differing nutritional needs, and yet kept in the same enclosure they are highly likely to eat each others feed. Not only does this potentially deprive one species of their feed (my money will be on the bunny missing out, giving they are likely to be outnumbered), but it can also result in nutritional deficiencies developing, which could hinder anything from the hen’s egg production to the rabbit’s weight.
Most worrying of all, of course, is the risk of fecal contamination on the food supply, particularly chicken droppings infecting the rabbit feed. As covered above, the risk of disease as a result is both very great and potentially serious in some cases.