Early symptoms include fur loss (for rabbits and rodents) and redness and swelling of the feet/hocks. As the disease progresses, broken skin, ulcerations and scab formation allow for infection, which, if left untreated, can result in ulcerations, pus-filled sores, abscess formation and severe cellulitis. Once a deeper infection sets in, swelling of the tissues of the joints often follows, progressing to osteomyelitis (an infection of the bone marrow) and inflammation of the tendons. Your exotics veterinarian will need to determine the extent of involvement of the disease process (to see if the infection has entered the bone, tissues and joints). S/he may wish to take a culture of the affected area to determine the best antibiotic for your pet.
For mild cases (fur loss, slight swelling and redness), changing the environment and diet may be all that is needed. Try the following, along with daily monitoring of your pet’s feet:
- A smooth floor surface
- If the pet already has a smooth floor surface (and still gets bumblefoot), get some washable soft rugs (such as bathroom rugs) from the thrift shop for your pet’s flooring. Make sure your pet does not ingest pieces of the rug.
- Try a fleece pet bed for their sleeping area
- Make sure their flooring surface is dry and clean
- If your pet is overweight, slowly decrease their calories; increase vitamin C for guinea pigs
If the condition has become ulcerative (feet have open areas, definite swelling and discomfort) the veterinarian will prescribe antibiotics and pain relievers. Surgery may be necessary to remove any dead or dying tissue, and the feet may need to be repeatedly soaked and bandaged with topical dressings. This latter stage involves much diligence on the owner’s part, as bandages are generally not well tolerated by pets and can be difficult to keep clean and dry. If the condition is unresponsive to these treatments, amputation may become necessary.
The prognosis worsens as the condition becomes more severe. Early intervention and care increases the likelihood of a positive outcome. Recurrence is common and close monitoring must be maintained so that you may seek veterinary assistance at the earliest signs of discomfort.
Ongoing management: your rabbit or guinea pig must receive proper care for their condition, including appropriate medical and post-treatment care, a proper living environment and a good diet. Pet rabbits and guinea pigs belong indoors, in a clean living space with NO wire or rough flooring. Rough flooring is hard on a rabbit's feet, causing small abrasions that can easily become infected. Your rabbit or guinea pig must have a smooth, soft, dry floor on which to rest, and thick bedding for sleep (and possibly for their litter pans – see author’s note below). A dry floor surface is especially important, as a damp floor surface – whether from spilled water or urine - provides an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria and fungi.
A quality diet is of utmost importance to keep your pet healthy and give their body the nutrients it needs to help fight off the infection. Veterinary-prescribed antibiotics will certainly help but can also upset the balance of bacteria in the gastrointestinal system. A wide selection of fresh greens, such as kale, spinach, dandelion greens, and/or parsley should be offered daily.
Generally speaking, sore hocks and feet can be prevented by providing the right environment and diet. This includes:
- Indoor living quarters with a clean, dry, smooth floor surface/washable soft rugs.
- Make sure your pet is of the appropriate weight; increase vitamin C for guinea pigs
- Check your pet’s feet daily, and keep their toenails trimmed
- Offer a quality diet and provide enough opportunity for exercise. Both rabbits and guinea pigs should have time out of their cage daily for exercise
Author’s note: just because your rabbit has no risk factors for bumblefoot and has an optimum diet and living environment does not mean that s/he has no possibility for bumblefoot! The author has a tiny 4# rabbit who lives free range on carpeting and nonetheless has back feet (“heels”) that must be monitored regularly to ensure prompt intervention at the first sign of fur loss. In addition to acquiring additional thicker and softer throw rugs, the bunny’s litter pan has the usual layer of wood pellets now covered by a thick layer of cross-cut paper shreds with a thinner layer of hay on top of that. It is hoped this extra cushioning will decrease the episodes of fur loss on her ‘heels’. Further, as long as there are no open areas, ask your veterinarian about applying – and letting dry – an application of liquid bandage to areas prone to fur loss on your pet.
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