Urine from healthy animals is typically considered to be of little to no risk to people. This is generally true, at least for the otherwise healthy human population, but like with most things in infectious diseases, there are exceptions. An interesting one in rabbits is a bug called Encephalitozoon cuniculi. This microorganism (now classified as a fungus, but previously considered a protozoal parasite) is very common in healthy pet rabbits. In fact, the majority of rabbits have antibodies against E. cuniculi and may have it living in their bodies, particularly in the kidneys. It can cause infection of the brain, and is an important cause of neurological disease in rabbits, but more often than not it lives within the rabbit without causing any problems. Rabbits can shed spores of this organism is their urine, although they mainly do this only in the first few weeks after they’ve become infected, and shedding after that may be intermittent.

E. cuniculi is one of a group of microorganisms that became much more important when the HIV/AIDS epidemic hit. While rarely a cause of disease in people in the pre-HIV era, E. cuniculi is recognized as a potential cause of infection in people with compromised immune systems, particularly people with AIDS. Infections of people with normal immune systems are extremely rare.

It’s always a challenge deciding what to do with a microorganism that can be shed by a large number of healthy animals. One reference "strongly advises" routine testing of rabbits, but that makes no sense to me. Here’s why:

  • Screening always comes down to a question of what you would do with the results. If you get a positive antibody test, it means that the rabbit has been exposed sometime in its life, but that does not mean that it is necessarily still infected or shedding spores – so it’s not really convincing.
  • Tests can be done to detect spore shedding but they are not particularly reliable. Since infected animals shed spores intermittently, a negative result here isn’t convincing either.
  • If the animal is positive, what would you do? If the household has no immunocompromised people, I’d say do what you’ve always done, and pay attention to good hygiene.
  • If the animal was "negative," I’d say do what you’ve always done, and pay attention to good hygiene… same as for a positive rabbit.
  • If there is an immunocompromised person in the house, I wouldn’t say to get rid of the pet, since there’s no evidence that’s necessary. There is also no evidence that treatment is useful to eliminate E. cuniculi shedding rabbits. If the animal is positive, immunocompromised persons should avoid contact with urine and feces, and use good personal hygiene… just as they should do if the rabbit is negative!

More information about E. cuniculi in rabbits can be found in our archives.