Encephalitozoon spp. are single-celled microsporidian parasites that can cause infection in the intestinal tract of animals and people, and sometimes infection in other parts of the body (systemic infection). Cases of infection with these parasites (encephalitozoonosis) have been reported in countries all over the world. The species E. bieneusi and E. intestinalis are the most common. A much less common species, E. cuniculi, is thought to be one of the most virulent microsporidia that infects humans (i.e. it causes the most severe infections). Encephalitozoonosis is rare in healthy people, but it is a common complication in patients with weakened immune systems. Encephalitozoon cuniculi can also be found in many animal species, particularly in rabbits. Most infections in rabbits do not cause illness (i.e. subclinical infections), but when disease occurs it typically causes neurological signs. In these cases the parasite tends to attack the brain and kidneys. The primary means of transmission between rabbits is E. cuniculi spores shed in the urine. Organ damage in the few human cases that have been reported have also been primarily in the brain and kidneys.
Direct transmission of this parasite from rabbits to humans has not been reported, but because there is also no evidence that it can’t be transmitted from rabbits, the disease is so severe when it does occur, and the parasite is so common in rabbits, it is still prudent to take a few simple precautions. This includes washing your hands after handling rabbits, and keeping rabbits away from food preparation areas and food meant for human consumption. Anyone with a weakened immune system should be particularly careful, and ideally should have someone else clean out their rabbit’s enclosure on a regular basis.
In general, the risk of illness in a rabbit and zoonotic transmission can be reduced by proper handling, good management, personal hygiene and routine healthcare. A rabbit that is not stressed and is well cared for is less likely to be susceptible to infection, and therefore less likely to transmit infection to a person. More information about rabbits is available on the Worms & Germs Resources page.