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Cheyletiellosis: Night of the Walking Dandruff

By Kim Everson, DVM

Sorry to mislead you into thinking this blog was going to be about the ever popular zombie creature. It’s actually about a different kind of monster, a microscopic mite commonly referred to as “walking dandruff” that likes to prey on bunnies. What better time to talk about mite monsters than Easter? What if the cute little twitch in Peter Cottontail’s nose is because of an itch?

Cheyletiella1Meet “Lucky,” a young rabbit presented to our veterinary clinic during the winter of 2014 because of a recently noticed skin condition. Lucky was missing large clumps of hair between his shoulder blades, and the area was covered in huge flakes of white dandruff. His physical examination was rather unremarkable besides his obvious skin disease. He did not even act that itchy, but his skin was quite red everywhere and the hair fell out easily anywhere you parted it.

The other rabbit in the home, kept separately, showed no symptoms of skin disease. The bunnies had been adopted over a year ago and had spent some time penned outside during the warmer months of 2013, but had no interaction with each other much less other animals.

Examination of the affected rabbit revealed a large amount
of dandruff, hair loss and red, irritated skin.

I suspected the “walking dandruff” mite even though no movement was seen in the flakes of dead skin. The official name for this parasitic insect is Cheyletiella and there are numerous species which can plague various mammals from rabbits to dogs to cats. Cheyletiella (“kai-la-tee-ell-a”) are highly contagious and can even bite people, but they can’t live on us for long. The mites tend to live on the animal’s skin within the keratin level; they less commonly invade the nasal passages. The mites are fairly large as mites go, and their scurrying among the excess amounts of dead skin produced in response to irritation resulted in the nickname “walking dandruff.”

Animals acquire Cheyletiellosis by direct contact with an afflicted animal in most cases. However, the mites and their eggs can also survive for a short period (days to weeks) within bedding and the environment, so transmission may occur via indirect contact as well. Some animals carry around Cheyletiella mites but don’t show symptoms at all!

At the center of the field are two Cheyletiella mites as well
as a large mite egg.

Definitive diagnosis of Cheyletiellosis in Lucky was swift and satisfying. I collected some dandruff from his back on the sticky side of transparent tape and applied the entire thing to a glass slide. At relatively low magnification under the microscope, I saw numerous mites and mite eggs amid hair shafts and epithelial skin cells.

In some cases, mite bodies and eggs may be seen during microscopic evaluation of a stool sample instead. This is a good way to diagnose Cheyletiellosis in cats. Because they are such fastidious self-groomers, infected cats often ingest the excess dandruff as well as the mites making diagnosis from physical examination alone more difficult.

Fortunately, treatment of “walking dandruff” is much easier than eliminating an apocalypse of the walking dead. Various treatments are available to kill Cheyletiella mites. Because rabbits are weirdly sensitive to certain topical insecticides–for instance, over-the-counter products containing fipronil, well-tolerated in dogs and cats for the treatment and prevention of fleas, are devastatingly toxic to rabbits–we selected topical prescription-only selamectin which has been used safely and effectively in rabbits for mites of various kinds.

Dr. Kim Everson applies a dose of medicine to Lucky to treat
his bad case of Cheyletiella mites.

In addition to thoroughly cleaning the hutches and surrounding environment as well as replacing the bedding and feed hay, we decided to treat the asymptomatic rabbit as well. Both bunnies will receive a small amount of medicine on the skin between the shoulder blades once a month for several months in a row. Any mite bites on the humans in the household are expected to resolve once the bunnies have completed treatment.

Shortly after the first dose of medicine, Lucky was reportedly showing signs of improvement in his skin. By now, he should be feeling fine — just in time for delivering the family’s Easter baskets!

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