Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis, the organism responsible for paratuberculosis in cattle and sheep has been found in wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) in the east of Scotland. Few studies have investigated either the level of faecal contamination by rabbits on farms, or the potential infectivity of rabbit excreta. The rate of rabbit faecal contamination deposited and the numbers encountered were estimated for 21 fields on 4 farms with a paratuberculosis problem. 7357±2571 S.E.M. rabbit faecal pellets were deposited per hectare per day and up to 81000 pellets/ha (‘standing crop’) were encountered in October/November 1998. Where access to rabbits was restricted, the standing crop of faeces encountered fell to 22000 pellets/ha.
The prevalence of infection with M. a. paratuberculosis was assessed for 83 rabbits from the four farms. M. a. paratuberculosis was isolated from rabbits on all farms with an overall prevalence of 17%. Out of 17 rabbits from which urine was available, M. a. paratuberculosis was isolated from two – the first reported isolation from urine in wild rabbits. The mean number of colony-forming units per gram of infected rabbit faeces was 7·6×105±5·2×105.
A relative estimate of the input of M. a. paratuberculosis onto pasture, at the stocking levels found on the four farms, showed that sheep and cattle potentially contributed 4 and 125 times more organisms/ha per day respectively than rabbits. However, rabbits could still contribute millions of M. a. paratuberculosis organisms per ha per day. Existing rabbit control measures on farms may be inadequate in reducing the risk of transmission to livestock.