Sneezing, runny noses, and watery eyes may seem like harmless symptoms of the common cold in humans. But for domestic rabbits, these seemingly innocent signs can quickly spiral into a potentially fatal condition called snuffles. This highly contagious bacterial infection strikes a rabbit’s upper respiratory system and spreads rapidly. Left unchecked, snuffles can progress to chronic illness affecting the lungs, eyes, ears, and beyond. While not curable, this challenging disease can be managed with knowledge of its risks, prompt veterinary care, and attentive home support. Snuffles serves as a stark reminder that pet rabbits require specialized health monitoring and stewardship. Read on to understand snuffles causes, warning signs, emergency response, and prevention tactics to protect your rabbit’s wellbeing.
What is Snuffles?
Snuffles, also known as pasteurellosis, is a upper respiratory infection that affects rabbits. It is extremely contagious and can be fatal if left untreated. Snuffles is caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocida, which many rabbits carry in their nasal passages and throats. These bacteria usually do not cause any problems. But if a rabbit's immune system becomes compromised due to stress, poor nutrition, or other health issues, the Pasteurella can multiply rapidly and lead to an infection.
Snuffles often begins with classic cold symptoms like sneezing and nasal discharge. But it can quickly progress to something much more serious if not treated promptly. Snuffles can spread to the lungs, sinuses, eyes, ears and other parts of the body. It is one of the most common reasons for veterinary visits in pet rabbits. While snuffles cannot be completely cured, it can be managed with proper care. Knowing the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for snuffles is important for any rabbit owner. With vigilance and vet care, rabbits can go on to live healthy lives despite this challenging respiratory infection.
Causes of Snuffles
There are several potential causes and risk factors for a rabbit developing snuffles:
Pasteurella bacteria – As mentioned, the Pasteurella multocida bacteria is the underlying cause of snuffles. Many rabbits carry these bacteria in their upper respiratory tract without any issues. But the bacteria can overgrow and cause infection if the rabbit's immune system is compromised.
Stress – Stress is a major factor that can trigger snuffles. Any stressful situation like a change in environment, poor diet, or travel can weaken a rabbit's immune system and allow Pasteurella to flourish. Even subtle stressors like noisy environments or changes to their habitat can increase a rabbit's risk.
Poor ventilation – Rabbits housed in areas with poor ventilation, humid conditions, or ammonia build-up from urine are more prone to respiratory infections. Proper air flow is essential to rabbit health.
Young, old, or unwell rabbits – Immature and senior rabbits tend to have weaker immune systems that have difficulty fending off Pasteurella bacteria. Rabbits who are already ill or have other medical conditions are also at higher risk.
Unclean living space – Messy or unhygienic housing provides an ideal environment for bacterial growth. Urine, feces, and food debris should be cleaned regularly from a rabbit's habitat.
New rabbits – Bringing a new rabbit into a home or environment exposes resident rabbits to new bacteria. Quarantining and vet checks for new rabbits can reduce snuffles risk.
Contact with wild rabbits – Interactions with wild cottontails and hares can expose domestic rabbits to foreign bacteria like Pasteurella. Do not house domestic and wild rabbits together.
Overcrowding – Too many rabbits in close quarters facilitates the spread of respiratory infections like snuffles between them. Provide adequate space and resources for each rabbit.
Poor nutrition – Malnourishment or imbalanced diets compromise the immune system's ability to fight off infections. Feeding a nutritious and balanced diet is key.
With diligent rabbit care and husbandry, pet owners can reduce the likelihood of their rabbits developing a snuffles infection. But because Pasteurella bacteria is so widespread, there is always some risk. Close monitoring of rabbits and prompt vet care is essential even in healthy rabbits.
Can rabbits catch colds from humans?
No, rabbits cannot catch human colds, flu, or other viruses. But they can catch respiratory illnesses from other rabbits.
Human cold and flu viruses are species-specific, meaning they only infect humans. Rabbits have their own species-specific viruses like myxomatosis. The viruses adapted over time to infect a particular host species. They cannot suddenly jump species and infect other types of animals.
However, bacteria like Pasteurella multocida can be shared between some species. So while your rabbit will not catch your cold, he could pick up a bacterial infection from other rabbits. Any new rabbits brought into a home should be quarantined and screened by a vet before interacting with resident rabbits. Proper hygiene like washing hands and changing clothes after handling outside rabbits is also important.
While human colds are no danger to your bunny, you should still avoid snuggling or breathing on rabbits when you are sick. The stress could potentially weaken your rabbit's immune system and make them vulnerable to bacterial infections like snuffles. So take care and see your own doctor for treatment, but rest assured your rabbit cannot directly catch your cold or flu.
What are the symptoms of snuffles?
Rabbits with snuffles may show the following symptoms:
Frequent sneezing is usually one of the first signs of snuffles. Sneezing helps expel infectious organisms from the nose and sinuses. Some sneezing is normal for rabbits, but frequent sneezing episodes can indicate a respiratory infection is developing.
Excessive tear production or watery eyes is common with snuffles. Just like sneezing, this helps flush infectious bacteria from the eyes. But it can also cause the white fur around rabbits' eyes to become stained with tears.
A runny or wet nose is very common in rabbits with Pasteurella infections. You may see dripping discharge from one or both nostrils. The discharge is often thick and can be white, yellow, or greenish in color.
Matted fur on paws
Rabbits may repeatedly wipe runny noses on their paws, leading to matted and stained fur. Check your rabbit's front paws for signs of sticky discharge.
Along with a runny nose, affected rabbits often just have a wet or moist nose. Touch your rabbit's nose to feel for unexplained dampness or moisture since this can signal snuffles.
As snuffles progresses, thick nasal discharge and inflammation make breathing through the nose difficult. You may notice mouth breathing, noise when breathing, or effort when inhaling.
The bacteria can spread to the mouth and throat, leading to drooling. Excess salivation is not normal for rabbits.
Loss of appetite
Rabbits with snuffles frequently have decreased appetite since the infection makes eating uncomfortable. Look for partially eaten meals, weight loss, or disinterest in favorite foods.
Loss of energy
Lethargy and depression are common as rabbits feel unwell during illness. Your active bunny may sleep more and lose interest in playing.
In severe snuffles, skin sores can develop on the face, nose, legs, and genitals as infection spreads. Red, oozing wounds indicate an urgent vet visit is needed.
If inner ear infection develops, rabbits may develop a tilted head carriage from inflammation or loss of balance. See a vet immediately for this.
Rabbits may show mild symptoms at first like sneezing or wet nose. But snuffles can progress rapidly, leading to discharge, appetite loss, and breathing issues. Catching symptoms early and contacting your vet is key to recovery. Do not delay medical care if you notice any of these concerning signs.
What to do if you believe your rabbit has snuffles
If your rabbit is exhibiting symptoms of a respiratory infection like snuffles, the following steps should be taken:
Find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian
Consult a vet experienced in rabbit care as soon as symptoms appear. General vets may not have sufficient expertise with common rabbit illnesses. Your vet will confirm diagnosis, provide appropriate medication, and monitor condition.
Keep your rabbit warm and clean
Supportive care at home involves keeping your rabbit warm by providing blankets and limiting drafts. Gently wipe away any nasal discharge frequently to keep nostrils clear for breathing. Applying warm compresses to the nose can help loosen thick mucus.
Monitor your rabbit
Weigh your rabbit daily and track appetite, energy levels, and other symptoms. Report any changes to your vet, as loss of appetite can be very dangerous for rabbits. Monitoring helps ensure treatment is working.
Prevent the spread of the disease
Isolate the infected rabbit from other pets to prevent disease spread. Thoroughly disinfect any shared items or habitat daily. Wash hands before and after handling each rabbit. Quarantining new rabbits is also crucial.
Can rabbit snuffles be cured?
Unfortunately, snuffles cannot be fully cured in most rabbits. Pasteurella bacteria often forms chronic infections that recur throughout a rabbit's life. However, snuffles can be treated and controlled with attentive care.
Snuffles is treated with a combination of medications and supportive care:
Antibiotics – Antibiotics like penicillin or doxycycline are used to combat the bacterial infection and reduce symptoms. Antibiotics may be given by injection, orally, or nebulized.
Anti-inflammatories – Drugs like meloxicam help reduce inflammation associated with snuffles which narrows breathing passages. This supports respiration and eating.
Appetite stimulants – Medications like cyproheptadine help maintain appetite which is crucial. Rabbits can develop potentially fatal GI stasis if not eating.
Nebulization – Inhaled drugs like gentamicin delivered through a nebulizer directly treat respiratory tissues. This targets infection at the source.
Fluid therapy – Dehydration from poor eating and drinking frequently occurs. Subcutaneous fluids help stabilize rabbits and prevent gut malfunction.
Nasal flushing – Manually flushing thick mucus from nasal passages brings relief and may allow antibiotics to penetrate deeper into the sinuses.
Supportive care – Providing appetizing foods, keeping nostrils clean, and monitoring weight at home helps recovery. Stabilizing the rabbit supports medical treatment.
With an aggressive treatment plan, most rabbits show improvement within several days to weeks. However, snuffles often recurs throughout a rabbit's life during times of stress or illness. Working closely with your vet allows for prompt treatment of flare ups before they become severe.
While difficult to prevent completely, rabbit owners can reduce the risks and severity of snuffles through the following preventive measures:
Proper husbandry – Keep housing clean, dust-free, and well-ventilated. Avoid overcrowding and poor sanitation that allows bacteria to thrive.
Balanced diet – Feed a variety of hay, vegetables, and pellets. Support immune health through proper nutrition. Avoid sugary treats.
Routine vet care – Annual exams and immediate care when issues arise helps catch illness early. Establish a relationship with a rabbit-savvy vet.
Quarantine new rabbits – Isolate new rabbits for at least 2 weeks to watch for illness before introducing them to resident rabbits.
Limit stress – Provide a stable environment and routine daily care. Gently trim nails and brush fur to prevent stress injuries.
Hygiene – Wash hands and change clothes before/after handling outside rabbits. Disinfect shared items between rabbits.
Quality exercise time – Give supervised play time for mental stimulation and prevent obesity which strains the immune system.
Monitor for symptoms – Look for initial snuffles symptoms like sneezing and seek prompt veterinary care at the first signs.
Emergency kit – Keep an emergency supply kit prepared with your vet's contact, critical medications, fluids, and feeding supplies in case your rabbit becomes very ill.
While diligent care may reduce the frequency of flare ups, snuffles remains an unavoidable threat for many pet rabbits. Working closely with your veterinarian and monitoring your pet allows for early intervention when symptoms arise and the best possible outcomes. Ongoing observation, never delaying treatment, and dedicated rabbit ownership provides them the best quality of life despite chronic snuffles.