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Rabbit Respiratory Disease (Snuffles, Pasteurellosis)

By: Dr. Heidi Hoefer

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Respiratory disease in rabbits is a common condition most often caused by a bacterial infection. Respiratory disease affects rabbits of all ages and results in sneezing, eye discharge (conjunctivitis), and labored breathing. Untreated rabbits become very debilitated as the condition progresses.

Most respiratory problems in rabbits are caused by bacteria and not viruses like in people or in cats. Rabbits do not get "colds". One common bacteria is called "Pasteurella" but there can be other bacteria involved as well like Mycoplasma, Bordetella and Pseudomonas. Some older rabbits can have breathing difficulty from heart disease or cancer and not have infection at all.

Rabbits of all ages are susceptible but symptoms often occur in juvenile rabbits, as they become infected from the mother or other bunnies. Most rabbits are exposed to the Pasteurella bacteria but not all rabbits show symptoms.

There are two components to the respiratory tract and both of these can be affected: the upper respiratory tract and the lower respiratory tract. The upper respiratory tract involves the head, sinuses, the nasal passages and the ear canal. This system is most often involved.

Upper respiratory infections ("URI") result in the "snuffles" syndrome of runny eyes, runny nose and sneezing. Occasionally, a bunny with snuffles will develop a deep ear infection. The lower respiratory system involves the trachea and lungs. Lower respiratory involvement usually means pneumonia (lung infection).

Because rabbits are "obligate nasal breathers" (can only breathe in through the nose), sinus infection can lead to labored breathing and "snorting" during respiration. Some of these bunnies really struggle to breathe.

Most common symptoms include: sneezing, conjunctivitis (eye discharge), loud breathing and lethargy. Inner ear infections can develop and result in a head tilt or circling behavior. Watch for runny eyes, runny nose and dirty front paws in rabbits that clean their face.

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