Pasteurellosis, also known commonly as snuffles, is a term used to describe the symptoms of runny eyes, runny nose and sneezing in rabbits. The cause of these symptoms is often a chronic bacterial infection in the tear ducts and nasal sinuses. The inciting bacteria are most commonly Pasteurella multocida and it is one of the most common causes of respiratory disease in rabbits. There are several different strains and depending on the strain that infects a particular rabbit, the signs can be either mild or severe. Some strains of these bacteria are commonly found in the nasal tract of rabbits, but may not cause infections unless the animal is stressed or has a compromised immune system.
Rabbits kept in poorly ventilated hutches may be especially predisposed to developing snuffles. The build-up of fumes from urine or from certain types of wood shavings, especially cedar, may cause irritation to the eyes, and possibly trigger snuffles.
Rabbits with dental disease are also prone to developing snuffles. This is because the tooth roots come very close to the tear duct as it drains from the corner of the eye to the nose. When the teeth become maloccluded (do not meet correctly), the tooth roots push upwards and can obstruct the tear duct. This blockage prevents normal drainage of tears through the duct and allows the bacteria to grow.
The first signs that you see may be quite subtle and you’ll notice that something is wrong with your pet, but it may be hard to pinpoint. You may note signs such as depression, loss of appetite, and weight loss. Other things that you might notice with your rabbit are sneezing, difficulty breathing, and discharge from the nose and eyes, causing wet, stained fur on the cheeks. If left untreated, snuffles can spread to other organs in the body, and some rabbits may die suddenly without other symptoms (rare), depending on which strain of Pasteurella multocida they have contracted.
As the condition worsens, your rabbit will likely develop a thick, whitish to yellow discharge from its nose which it will wipe away with its front paws. You may notice the dried discharge on your rabbit’s front paws from where she/he grooms the face and wipes their eyes and nose. Infected rabbits will often make a loud snuffling or snorting sound because of the fluid and mucous in their nose and sinuses. In a rare but severe case, a rabbit may develop a fatal pneumonia or bacteremia (the bacteria enter the bloodstream). In a few cases, abscesses may form under the skin, in joints, or in the internal organs.
Initial treatment for snuffles is generally a course of antibiotics for 2-4 weeks. Antibiotics commonly used include enrofloxacin (Baytril), ciprofloxacin, and trimethoprim sulfa (TMS). Rabbits have certain bacteria in their intestine that they need to help them digest their food, and they often need to be supplemented with these bacteria during and after antibiotic treatment since the antibiotics may kill them off. In most cases, the signs of the disease may disappear, but the bacteria are usually still present, only in smaller numbers.
The goal with treatment is to use an effective antibiotic at the first signs of infection. If the infection is present for several days or weeks without treatment, it is likely that it will become chronic and very difficult to eliminate. Even in cases that are treated early, some animals will still develop chronic infections in their sinus passages that require long-term treatment, or even lifelong treatment to keep them under control.
Snuffles is a difficult disease to cure and treatment may need to be continued for several months before the condition improves. The most important part of treatment is to avoid recurrence of symptoms. This is hard because any stressful episode that compromises the rabbit’s immune system can start snuffles up again. Stressful events include a change of cage or environment (moving), a change of diet or any part of a regularly established routine, addition or loss of a family member including other pets, changes in weather, etc.
Snuffles is also extremely contagious among rabbits, and infected rabbits should never be allowed to come into contact with healthy rabbits. Any cage or bedding that has been in contact with infected rabbits needs to be disinfected with a mild bleach solution before using it for healthy rabbits. Keep infected rabbits in isolation during treatment. Thoroughly clean and disinfect cages, food bowls, water containers and toys. Discard porous (wood, natural fibers, etc.) objects that cannot be thoroughly cleaned and if you or family members handle an infected rabbit, please wash your hands and clothes before handling any healthy rabbits.