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What is it?

The term ‘snuffles’ refers to the combination of symptoms associated with upper respiratory disease in rabbits, such as sneezing, nasal discharge and noisy breathing. It is often used to describe upper respiratory infections, most commonly pasteurellosis, an infection caused by Pasteurella multocida bacteria. Other types of bacteria as well as some viruses can cause similar symptoms.

How can my rabbit get it?

Upper respiratory infections are usually transmitted by close or direct contact with infected rabbits, sneezing or sharing of food and water bowls or bottles.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of upper respiratory infection in rabbits include:

  • Sneezing
  • Discharge from the nose (watery or creamy white)
  • Discharge from the eyes (conjunctivitis)
  • Pawing at the face
  • Reduced appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Lethargy

Discharge may be noticed on the rabbit’s ‘sleeves’ (the inside of their front paws) as they use these to clean the nose and eyes. Some rabbits experience difficulty breathing as rabbits naturally breathe through their nose which can become blocked with discharge.

Chronic upper respiratory infections can spread to other areas of the face and head including the sinuses, tear ducts and middle ear. This can result in facial swellings due to sinusitis, crusty or watery eyes due to blockage of the tears ducts, or signs of middle ear disease such as circling, falling and balance problems. The infection can also spread to the lungs, causing pneumonia or lung abscesses.

How is it diagnosed?

Diagnosis of uncomplicated cases of ‘snuffles’ is generally straightforward and is based on the symptoms or clinical signs of disease which can be assessed during a veterinary examination. However identification of the specific type of infection requires a swab of discharge to be taken from deep inside the nasal passages, often requiring an anaesthetic. This helps to guide treatment as well as providing a diagnosis. Some of the more complex symptoms such as middle ear infection, tear duct blockage or pneumonia require further investigations for diagnosis and assessment such as x-rays, scans or tear duct flushing.

It is also vital to rule out other causes of sneezing and nasal discharge, most notably dental disease. Overgrowth of the tooth roots can affect the nasal cavity, tear duct canal and sinuses. This can lead to infections or abscesses within the respiratory system and can produce symptoms similar to ‘snuffles’. Examination of the teeth under anaesthesia and x-rays of the tooth roots are needed to check for this.

Can it be treated?

Pasteurella infection can be difficult to cure and often results in long-term or recurrent disease. It is common for the symptoms of ‘snuffles’ to recur during stressful periods such as when new animals are introduced or if the rabbit becomes unwell for another reason.

Successful treatment relies upon an accurate diagnosis, specific treatments such as appropriate antibiotic treatment, treatment of the symptoms including anti-inflammatory medication to reduce the sneezing and swelling inside the nasal passages and addressing any secondary problems such as flushing of blocked tear ducts or eye drops for conjunctivitis. Due to the variety of symptoms that can be associated with a case of ‘snuffles’, treatment will vary depending on the symptoms and severity of illness in each rabbit.

How can I prevent it?

Prevention of ‘snuffles’ relies on avoiding introduction of the disease into your group by new rabbits or contaminated items. It is important to quarantine any new rabbits to monitor for signs of illness before introducing them to your existing rabbits. Maintaining good levels of hygiene and cleanliness as well as providing adequate ventilation help to reduce the risks.

Rabbits with long-term or recurrent problems with ‘snuffles’ should have stress levels minimised to reduce the number and severity of flare-ups that they experience. A good quality diet and maintaining good general health are also important. These rabbits should be kept separate from other rabbits and strict hygiene should be maintained including the use of separate food and water bowls or bottles, hand-washing between handling of rabbits from different groups and cleaning out enclosures of non-infected rabbits before those of infected rabbits in order to reduce the risk of transferring contaminated material.