It’s cold and flu season, and it’s important to stay healthy, wash your hands regularly and protect others. And just like us, pets can also get ‘colds’ too. Rabbits are no exception (though we wouldn’t expect them to wash their paws!). So today we will ask whether rabbits get ‘colds’ and what this could mean.
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What is a Cold?
“A cold” is not a precise medical term, so the meaning varies from person to person. It generally refers to a viral upper respiratory infection that causes a runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing and other similar symptoms. However, sometimes people refer to diseases like influenza (flu) as colds as well. Someone may even assume they have a cold if they have allergies, hypersensitivities, a bacterial infection, COVID-19 or other diseases of the respiratory tract.
So in the loosest sense of the word, yes rabbits can get colds as they too can have viral upper respiratory infections. However, bacterial infections seem to be much more common in rabbits, and there are other diseases that an owner may confuse with a cold. Let’s discuss these now.
Rabbit Respiratory Disease
Bacterial Infections (Snuffles)
Bacteria are a common cause of respiratory disease in rabbits. Bacterial respiratory disease is commonly referred to as snuffles, based on one of the symptoms. The most common infectious bacteria are Pasteurella multocida, but others include Bordetella, Staphylococcus and Morexella.
Snuffles-causing bacteria are spread in the air, by direct contact between rabbits and on surfaces (as well as via sexual reproduction in certain cases). Certain bacteria are always present in rabbits in low normal numbers (termed ‘commensals’) and only cause disease if the rabbit becomes unwell due to stress, malnutrition, other illness and more.
Most rabbits will have symptoms ranging from the eponymous snuffly-sounding nose, sneezing, nasal and eye discharge, breathing difficulties and general unwellness. More severe infections can progress to pneumonia, bacterial spread into the blood, fever and death.
Many of the bacteria can be treated with antibiotics, but treatment can be complicated if the bacteria have not been identified. After treatment, some rabbits will be completely cured while others remain ‘carriers’ that have flare-ups of snuffles during stressful periods of their lives.
As stated above, rabbits can get certain viral infections that might be termed ‘colds’, though they are rarer than bacterial infections. Two of the most severe are Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD or RHD).
Both are not strictly respiratory viruses as they tend to cause other symptoms too. Sadly, the most common sign seen with both diseases is sudden death. Other symptoms include a swollen head, eyes and genitals (myxomatosis), breathing difficulties and bloody discharge (VHD), and general severe illness. However, both viruses can also cause secondary bacterial snuffles due to a weakened immune system.
These viruses are very easily spread to other rabbits via parasites, direct contact and fluids. Outdoor rabbits are particularly vulnerable to spread from wild rabbits. Unfortunately, there is no cure, and treatment is generally intense supportive care. Even with veterinary care, most rabbits with either virus must be put to sleep to prevent suffering.
Thankfully, there is a vaccine for both viruses which will protect rabbits from most infections – it is recommended that rabbits should be vaccinated annually to protect them from these nasty diseases.
Non-Infectious Respiratory Disease
There are a number of other possible respiratory conditions that can mimic ‘colds’ or snuffles in rabbits. These should be considered if your rabbit starts getting snuffly.
Foreign bodies are anything that is stuck inside your rabbit’s nose, throat, windpipe or lungs and is causing a problem. These could be food pellets, hay, straw, pieces of the hutch, toys , grass seeds and more. Foreign bodies cause local irritation, discharge and discomfort, and can allow secondary bacterial infections to occur. Foreign bodies can be hard to diagnose, and harder to treat, sometimes needing endoscopic or surgical removal.
Your rabbit can also have irritated airways resulting in similar symptoms. One of the most common irritants is dust, either from poor-quality hay or straw, dusty food or their hutch. Just like in people, dust irritates the sensitive tissue of the airways, and the body reacts by causing mucous production, sneezing and coughing. Smoke can also cause similar signs, such as from cigarettes or bonfires. The fumes from rabbit urine can irritate rabbits kept in dirty environments too. Consider if your rabbit is in contact with any of these, and ensure their bedding, food and hutch is dust-free and clean.
Allergies are theoretically possible in rabbits, though the evidence proving that they actually happen is scarce. Just like in dogs and cats, exposure to an allergen will result in your rabbit sneezing, having weepy eyes and nose, irritation and itchiness on the face, and similar upper respiratory signs. Diagnosis and treatment of allergies can be very difficult, but may include removing or avoiding the suspected allergen or steroid therapy.
Sometimes weepy eyes or noses can be entirely unrelated to the respiratory tract, and the problem may actually lie with the teeth.
Dental disease is very common in rabbits, often due to a poor diet. Rabbit teeth constantly grow and must be ground down on hard food. If a rabbit’s diet does not contain enough roughage, the teeth overgrow. As well as issues with eating and toileting, the upper teeth can start to compress the nearby tear ducts, resulting in weepy eyes. Abscesses can also form near the tooth roots, which also cause nasal and ocular issues. Treatment may require the teeth to be ground short or removed entirely. As with most diseases, prevention is much better than cure, so ensure your rabbit has the correct diet.
Most animals can develop cancer, and rabbits are no exception. Cancer can vary wildly in type, severity, location and symptoms, but they can affect the respiratory system in ways that mimic other respiratory diseases.
The most common cancers include thymomas, lymphomas and lymphosarcomas, and other carcinomas. Entire female rabbits can also develop uterus adenocarcinomas that can spread to the lungs. Cancers affecting the respiratory tract may result in nasal discharge, sneezing, coughing, respiratory difficulties and respiratory distress. Some can be cured with surgery, but many rabbits can only receive palliation.
Diagnosis of respiratory disease in rabbits usually begins with a clinical exam. This will involve checking your rabbit’s nose and eyes, listening to their heart and lungs, taking their temperature, and more. A thorough dental exam is essential, but this can be tricky in a conscious rabbit and may require sedation or a general anaesthetic. For simple snuffles or similar issues, this may be enough for a vet to prescribe treatment.
Sometimes more tests are needed to diagnose the problem. These may include blood testing, x-rays or ultrasonography, the use of an endoscope in your rabbit’s airways, sampling the airways to check what bacteria or viruses are present, or even advanced imaging such as CT or MRI. Again, dental disease is a common cause of related issues, so x-rays or CT of the skull are often recommended.
To answer the question “can rabbits get colds?” Yes, they can, but the most common viral respiratory infections are very severe and result in other symptoms too. By far more common are bacterial infections, resulting in the ‘snuffles’ or ‘colds’ seen by owners. Other respiratory problems can be associated with the environment or allergies, or are related to other body systems entirely. Diagnosing what the cause of your rabbit’s ‘cold’ can take time, so please speak to your vet now if you are concerned your rabbit has a cold.