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Respiratory Disease in the Rabbit

There are many causes of respiratory problems in rabbits. In this article the main infectious causes will be discussed.

The main organisms which are responsible for respiratory diseases in rabbits are Pasteurella multocida, and Bordetella bronchiseptica. Other organisms which may cause respiratory diseases in rabbits include Klebsiella pneumoniae and pneumococci. Myxomatosis and Viral Haemorrhagic Disease of rabbits may both cause respiratory signs. There are vaccines available for both these diseases which are covered in their own sections of the web site.

Pasteurella multocida causes pasteurellosis (often known as the "snuffles") which is a very common bacterial disease of rabbits. This disease causes respiratory signs and other problems in affected animals. Pastuerella multocida is an organism which is present in the respiratory tract of most domestic rabbits. Young animals are probably infected with pasteurellosis from their mothers; it is a very contagious disease which is spread by direct or indirect contact. Many rabbits are infected with this bacteria but show no clinical signs. The disease may become apparent when the rabbit is stressed or when there is another concurrent illness. Rabbits often develop signs of respiratory disease during pregnancy and lactation.

Rabbits with clinical signs of pasteurellosis usually show the mild form of the disease. In this form of the disease the rabbit may have an off white discharge from the eyes and nose due to rhinitis, sinusitis and conjunctivitis. Often rabbits will clean themselves very efficiently and this discharge be seen on the forelegs due to the animal's grooming activity. It may become difficult for the rabbit to breathe through its nose hence the term "snuffles". Affected rabbits often sneeze and cough. If a rabbit is stressed then the mild form of the disease may progress and the rabbit could develop pneumonia.

If a rabbit develops bronchopneumonia due to Pastuerella multocida it may die. Symptoms of pneumonia include inappetance, lethargy, difficulty breathing and a fever. Rabbits often die about a week after the onset of signs. Other serious problems caused by Pasteurella include the development of pulmonary or pericardial abscesses and septicemia. Middle ear disease (causing a head tilt), pyometra, and testicular abscesses are also caused by this bacteria.

Treatment for rabbits with chronic pasteurellosis may produce an improvement in their clinical signs and quality of life but it can be difficult to eliminate the infection altogether. Treatment for the mild form of disease will involve the use of antibiotics such as enrofloxacin (the specific antibiotic to be used is best determined by culture and sensitivity testing of the organism causing the disease). Antibiotic treatment may be required for quite a long time (2 to 3 months). If there are signs of conjunctivitis it is often useful to flush the tear ducts of the rabbit with saline or antibiotic solution. This is often done under sedation. Nasal congestion may be relieved using a mucolytic drug (Bisolvon). Probiotics may be useful when antibiotics are used in rabbits to help maintain the natural bacterial flora of the gut. In more serious cases where a rabbit develops pneumonia antibiotics and supportive treatment will be given as necessary. However, treatment is often ineffective in such cases because the disease may be well advanced before treatment commences.

The other common organism which may cause respiratory disease in rabbits is Bordetella bronchiseptica. This is a bacteria which rabbits may have without showing any signs of a problem (a subclinical infection). If it does produce symptoms of acute bronchopneumonia then antibiotic treatment similar to that for pasteurellosis may be used.

Try to prevent infectious respiratory diseases in your rabbits by keeping wild rabbits away from your animals, isolating any new rabbits for at least two weeks before you introduce them to your existing population, practicing good hygiene and ensuring that rabbits are not stressed by environmental factors such as poor ventilation, temperature extremes or overcrowding. Try to clean the rabbit's hutch or living space regularly to prevent pneumonia (high levels of ammonia may precipitate this if rabbits already have a respiratory problem.)

If your rabbit has ever had signs of a respiratory disease it may have a higher chance of developing problems under anaesthetic so the vet should be made aware of this if such treatment is ever necessary.

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