Sneezing rabbits – a difficult condition to cure

Sneezing is a common complaint in rabbits, and is generally caused by a respiratory bacterial infection, Pasteurella multoci. Other organisms can be responsible, such as Bordatella spp. and Pseudomonas spp., so it’s ideal if you to take a swab for culture to check. For many rabbits, the infection is chronic, often lifelong, with signs regularly recurring whenever the animal is stressed.

Posted: 12 August 2019

Sneezing rabbits – a difficult condition to cure


Clinical signs to look for include;

  • Nasal discharge – usually a serous to mucopurulent exudate
  • Sneezing - the inflammation and exudate will initiate a sneeze, and sometime a cough
  • Wet paws – look for evidence of exudates on the medial aspect of the forepaws as a result of wiping the nose
  • Inflamed mucosa – you may find red and thickened mucosa in both acute and chronic infections

A rabbit presenting with sneezing is typically chronically infected and slow to respond to any treatment. The pus they produce tends to be thicker and drier than that found in a dog or cat, resulting in it being harder to expel. The debris produced from the initial infection remains in the nasal cavity and causes further damage to the delicate tissues.

Rabbits are infected by both direct contact with diseased rabbits and by contact with a contaminated environment, such as shared food, bedding or water containers. Unfortunately, some rabbits continue to shed the bacteria after they appear to recover, acting as latent carriers. Rabbits under stress are most susceptible, and these would include those subjected to over-crowding, temperature extremes, parturition, transport and inappropriate housing and/or diet. Prevention of pasteurellosis is certainly the preferred option, as a cure is hard to achieve.

6 ways to prevent infections

A golden rule to remember is that happy, healthy, stress-free animals get fewer infections. We need to feed them well and keep them in good living conditions to ensure they remain stress free and healthy.

  1. Feed the best – always feed good quality food. Lots of good quality feeding hay and some high quality all-in-one pellets. At Burgess Pet Care we have an extensive range of high-quality rabbit concentrates. Find out more of the whole range of food here.
  2. Avoid dust and mould – minimise the dust in the environment. This can be achieved by avoiding old hay which hasn’t been stored correctly. You can buy specially cleaned hay which is mould and dust free. See our range of feeding hay at Burgess Pet Care >
  3. Litter hygiene – stale urine breaks down to ammonia which is harmful to the lungs and eyes. It’s essential to keep the rabbit’s environment clean and fresh. Many rabbits will use litter trays, so ensure they are cleaned daily. If it smells, the litter needs changing.
  4. Good ventilation – a constant change of air will help reduce with both ammonia and dust levels.
  5. Health checks - encourage owners to visit you at least twice a year to check and discuss their rabbit’s health, weight and diet.
  6. Remove stress – it’s important to identify and remove the cause of stress. It could be the temperature and environment, or perhaps a boisterous dog or inquisitive cat. By removing the stress, the rabbit’s immune system will be able to improve.

How do we treat rabbit respiratory infections?

This chronic condition requires the use of antibiotics, good environmental hygiene and supportive care. Infected animals will need to be separated from others to reduce the chance of horizontal spread.

Anyone in your practice involved in handling and nursing should adhere to strict biosecurity, washing their hands between animals as well as wearing gloves and a disposable gown. Simple precautions, like not washing all the rabbit food and water bowls together in one tub can also help to control the spread of infection.

A. Antibiotics – these are usually given for prolonged periods depending on the severity of infection. Unfortunately, relapses are common when treatment is stopped, especially if there has been permanent damage to the nasal tissues, with some animals requiring treatment for many months. The number of antibiotics that are safe to use in rabbits is very limited.

Examples of commonly used, safe, and effective oral antibiotics for Pasteurella spp. Include;

  • Enrofloxacin
  • Cirprofloxacin
  • Marbofloxacin
  • Trimethoprim/sulphadiazine
  • Chloramphenicol
  • Azithromycin

High-risk antibiotics – those that should be avoided as oral treatments in rabbits include;

  • Amoxycillin
  • Ampicillin
  • Cephalosporins
  • Clindamycin
  • Lincomycin
  • Streptomycin
  • Penicillin – though these can be given by injection

B. Anti-inflammatories – these drugs are often used to manage inflammation of the respiratory system and make the animal feel more comfortable. Examples include meloxicam or carprofen

C. Mucolytics – these are drugs that help to make mucus more fluid and easier to remove.

D. Assisted feeding – great care and attention must be given to any rabbit struggling with illness. Food and fluids are given orally keep them to stay hydrated and keep their guts moving.