Snuffles: The Rabbit Cold


can bunnies catch a cold

Just the other day, I was socializing one of the new bunnies at the animal shelter when I noticed a tiny bit of watery snot when she sneezed. And it’s a good thing I noticed! This little bunny was in the early stages of a bacterial infection called snuffles, also known as the rabbit cold. She’s doing fine now, but snuffles in rabbits can be deadly if the symptoms are not caught early enough. It’s important to learn the signs so you can get medical help before it’s too late.

The symptoms of snuffles are similar to the symptoms of a human cold. It affects the upper respiratory system, mainly affecting the nasal passage and lungs. The bacteria causing snuffles can also affect nearby areas, causing infections in the ears and and skull. Without treatment, snuffles can be a deadly illness for rabbits.

Rabbits are prey animals, which means they will try to hide their weaknesses. This comes from a fear of looking vulnerable to predators, and unfortunately means it is difficult to tell when a rabbit is sick. But it is possible for you to learn the early signs of snuffles. You can help your rabbit recover to be a happy, healthy bunny again.

What is Snuffles?

Snuffles is characterized by cold-like symptoms in your rabbit. If you notice a runny nose, watery eyes, or excessive sneezing, this means they have already developed later stage symptoms of snuffles. 

It is an upper respiratory bacterial infection that infects the areas around a rabbit’s eyes, nose, and sometimes lungs and ears. In mild cases the symptoms aren’t so bad and the rabbit might end up healing just fine. But in many cases, symptoms of snuffles can cause the rabbit to develop pneumonia or have extreme difficulty breathing. 

Most of the time, if the symptoms of snuffles are left untreated, the rabbit will not make it. But there is a much higher chance of survival if the infection is caught early. If you believe your rabbit has snuffles, get them to a vet as soon as you can even if the symptoms are not severe yet.

Causes of snuffles

The term snuffles is a catch-all term that refers to the symptoms your rabbit is experiencing, rather than the specific cause. Most often snuffles is caused by the bacteria Pasteurella multocids, but it can also be caused by a number of other bacterial sources. Your vet will be able to perform blood tests to make sure the illness is treated correctly.

A rabbit will develop snuffles by coming into contact with one of the bacteria that causes it, but rabbits can also harbor the bacteria for years before showing any symptoms. So a rabbit can catch the infection from another rabbit that’s not even showing the signs and is just carrying a dormant version of the bacteria. 

This condition is extremely contagious to other rabbits. So if you have more than one bunny and one of them is showing signs of snuffles, you may need to separate them temporarily and keep a very close eye on the healthy bunny. It is best to consult your rabbit-savvy vet for advice on how to treat other rabbits who have come in contact with the infected rabbit.

Can rabbits catch colds from humans?

Even though the symptoms are very similar, a rabbit cannot catch a cold or the flu from a human. Human colds are caused by a viral infection that generally only affects humans. There are a few strains that are known to affect other species of animals, but none that will affect your rabbit.

One of the less common bacteria (Bordetella bronchiseptica) that can cause snuffles in rabbits also causes kennel cough in dogs. This is not a serious condition for a dog, but it does mean a pet dog can infect a pet rabbit and vice-versa. If you interact with a dog that has a harsh cough, make sure to thoroughly wash and disinfect your hands and clothes before interacting with your rabbit.

What are the symptoms of snuffles?

No one wants to think about what to do if their cute little rabbit gets sick. But I know from experience it’s better to know the signs of a sick rabbit and get medical help as soon as you can. Some signs of snuffles in rabbits are very subtle. If you notice the more obvious signs of snuffles, it means that your rabbit has already developed a later stage of snuffles and you should seek urgent veterinary care.

Sneezing

While it is perfectly normal for your rabbit to sneeze occasionally due to dust or allergies, you want to be on the lookout for any excessive sneezing. If the sneezing is accompanied by any nasal discharge (snot), that is a sign that your rabbit is developing snuffles.

Watery eyes

Watery eyes can be an indication of a number of health issues in a rabbit. Sometimes the problem is a less serious issue, such as a blocked tear duct, but sometimes it can indicate a much more dangerous health problem in your rabbit. So be on the lookout for teary eyes, crying is not a normal rabbit behavior.

Runny nose

Rabbits are obligate nose breathers, which means they always breathe through their noses. It’s not completely impossible for rabbits to breathe from their mouths, but it is difficult for them to do so. That’s why it is incredibly dangerous for a rabbit’s nose to be blocked or runny with snot. Snuffles will start with a thin, watery discharge from the nose. It will develop into a thicker mucous discharge as the infection progresses.

matted fur on a rabbits paw
Check the inner side of your rabbits paw for matted or dirty fur.

Matted fur on paws

This is one of the earliest signs of snuffles that you can look out for. Rabbits wash their faces with their paws. So if they have watery eyes or a runny nose, they may be washing away the evidence from their face. Instead, the rabbit will have some sticky, matted fur on the inside of their paws from wiping away the snot.

Wet nose

Rabbits should not normally have wet noses. This is usually a sign that your rabbit’s nose is running, but it’s still in the early stages of snuffles. At first, a rabbit’s snot will be thin and watery, which is what’s causing the wet nose.

The only exception to this is sometimes rabbits have wet noses because of the way they drink water. If your rabbit is a very sloppy drinker, then their chin and nose might be wet every time after they drink. In this case, it’s not a big deal and if your rabbit is not showing any other signs of snuffles, they are probably doing fine.

Difficulty breathing

Since rabbits breathe through their nose, they will begin to have difficulty breathing if their nose gets runny and clogged with snot. If you notice any unusual wheezing, coughing, or snoring, these are indications that your rabbit has developed snuffles. Sometimes rabbits will snore even if they are perfectly healthy. But if the rabbit has never snored before and is also wheezing, then it’s a sign of snuffles.

Drooling

A healthy rabbit should not be drooling. This is an indication that your rabbit is attempting to breathe through their mouth because their nose is blocked up. It could also mean that your rabbits teeth are overgrown; another serious issue that you should get medical help for.

Like with a wet nose, the only exception to this is when you have a rabbit who is a sloppy drinker. If your rabbits chin is wet every time after they drink water and they show no other signs of illness, then they are probably doing just fine.

Loss of appetite

This is another early and important sign to look out for. Rabbits have sensitive digestive systems, and need to be constantly eating. If your rabbit is refusing food that they would normally eat, then that is a sign of a sick rabbit. Even if your rabbit doesn’t have the snuffles, a rabbit losing their appetite can lead to very dangerous and deadly health conditions.

Loss of energy

Rabbits do tend to rest and lie around for most of the day, especially as they get older. But if you spend time with your rabbit and know they are behaving more lethargic than usual, there is a good chance they are coming down with something. 

Rabbits are most active in the hours around dawn and dusk. If you notice a lack of energy around these times of day, you should keep a close eye on your rabbit. Make sure they’re eating, and pooping, and check for any of the other signs on this list.

Skin sores

The skin around the nose and the eyes can become irritated from a runny nose or watery eyes. So if you notice sores starting to develop around these areas, that’s a sign your rabbit is sick.

head tilt in rabbits
Head tilt is when your rabbits constantly holds their head at a 90 degree angle.

Head tilt

Head tilt (also known as Wry Neck) can be caused by many things including a stroke, cancer, and also ear infections in rabbits. It unbalances the rabbit and causes them to tilt their head 90 degrees to the side at all times. Sometimes the bacteria from snuffles will have traveled to the ear canals, causing an ear infection. Even if there are no other symptoms present, if your rabbit develops head tilt, you should seek veterinary care.

What to do if you believe your rabbit has snuffles

You’ve been monitoring your rabbit and checking for the symptoms on this list. Your think your rabbit has developed snuffles. Now you need to take action. 

Find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian

First and foremost, you want to find a rabbit savvy vet or emergency hospital in your area. (House Rabbit Society has this handy list to help). Rabbit biology is very different from a cat or dog. Some medicines that are helpful for other animals, are dangerous for rabbits. So look for a veterinarian that specializes in rabbits. 

If you’re afraid your rabbit has already developed snuffles, make an urgent appointment. The symptoms will sometimes progress very quickly, so you want to get your rabbit the care and medicine they need as quickly as possible. 

After you get your rabbit to the vet, they will be able to do any necessary tests (usually they will do a blood test), and prescribe any medicine you need to help your rabbit get better. The sooner you notice the symptoms and get your rabbit to the vet, the better chances your rabbit will have of recovering.

Keep your rabbit warm and clean

While your rabbit is recovering, you can help keep them clean, warm and comfortable. Wipe off their nose of any snot to help clear their nasal passage as much as possible. You can use a damp cotton ball to gently clear anything away.

Also try to keep your rabbit warm. Your rabbit might be going into shock, which will significantly lower their body temperature. You can warm them up by wrapping your rabbit in a towel and holding them close to your body, or allowing them to lay next to a warm (not hot) water bottle.

Talk to your vet and ask for any instructions to help your rabbit out. You can call ahead of time to find out if there are any emergency steps you should take, and also listen to any instructions they give you to care for your rabbit after the diagnosis.

Monitor your rabbit

Over the next few days you will need to monitor your rabbit for any signs of improvement. Encourage them to eat and watch their activity levels, to see if they are feeling any better. And of course, pay attention to any instructions your vet gives you. Including how to give your rabbit their medication.

Always make a follow-up appointment with your vet, even if your rabbit seems to be completely recovered. It’s best to have them looked at one more time to make sure everything is okay.

Prevent the spread of the disease

If you have any other rabbits in the household, you will need to watch them very closely. Snuffles in incredibly contagious, and it’s likely that the infection has already been transferred. Ask your veterinarian for advice on how to monitor your healthy rabbit. They may even ask you to bring the other rabbit in so they can do some tests to make sure they don’t get sick too.

You can also work to prevent the infection from spreading by thoroughly washing and disinfecting everything the sick rabbit came into contact with. This includes any toys, bedding, cages, and even the clothes you were wearing when around the sick bunny.

Can rabbit snuffles be cured?

The symptoms of snuffles in rabbits can be cured, but it is not always possible to completely eradicate the bacteria from your rabbit. Often times with rabbits, the bacteria that causes snuffles will still be present in small numbers even after they have been treated. Your rabbit will feel better and behave normally, but there is a chance they will have snuffles again at some point in their lives.

Typically, however, these bacteria will remain dormant and will not harm your rabbit unless they are experiencing some significant stress. This means you want to do what you can to make your rabbit’s environment as comfortable as possible, and keep them on a healthy diet. When you make a drastic change to the environment, such as moving to a new house, keep a very close eye on your rabbit. This is likely to be stressful for a rabbit and may cause the infection to occur again.

Prevention

The best way to prevent snuffles, whether or not they have been exposed to the bacteria that causes it, is to keep your rabbit comfortable and stress free. This means keeping your rabbit at a comfortable temperature (no more than 75 degrees), and giving them a large enough enclosure and exercise space. You also want to keep a close eye on their diet, so they can be a happy, healthy bunny. 

And, of course, spend time with your rabbit. This gives you a chance to watch them and catch the signs of sickness early. More importantly, rabbits are very social animals and they get lonely and depressed if they are left alone all day. Like humans, depressed rabbits are much more likely to become sick. Besides, there is nothing better than spending time with a happy bunny!

Related Questions

Can a rabbit have a fever?

A normal rabbit temperature is 101-103 °F (38-39 °C). Rabbits can get a fever, and should be treated if their temperature gets too high. But a temperature that’s too low is more common and more dangerous. A low temperature can cause a rabbit to go into shock, causing their body starts to shut down.

How often should I take my rabbit to the vet?

If your rabbit is healthy and shows no signs of illness, you only need to take your rabbit to the vet once a year for an annual check-up. If you do notice any signs that your rabbit is sick, you should bring them to a vet right away. 

Sources:

  1. “A Case of the Snuffles.” Pet Talk, College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University, Apr. 12, 2012, vetmed.tamu.edu/news/pet-talk/a-case-of-the-snuffles.
  2. O’Beollain, Phyllis. “Pasteurella infection in the house rabbit.” Ohio House Rabbit Rescue, www.ohiohouserabbitrescue.org/pasteurella-infection-in-the-house-rabbit.
  3. “Snuffles & Pasteurella in Rabbits: Causes and Treatment.” Petcoach, www.petcoach.co/article/snuffles-pasteurellosis.
  4. “Snuffles in Rabbits.” Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, Oct. 24, 2012, www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/snuffles-in-rabbits.

Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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