Category: respiratory-problems-rabbits

Snuffles – the facts

Snuffles is a condition in rabbits that every owner dreads. Once a rabbit develops snuffles it is usually a life-long problem. Fortunately, recent research suggests that it can be prevented just by providing your rabbit with a healthy, balanced diet. Here are some guidelines on how to look after a rabbit with snuffles and also how to protect your rabbits from developing the condition.

Snuffles is a term used to describe the symptoms of runny eyes, runny nose and sneezing in rabbits. The cause of these symptoms is often a chronic bacterial infection in the tear ducts and nasal sinuses. The bacteria involved are usually Pasteurella spp or Staphylococcus spp.

Rabbits with dental disease are prone to developing snuffles. This is because the tooth roots pass very closely to the tear duct as it drains from the corner of the eye to the nose. When the teeth become overgrown and/or maloccluded (do not meet), the tooth roots push upwards and can obstruct the tear duct. This blockage prevents normal drainage of tears through the duct and allows the bacteria to grow.

It has been suggested that rabbits kept in poorly ventilated hutches may also be prone to developing snuffles. The build-up of fumes from urine or from certain types of wood shavings, e.g. cedar, may cause irritation to the eyes, and possibly trigger snuffles.

The first sign of a problem is usually runny eyes with wet, tear-stained fur on the cheeks. The discharge from the eyes is initially clear (just like normal tears). If left untreated, the discharge can become purulent (white-yellow coloured) and the fur around the eyes can fall out.

As the condition progresses, your rabbit will develop a discharge from its nose which it will wipe away with its front paws. You may spot the dried discharge on your rabbit’s front paws.

In severe cases, snuffles can result in pneumonia which requires very intensive treatment – and unfortunately is often fatal.

If you suspect that your rabbit has snuffles, you should take it to see your vet. He/she will carefully examine your rabbit, including its teeth, and may ask you questions about your rabbit’s diet and housing. Your rabbit’s eyes may be swabbed to collect some of the bacteria from them. These bacteria will be grown in culture and then exposed to different antibiotics. This test is called a ‘culture and sensitivity’ and it will help your vet prescribe the most effective antibiotic for your rabbit. The antibiotics are usually in the form of drops or cream to be applied directly to the eyes. Your vet or veterinary nurse will demonstrate how to administer the drops correctly.

Oral antibiotics may also be necessary to treat the infection in the nasal sinuses. You will need to administer these directly into your rabbit’s mouth using a syringe. Ask your vet or veterinary nurse to show you how to do this if you are unsure.

Your vet may recommend that your rabbit has its tear duct(s) flushed with an antibiotic solution. Flushing removes any pus and bacteria from the blocked duct and helps the antibiotics to penetrate the duct and be more effective. Your rabbit may need to be sedated for this procedure.

If your rabbit is found to have problems with its teeth, it may need to have them clipped or filed. This is usually performed under general anaesthesia. Your vet may also recommend some changes to your rabbit’s diet to help prevent further teeth problems.

Snuffles is a difficult disease to cure and treatment may need to be continued for several months before the condition improves.

Ensure that your rabbit’s living quarters are well ventilated and are regularly cleaned-out to prevent the build-up of fumes from urine. Also do not use cedar shavings for bedding.

Recent research by veterinary surgeons and rabbit food companies has shown that there is a strong relationship between rabbit’s diet and dental disease. Rabbits with dental problems are prone to snuffles, so the best way of protecting your rabbit from snuffles, is to ensure that its teeth are healthy and this may require changes to your rabbits diet.

Rabbits in the wild eat a very high-fibre diet consisting predominantly of grass, hay and bark, and they rarely suffer from dental problems. As rabbit’s teeth grow throughout their life, they need to be continually worn down by the action of chewing on food. The major consitituent of your rabbit’s diet should be grass and hay. Only a small amount of commercial rabbit mix should be fed, and this should be one of the high-fibre mixes such as Supreme’s Russell Rabbit Mix or Burgess Supa Rabbit Excel. If you do need to alter your rabbit’s diet introduce the changes gradually over a minimum period of 2 weeks, to allow its digestive system to adjust.


Rabbits cannot breathe through their mouth if their nose is blocked. Attempted mouth breathing is a sign of respiratory distress and is often accompanied by a blue tinge to the lips and nose. This is a serious and life-threatening condition that needs emergency attention by your vet. However, anything that obstructs the rabbit’s nasal passages or causes a narrrowing may mean that the rabbit emits a ‘snoring’ noise when breathing. This can sometimes be caused by the rabbits’ breed, a foreign body or bacterial infections, and some rabbits may also truly snore!

There are many reasons why a rabbit’s nasal passages may be narrow or blocked to some degree.

Many breeds of rabbit, especially lop eared breeds have flattened faces and noses (brachycephalic), which, as in similar flat-nosed breeds of cats and dogs, e.g. Bulldogs, Pugs and Pekinese, causes a snoring sound to be heard when the animal breathes. This is a congenital problem caused by the animal’s breeding and is often not life-threatening, as long as nothing else obstructs the nasal passages.

Foreign bodies, e.g. grass/hay seeds/hair, may be breathed in and lodge in one or even both of the nasal passages. This will often be accompanied by sneezing, nose rubbing and discharge from the affected nostril(s). In these cases, veterinary advice and attention should be sought.

Rabbits often harbour some degree of subclinical bacterial infection in their lungs and airways, especially as they age. The most common bacteria that is found is Pasteurella multocida. This often strikes fear into rabbit owners as the bacteria can be responsible for a host of rabbit health related problems (abscesses, respiratory infections, etc), but in truth many rabbits carry the bacteria, often for years/life, without any problems arising. Problems arise once the rabbits’ immune system is compromised (often for another health problem), and the immune system is weakened so is no longer able to keep the Pasteurella ‘in-check’. This is when it often takes hold and some form of clinical signs associated with the bacteria may be seen.

This depends on the reason for the snoring!

If the rabbit is well and has been checked out by your vet and deemed healthy, then monitoring the situation is the best course of action. However, if the problem is causing any respiratory distress, the rabbit is cyanotic (blue mucous membranes) or is distressed in any other way, then you must get your rabbit to your vet straight away as this is an emergency situation.

Some rabbits do simply seem to snore when they are asleep, much like people. This is often the case in rabbits who may be slightly overweight or as the rabbit ages, and is caused by a slightly floppy soft palate.

If your rabbit only snores when asleep or very relaxed, and has no signs of respiratory infection or a foreign body, then it would be assumed that the rabbit is just snoring!

Snoring can be totally harmless and normal for some rabbits, but if your rabbit is in any way distressed or it happens suddenly without any previous episodes, then it is always best to seek veterinary advice to rule out any potential problems.

Nasal discharge

Discharges from the nose can be clear fluid, mucus, pus, blood or a mixture of substances. The discharge can originate from the nasal area or from deeper in the respiratory tract, e.g. the lungs. There are several causes of nasal discharge, not all of them are infections. The prognosis varies depending on the cause the extent of disease when treatment is sought.

Any of a number of fluids produced in the respiratory tract can drain from your rabbit’s nose. This discharge may be seen on and around the nostrils, but as rabbits use their forepaws to clean their nose, the discharge, wet or dried, may also be seen on the fur on the inside of their front legs.

Rabbits breathe through their nose, so any nasal discharge may detrimentally affect their breathing. Aside from the obvious discharge, clinical signs may also include difficulties breathing, anorexia, sneezing and weight loss. Even with lower respiratory tract disease, coughing is very rare in rabbits.

Nasal discharge may be due to infectious or non-infectious causes.

Infectious causes

  • Bacteria such as Pasteurella multocida and em>Bordetella bronchiseptica commonly cause respiratory disease in rabbits.
  • Viruses are rarely a cause of nasal discharge.
  • In some cases of myxomatosis with secondary bacterial infection, a mucus/pus nasal discharge is seen.
  • In the terminal stages of rabbit haemorrhagic disease, frothy blood originating from the lungs may discharge from the nose.
  • Fungal infection may also affect the nasal cavity.

Other causes

  • Dental disease can obstruct the nasolacrimal tear duct which drains tears from the eyes down the nose. Secondary infection of the nasal cavity may also occur. Infection within the tear duct can drain into the nasal cavity.
  • Trauma to the head, such as an attack by a predator.
  • Nasal tumours.
  • Foreign bodies, such as hay, hair or grass seeds, are common in rabbits, and can lead to infection and nasal discharge.
  • Respiratory irritants, such as smoke, dust and high ammonia levels, irritate the nasal lining and secondary infection can occur.
  • Allergic rhinitis is rare in rabbits.
  • Other factors that are risk factors for respiratory tract disease include poor environmental conditions, e.g. poor ventilation or a dirty environment, overcrowding, other disease which reduces the rabbit’s ability to combat infections, and stress such as transportation.

After examining your rabbit, your vet may suggest some other tests to identify the cause of the discharge and help determine the severity of the condition.

Blood tests can show the overall health of the rabbit, in particular identifying signs of infection.

A deep nasal swab is useful to check for various infections. This is uncomfortable for the rabbit so your vet will need to sedate or anaesthetise your rabbit for this procedure.

Flushing the tear ducts is particularly useful if they are blocked by infection, but may take several attempts to achieve successful flushing. If the tear ducts are severely blocked or scarred it is sometimes impossible to flush them successfully.

Imaging, such as x-rays, endoscopy or computed tomography (CT) are useful to assess the structure of the nasal passages. CT scanning can be expensive, but should be covered by pet health insurance if you have it for your rabbit.

Biopsy of the nasal lining can help diagnose infections or tumours, but this is usually done under general anaesthesia.

General treatments include cleaning the nostrils, nutritional support, oxygen therapy (if your rabbit has difficulty breathing), nebulisation (this can be used to moisten secretions and also to deliver some medications), and anti-inflammatories/pain relief.

More specific treatments may be appropriate for certain diseases, e.g. antibiotics for infections or surgery for dental problems.

As with most diseases, the prognosis depends on the cause and extent of the disease.

Some diseases are readily treatable while others carry a very poor prognosis. For example, if a nasal foreign body is removed and the associated infection treated early, the prognosis is good. However, diseases like rabbit haemorrhagic disease are associated with a very high mortality rate. In chronic cases or rhinitis, a complete cure may not be possible and signs may recur. Nasal tumours are likely to need extensive surgery which may involve referral to a specialist surgeon.

Good care of your rabbit will help reduce the risk of many diseases. Provide your rabbit with a balanced diet made up of 80% grass and hay, 5% extruded nugget and 15% fresh greens, with fresh water available at all times and an appropriate environment in which to live.

To reduce risks of respiratory disease, AVOID the following:

  • Sudden changes in ambient temperature.
  • Poor sanitation: ammonia from waste (urine and faeces) irritates the respiratory passages, as can cigarette smoke and aerosols.
  • Low humidity.
  • Stress: young animals are especially at risk around the time of weaning; overcrowding can also lead to stress.