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How to Combat Snuffles

by Wendy Feaga

Note: the following is printed with permission from Dr. Wendy Feaga

Probably the single most common question I am asked is how to cure snuffles. As expected this is not a simple answer.
There are two different treatment plans depending on if you are a breeder or a pet person. I will begin with advice to breeders. If you own rabbits as pets, please skip the breeder section. Breeders - please read both sections.
There are at least four different bacteria responsible for this disease, so I prefer to call it snuffles rather than by a specific bacteria. These cultures were taken directly from the sinus of euthanized rabbits after a sterile preparation of the skin over the sinus area to insure there was no skin contamination, and that I cultured only the organism responsible for the nasal discharge.
Snuffles can have several different presentations leading me to often refer to this disease as the snuffles complex. Classic snuffles is a thick nasal discharge which can be seen at the nostril at rest or when the rabbit sneezes. Other forms include abscesses in the lungs, skin, jaw, middle ear, behind the eye, reproductive tract, joints, navel and hocks.
The exudate formed is thick and will not easily drain.
For the Breeder:
The goal of breeders is produce rabbits which are the best in health as well as having the desired breed characteristics regardless if these are commercial or fancy rabbits. The healthiest rabbits will come from the healthiest stock. The healthiest stock comes from culling out inferior specimens.
Before you decide you have snuffles in you herd, be sure you have a clean, dust free barn. I will pull out my power washer, and power was cages paying particular attention to ceilings of the barn as well as the cages to be sure falling dust is not contributing to the problem. If you have a dusty barn causing sneezing, the rabbits will stop sneezing immediately. Monthly power washing is recommended when rabbits are housed in a bar.
When faced with snuffles in a herd, I recommend you do not use antibiotics, but remove the affected animals from your herd. When you see a rabbit with a snotty nose, mark that feeder or cage card with a clip. If on the next day or later that month, the rabbit again has a snotty nose, it is not kept.
When breeders continue to treat rabbits with snuffles with antibiotics, they continue to have this disease in the rabbitry The longer you use antibiotics, the longer you will have snuffles in your herd.
Snuffles is primarily spread from the doe to her babies, initially the kits may obtain a natural immunity from their mother's colostrum. This immunity seems to wear off between 8 and 12 weeks of age which matches the decline of the maternal immunity in other species. I have seen snuffles once in 10 day old kits, but this was only once in 35 years. The majority of rabbits will break with snuffles at the 2 to 3 month mark.
The next time we commonly see snuffles is in does when they kindle their first litter. Bucks and does can break with snuffles after (or at) their first show, or with changes in weather.
The first step in eliminating snuffles from a breeding herd is to make every cage an isolation cage. I recommend Plexiglas dividers hooked between cages where the cages are closer than 3 feet apart. I like to clear dividers as they allow more light into the individual pens, but more importantly they can be disinfected. Wood cannot be disinfected. Metal or colored plastic dividers would be a second choice. But the clear dividers allow the operator to see rabbits more easily, as you do not have to stand directly in front of each pen to see in. Potentially there may be psychological advantage of the rabbits seeing each other to learn nest making or breeding behaviors, but that is open to argument.
The step two is to cull all the rabbits that have snotty noses for more than 2 days.
Step three is very hard, but after 1 and 2, will send you on the road to recovery: cull all does who produce juniors who have snuffles by three months of age. At this point, I am assuming you are not showing any rabbits until they are over 3 months of age, and also that you isolate your show stock from the rest of the barn.
Once you start showing, those show rabbits can pick up snuffles in a showroom, especially in cooped in shows. But when you see snuffles in juniors before weaning or before their first show, they can only get the disease from their mothers if your cages are all isolation cages.
If you do show, group your barn so the breeding stock is at least 3 feet from show stock, or even in a different building This also makes finding your show rabbits easier.
I am often faced with the question of what to do about the rabbit who sneezes but nothing comes out. Do these rabbits have snuffles, or allergies, or what? Sometimes we do not know until, if the rabbit is a doe, she has a litter and the babies have overt snuffles, i.e. snotty noses. At that point we know that the doe is a carrier with dry sneezing, and she should be culled.
It is clear in my mind that there are healthy carriers of snuffles: a rabbit may carry the disease and not show any signs. The only way to identify this is when the rabbit is a doe, and her babies develop snuffles before they are weaned. If the cages are isolation cages, and the litter has never been shown, they can only contract the disease from their mother. To stop having rabbits with snuffles, these healthy carriers must be identified and culled. They are identified by looking for the affected juniors and then culling the mother. I would not trust cultures or blood tests.
At this point, you may have gotten rid of 90% of your herd. But in a year, the remaining 10% can reproduce and put you back in business. And really, you will be back in business as you cannot stay viable with sick rabbits either as a show or commercial herd.
Another factor is hybrid vigor. After you have culled the rabbits with snuffles, buy healthy stock from a reputable breeder to introduce new bloodlines into your herd. The new bloodline is referred to as hybrid vigor. Continuing to inbreed with existing animals reduces the vigor in any breeding program.
The heartbreaking question is what to do with a valuable blood line or a cherished pet? In the latter case, your cherished pet is removed to a different place outside of your barn. You feed him or her last. For further treatment see the pet section which follows. You never breed this rabbit; it is a pet. You can now follow the recommendations for pet rabbits in the next section.
The valuable bloodline is far more challenging. I have tested the following:
A buck with snuffles in only bred to a doe who if she also develops snuffles that you will be able to cull her. Watch the juniors closely and cull any at the first sign of snuffles. Do not then breed this doe to any other buck as she may now be a healthy carrier and capable of infecting a new buck.
A valuable doe with snuffles is bred to a buck that is never used on other healthy does, as this infected doe may infect him, and then he may infect other does.
When her litter is five weeks old, that doe with snuffles is removed from the cage and litter is left in the original cages. Moving the litter to a new cage will stress them and cause them not to grow as well. At five weeks, the young are eating enough pellets and hay and can continue to grow at a normal rate as long as they stay in their original cages.
Keep the litter together until they are 8 or 9 weeks old, and then separate them out into pairs (two bucks or two does - I prefer to leave the bucks in the original cage as they are less likely to fight). By 3 - 4 months of age, I have the entire litter in separate cages. Any which sneeze are immediately culled (no second changes). With this technique you should be able to save one, possibility two, out of the litter. From this one or two you can preserve a valuable bloodline. The heartbreak is if they break with snuffles when giving birth to the next litter. In that case, you repeat the process.
I do not cull an entire litter if one has snuffles, because the ones who can resist the infection, the truly healthy littermates, are the ones you want to use to rebuild your herd.
Please notice, I have not used a single antibiotic in this process. Antibiotics suppress the disease without curing it, prolonging your battle with snuffles. But you do practice the method of isolation and culling to achieve the goal of a healthy disease free herd.
I want to take a moment to encourage you to disinfect cages between rabbits and not share feed or water containers without disinfecting them as well. Bleach and air drying are your best disinfectants. After removing visible manure and bedding with running water, a wire brush and a scraper, I brush the cage with a beach solution. A ten percent bleach solution will rust wire cages. I use about one ounce of bleach to a quart of water. I brush this on all interior surfaces, and let it dry for 24 hours before putting a new rabbit in any cage. Alternatively, if you have thoroughly cleaned a cage and it stays dry and unused for 7 days, that cage is safe without bleaching.
Also, breed together only rabbits born in the same year so you are not carrying diseases from one generation to another. This means with healthy stock, if you have a buck born in 2005, breed him only to does born in 2005, this keeps diseases which may be sexually transmitted form passing to the next generation.
Treating Pet Rabbits for Snuffles:
In 1988, enrfloxacin, know as Baytril in veterinary markets, was introduced. For the first time in years, veterinarians thought they were able to cure snuffles in rabbits. Unfortunately, the antibiotic only appears to put the bacteria into remission and does not cure the disease.
I have used both the injectable and table forms enrofloxacin, and more recently orbifloxacin, sold as Orbax, to treat snuffles and related bacterial diseases. Both of these are available only by prescription and should never be used in rabbits intended for food.
The dose for both of these drugs is accepted in the veterinary community at 4 times the dog dose. Dogs and especially cats may suffer blindness at these high doses. It is not clear if rabbits do the same, but the sight of rabbits is poor and may be hard to assess. Bone problems in the growth plates resulting in stunting and pain is reported in giant breed dogs and children when this class of antibiotic is given to young, rapidly growing individuals. I am not aware of young rabbits being stunted or having pain from these antibiotics.
Some rabbits will eat Orbax and Baytril directly when placed on the pellets. I have found that Orbax apprears to be tastier than Baytril. If the rabbit does not eat the tablet directly, then dissolving it in a small amount of water and dosing directly in to the mouth or mixed with mashed banana or applesauce on a plate can be used. I will separate a syringe and place the table in the back end. After reinserting the plunger up to the table, water can then be aspirated into the syringe sufficient to cover the tablet. One tablet will dissolve in about 30 minutes. Usually I let the pill soak in the syringe for 12 hours, the time for the next dose.
I use two methods to treat snuffles in pet rabbits: one to blitz treatment in an attempt to overwhelm the infection, the other to use a more moderate does and live with it. In new cases I often try the blitz, and if not successful, use a maintenance dose.
The usual dog doses of these fluoroquinolones (Baytril and Orbax) is one 22.7 mg tablet per 20 pounds either twice a day or once a day, respectively. In a 10 pound rabbit, I will use 4, 22.7 mg Orbax twice a day for 7 days. This incredibly high dose is well tolerated with few rabbits going off feed or getting diarrhea.
The maintenance dose is 1 to 2 tablets once to twice a day for the rest of the rabbit's life.
Another treatment option is to use injectable penicillin in combination with one of the fluoroquinolones. Penicillin by itself will kill 10% of the rabbits it is given to, but so far I have had good luck with the combination of penicillin with Orbax to treat syphilis.
Another option it to use tetracycline powder in the water. This will discolor the rabbit's teeth. Years ago, I worked with trimethoprimsulfa (Tribrissen) but had little success.
I do not recommend tilimicosin (Micotil). This injectable is very painful and can kill both rabbits and humans. The deaths in rabbits occur in 1 hour, with as much as 50% death rate.
The bottom line is that snuffles does not appear to be curable. The disease can go into remission, but only seems to return if the rabbit is stressed.
Snuffles in rabbits mimics the cat upper respiratory disease, rhinotracheitis.
Rhinotracheitis in cats is caused by a herpes virus, with a number of bacterial invaders. Cats will sneeze much of their life. Cultures reveal bacterial infections which are susceptible to many antibiotics. With antibiotics, the disease will go into remission, but will return when the antibiotics are withdrawn. The disease is highly contagious through nasal secretions.
There is a herpes virus vaccine for cats. When given before exposure, the vaccine is highly effective. The trick is to vaccinate before exposure. The mother cats will infect their kittens before the vaccine has a chance to work. Keeping mothers and litters separate from others in the cattery, weaning at 5 weeks while the kittens still have maternal immunity, and frequent vaccination of the isolated kittens starting at 6 weeks to 14 weeks, will help to clean up a cattery. Culling affected adults, while raising vaccinated kittens, is the key to overcoming this disease in cateries.
At this time, no one has isolated a virus in rabbit snuffles. But clearly snuffles in not solely a Pasteurella infection. I have had pure cultures of Bordetella, Pseudomas, Klebseitla as well as Pasteurella from the sinuses of autopsied rabbits in herd outbreaks. All of these cultures were taken following a sterile preparation of the skin over the frontal sinus, and then using sterile bone cutting instruments to enter the nasal cavity. Sensitivities on these cultures indicate that many antibiotics should be successful, but they are not.
Is there a virus behind the infection, an immune deficiency in certain lines, especially those which are inbred to preserve valuable traits, or simply the the thick nature of rabbit pus which makes the disease impossible to cure? Hopefully these comments will help researchers in their quest for a snuffles vaccine.

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