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.

What is snuffles and what causes it?

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 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, eg cedar, may cause irritation to the eyes, and possibly trigger snuffles.

How do I know if my rabbit has 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.

How is snuffles treated?

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.

What can I do to prevent my rabbit getting snuffles?

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.

Related Factsheets:
Housing your rabbit

If you want any other information on health issues concerning your rabbit please contact your veterinary surgeon who will be happy to advise you.