Bordetella in rabbits can look and act like snuffles, but how to tell the difference? Is bordetella dangerous? Treatable? Recognize the symptoms and how, or if, to treat.
Bordetella bronchiseptica germs hang out in the throat and trachea of the rabbit. They like to infect the airway cells that grow the little cilia - tiny waving hairs that help push the gunk, dust, germs and secretions upward and out of the lungs and airways.
This may be why the presence of Bordetella makes other lung infections much worse - possibly because the cilia may not work correctly and the mechanism for cleaning out the lungs gets crippled.
If there’s any season that is more likely that illness from Bordetella in rabbits would occur, it might be when temperatures are cooling in autumn. Reports of seasonality span species and include rabbits, dogs, guinea pigs, and hedgehogs.
It is common for rabbits to be infected but not show any sign of illness. These rabbits are carriers, chronically shedding germs all over their environment and anything they come into contact with, including you. While very common in rabbits, bordetella by itself doesn't usually make rabbits sick.
But some rabbits do get sick from just Bordetella. Symptoms are actually quite similar to those of Pasteurella (snuffles):
Bordetella bronchiseptica can protect itself from the rabbit’s immune defenses by hiding itself in a protective film.
Bordetella in rabbits can make it easy for other infections to take hold by crippling the lung cilia so that mucus and germs start collecting in the airways.
Other germs that cause upper respiratory infections in rabbits are:
IMPORTANT: Rates of infection with Bordetella bronchiseptica are higher in weanlings than in adults, while more adults get sick with Snuffles than do weanlings.
This means that you could consider treating a sneezing weanling with antibiotics, especially if the symptoms are mild.
It helps to be aware that
bordetella might predispose that weanling to snuffles (pasteurellosis) later, as it matures. If you don’t
want THAT headache, simply cull the young’un. (In herds of rabbits, for example in show or
commercial rabbitries, overall herd health is important. Culling an individual is a valid choice to ensure the safety of the herd, when that individual can be soon replaced.)
Other animal species such as dogs, guinea pigs and hedgehogs commonly carry bordetella germs. The best way to prevent bordetella in rabbits is to avoid contact with other animals. That said, we know many rabbit lovers (including breeders) whose rabbits, dogs and cats are best buddies.
Additionally, Bordetella in rabbits is already very common.
(The rabbits that get sick are usually sick with Bordetella AND another
germ--their immune systems are not up to par.)
Bordetella is easily purged from the environment by common
disinfectants. Scrubbing the cage, feeder and watering crock, valve or bottle,
and then using a 1:10 bleach solution is very effective.
According to www.criver.com:
"Treatment of animals with antimicrobials may serve to treat illness [caused by bordetella], but rarely, if ever, resolves the carrier state, nor will [oral] antibiotic treatment eliminate bacteria from the bedding or cage surfaces. Thus, treatment is only recommended to ameliorate clinical signs."
To rephrase: Treating Bordetella in rabbits will probably result in the rabbit getting ‘better,’ but the rabbit could remain a carrier, and a shedder, of the germ on a long-term basis.
Plus, carriers of Bordetella may become more susceptible to Pasteurella, because of the ability of Bordetella to disrupt the function of the lung cilia.
Other vets state that over time, the rabbit's immune system, if strong enough, may be able to eradicate the infection.
Replace affected breeding stock with healthy animals.
Rabbitry for show or backyard meat:
Eliminate from the breeding pool if you have a healthy replacement animal. If not, then treat the animal, breed and obtain healthy replacement animals from its offspring. Find more details on how to breed health into all your rabbits on our Pasteurellosis page.
If your pet rabbit has a ‘simple’ case of bordetella alone -- we can always hope! -- antibiotic treatment may very well help your pet return to health. Just know that according to some vets, it will probably still carry the germs even if it is no longer sick, and may be prone to respiratory problems in the future. But who knows, maybe it will go on to live a long happy life...!
Your comments or experiences can help others who read them. So, comment away, and if you have pictures, you can post up to four of them. Pictures are always helpful.
(Have questions? Perhaps your question was already asked, and answered, below. If not, Karen has answered hundreds of your questions in her book: Rabbit Raising Problem Solver, covering every aspect of pet rabbit and livestock rabbit care as well as rabbit health and disease. We recommend it!)
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