Pasteurellosis

Eliminating Snuffles Through Careful Breeding and Culling

Pasteurellosis is a rabbit disease that happens when the rabbit's immune system is overcome by pasteurella bacteria.

Snuffles is a common term used when the symptoms occur in the respiratory system, and aptly describes the sneezing jags these sick rabbits experience.

With up to 100% of ALL DOMESTIC RABBITS being exposed to, or carrying the bacteria P. multocida, it is very important for breeders to become aggressive with their breeding and culling. 


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Outwitting pasteurellosis happens through consistent culling of all sick rabbits.  The animals that remain will be the ones with HEALTH fixed in their genetic code and immune systems.

IF you’re willing to cull any rabbit that gets sick, whether you have a trio of meat rabbits in the backyard, or a show herd of a hundred or more, you can still have all healthy animals within two or three years by following these simple guidelines. And even if each litter contains just 1 healthy bunny in a litter of 8 to start out with, it IS possible to arrive at a healthy herd within several years.


See our Pasteurella multocida page for other manifestations of the disease. (Respiratory symptoms are only part of the picture.)

Go to Pasteurella Bacteria for help with determining whether or not your rabbit has Pasteurellosis, or something far less ominous, such as a new batch of dusty feed.

Go to Bordetella in Rabbits for help determining whether your rabbits actually have Bordetellosis rather than Pasteurellosis. Bordetellosis might be a suspect when youngsters get sick but all the mature rabbits remain fine. Always get a vet's help with the diagnosis if necessary.

How to Defeat Pasteurellosis:

(These instructions assume that you are reasonably confident that Pasteurella multocida is the cause of disease in your barn.)

  • Maintain a reasonable "no-mercy" rule in your barn.  A rabbit that sneezes once goes on our ‘watch-list.’ If it sneezes again, it goes to the top of the list. At the third sneeze, the rabbit goes out of the barn into our Sick Bay, until butchering day.

  • But be fair and reasonable - cull for disease, not for dust in the feed or nose in the water crock.

  • Resist the temptation to kid yourself - there are no *cold* germs that affect rabbits. If a rabbit is sneezing repetitively, it's not a cold, it's pasteurellosis.
Cages out of barn for cleaning and sunshine
  • Bleach is your friend. Disinfect cages every time you move a rabbit. Our PVC rabbit hutch frames make it easy to pull cages out onto the lawn and completely disinfect.

  • Disinfect feeders and crocks on a regular schedule as well, and certainly every time you change out the cage.

  • Propane torches are great for burning hairs off cages. Note that using torches may shorten the life of the cage, as it tends to weaken the galvanizing and allow rust to build up sooner.

  • Use metal nest boxes and disinfect with bleach before every use.

  • Did your metal nest box come with a wood floor? Leave the wood floor with the kits as a standing board, and make another floor for the next use. (Or disinfect impeccably, as below.)

  • Wooden nest boxes: Do impeccable cleaning and thorough bleaching.

  • At least one rabbit expert, Dr. Hutchinson at Fresno State in California, believes using wooden nest boxes is fine, and that removing the organic material from wooden nest boxes and bleaching would be sufficient to disinfect the wood. The RN-training in me has trouble with this opinion, but he's the one with the PhD, not me. I’m tellin’ ya, though, if I had a problem in my herd, I'd switch to metal in a heartbeat. (For the record, we do use metal rabbit nest boxes exclusively, just in case.)

  • At weaning, move the doe to a clean cage and leave the kits where they are. This reduces the stress in the kits, and may help keep their immune systems from taking a temporary nosedive.

  • Give the kits a few days to adjust to life without the doe, and then disinfect the cage floor. We made it easier on ourselves by building a couple extra breeding cages.  Now we can do a quick switcheroo. The kits go first into disinfected carrying cages, and then back into a brand-spanking-clean 36"x30" cage. Takes us all of 5 minutes to get the new cage hung on the PVC rabbit hutch frame. The used cage gets scrubbed down, bleached, and allowed to sit out in the UV rays for a few days.

  • What if several babies in a litter come down with pasteurellosis? Cull the sick babies AND THE DOE.  In this case, the doe may be an asymptomatic carrier of pasteurellosis.  If you keep using her, her kits will keep getting sick because she keeps showering the babies with germs. 

    If we were still growing our herd, we might use the doe to get several more litters, and when the first healthy female offspring were old enough, we’d cull the carrier doe, and place one of her healthy offspring into her (well-bleached) breeding cage. This way, instead of, say, 8 bunnies, we’d have perhaps 16 or 24 to choose from, knowing that a large percentage of these will end up in the crockpot.

    Important Note! This bullet point assumes you know the problem is Pasteurellosis. If the doe appears healthy yet her offspring begin sneezing, the illness could also be Bordetellosis. A proper vet diagnosis might help you with some of your decisions.

  • Although you cull the doe, keep her healthy offspring for use in your breeding program. These are the animals with the very strong immune systems that you want locked into your herd.

  • Cull, cull, cull.


By following these guidelines, you’ll sharply reduce your losses to pasteurellosis, and might pull up an unprofitable enterprise into the black. Your customers are likely to return to you again and again, knowing they’ll get healthy animals or healthy meat.

Doe and litter of 4-week-old kits


Pasteurellosis in one foundation buck at Aurora Rex Rabbit Ranch


Years ago, we decided to start raising rabbits afresh after a short hiatus.  This time we planned to start right, by obtaining breeding stock from the winningest breeders we could find in our area.  So we drove twelve hours to a renowned breeder so we could see their operation and bring home some fine breeding stock in our chosen breed, standard rex rabbits.

My first clue to trouble was the wall of odor that hit me when they opened the rabbitry doors. Sharp ammonia odors burn rabbits' lungs and predispose them to pasteurellosis.

It was hot outside, and they had a swamp-cooler going.  I don’t know what the rate of air-exchange was in that building, but the limited space with three tiers of rabbits...I don’t know, it was pretty rank.  But okay, this was a renowned, winning breeder.

My second clue to trouble was a shelf that was nearly buckling under the weight of dozens of bottles of antibiotics.  I can’t believe I ignored this very alarming observation.  Maybe it was because I was so anxious to believe the best about this breeder.  After all, surely a winning breeder should have excellent foundation breeding stock.

The third strike should have catapulted me the heck outta there, 12 hour drive or no 12 hour drive.  Down on the bottom tier, a ways down the row from the swamp cooler, was a mother doe with her very young litter.  She was snuffling and snorting repeatedly, and blowing rings of white snot.  Every sneeze flung white droplets everywhere, including all over the little kits. 

Yikes.  The breeder made some excuse about the rabbit being from someone else’s barn.  Since the swamp cooler was blowing the air away from the rabbit I was considering for purchase, I didn’t leave. 

Dear reader: if you EVER encounter a situation like this one, please learn from my experience and just walk away SANS rabbits.  Our All Rabbit Breeds page provides national club information where you can find plenty of reputable breeders. But be sure to ask them the hard questions!

The castor rex buck the breeder showed me looked really nice.  He had been shown once already and won Best Opposite Sex of Breed.  Meaning, a rex doe had won best of breed and he had been deemed the best Rex buck on that day. His fur was lush and dense, with an amazing rufus red ring.

I paid a LOT of money for this animal, loaded him into the truck, and headed home.  By the time we pulled into the driveway 12 hours later, HE was blowing the white snot rings of pasteurellosis.

I was NOT HAPPY.  My delusions of kindness wore thin - it seemed obvious that the rabbit had been medicated with antibiotics to mask his symptoms, which flared the minute he missed a dose and underwent the stress of a long drive to another rabbitry.

Dear reader: By following the clear guidelines at Raising-Rabbits.com on breeding for health, you won’t ever need to feel tempted to lower your ethical standards on account of the failed health of your rabbits.

For various reasons - the money paid, the excellent type, fur and density, and not to mention he was our only rex buck at the time, I decided I had to keep this animal and use him (briefly) in my breeding program.

  • I housed him in an isolation cage.
  • The does that were bred to him remained in his cage a minimum amount of time, and then each exposed doe went into an isolation cage.
  • I culled his offspring harshly.  About 50% of his offspring went quickly into the stew pot, and more got sick later.  These were also culled.
  • Yes, some of the does also came down with pasteurellosis.  We let them finish raising their litters, and then we culled them too.
  • We kept the bunnies, but as described, the bunnies needed to remain totally free of the snots, or out they went.

 

Does this plan sound harsh?


Step back and picture the two scenarios:

  1. Rabbitry A, where the herd practically lives on antibiotics.  The manager has to spend hours every day giving injections to many rabbits, especially just before the many rabbit shows they attend.  The rabbits rarely reach peak conditioning because their immune systems are always weak.  The rabbitry spends a small fortune on drugs every month.  Rabbits sold from this rabbitry promptly exhibit symptoms of pasteurellosis, if they go to a new home where antibiotic shots are not usual.  The reputation of this rabbitry is in this fashion severely damaged.  Me, I finally conceded I’d better not purchase any more rabbits from that outfit.

    (Parenthetically, I purchased 2 more animals from this same breeder a few months after the first purchase, because I wanted to believe that my buck’s illness was a fluke.  Animal #1 was wheezing with pneumonia within 2 weeks and in full wry neck (head tilt). I named him Adios and culled him.  Animal #2, a young doe, began sneezing within 12 hours and slowly got sicker and sicker.  She never made weight, failed to conceive twice, and I finally decided she was too obviously sick to function.  This time I did a necropsy of sorts.  She had stuff in her insides I had never seen before, and we decided she was not fit even for our animals. Now you know a bit more about me - I can be fairly naïve, and there are 3 reasons, not just 1, for my advice to the readers of this website.)

  2. Rabbitry B, where the herd is healthy as a matter of course.  These rabbits are brimming with joie de vivre. Their coats and conditioning are top-notch. The managers take their rabbits to shows without worrying (too much) about what germs they might pick up. Chores in this rabbitry are accomplished easily, happily and efficiently, and they’ve made one vet trip in 4 years, to check on a case of mushy droppings.  (The symptom passed uneventfully, FYI.)

 

In the big scheme of things, it is far more unkind to nurse along many sick rabbits, than to dispatch the sick ones and develop a consistently healthy and happy herd of robust rabbits. 

The world is not a better place for preserving the lives of animals that will never ever get well, no matter what remedies you use to combat pasteurellosis.


That’s our opinion, yes, but look also at the results of our strict culling:

Our sick castor buck was with us for a year. After he had distributed his genetics among the various does, we humanely culled this animal. 

A year later, the distinct improvement in rabbit health within the herd was noticeable. 

After 3 years, we could practically rub their noses in it. The animals remained healthy.  This is because we’ve only kept animals whose immune systems are strong and who have natural immunity to this dreaded rabbit illness.  We have refused to use rabbits with weak immune systems, and we don’t medicate.

Courageous breeders who cull animals that need culling will enjoy the same excellent results.

And I think that when the majority of breeders will find that courage, the losses of rabbits from snuffles will drop to nearly nothing within two or three years, while the percentage of HEALTHY rabbits, both among show and pet rabbits, will soar.

(Note: Vaccination is NOT needed for this plan to succeed. And in fact, vaccinating in a show herd is a ticket to failure.)

More info at the Merck Vet Manual on Pasteurellosis

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(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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