Rabbit illnesses to watch out for in winter

When it’s colder outside and we begin to hit the cold and flu season, many of us can experience the sniffles. But does that also hold true for our pets?

Rabbits may seem to have a cold, but should you be concerned if your rabbit seems to have a bug? Read on to find out more about infectious rabbit diseases and illnesses.

Can rabbits get colds?

If you find that your pet rabbit has the sniffles, you may think it is ‘just’ a cold, but beware; rabbits don’t suffer from the common cold in the way that humans do. In fact, if your rabbit has cold- or flu-like symptoms, you should take them to the vet, as this is almost always a dangerous bacterial infection. This may be caused by one of a few different bacteria including the most common, Pasteurella multocida. This condition is referred to as snuffles.

What does a sick rabbit with snuffles look like?

If your rabbit has snuffles, it may look like a human cold – mucus coming from the nose, runny eyes, problems breathing, maybe even some wheezing, sneezing and coughing. Your rabbit will not seem their usual self and they may have a lack of appetite. In addition, your rabbit will often wipe their nose and eyes with their front paws, which may look mucky.

Is it possible that my rabbit is not ill?

There are a few other reasons why your rabbit may show signs of illness, which aren’t due to bacterial infections. Occasionally, your pet may develop an allergy to something in their environment such as dust from bedding, fumes from smoke from cigarettes or bonfires. Try to keep their hutch and run as clean as you can to ensure your bunny is happy and don’t smoke near them.

There are of course a range of other medical conditions that can present with similar symptoms. For example, your bunny may also have ear mites, so do get that checked out and treated by your vet. Your rabbit may also look as if they’re ill if they’re suffering from dental problems. Unfortunately, some cancers may cause symptoms that look like a cold too, but only your vet can diagnose this.

What action should I take for rabbit diseases?

Any snuffles-like symptoms in rabbits are serious and you should go to your vet as soon as you are able to. If you have other rabbits or pets, keep them away from your sick rabbit as they will be highly contagious.

In addition, you should:

  • Keep the area your rabbit lives in clean
  • Make sure your rabbit is regularly groomed and that you check their teeth, nails and skin
  • Clean up mucus from their hutch and run frequently with disinfectant, and clean all your rabbit’s bedding and dishes. Make sure any products used are safe for pets
  • Wash your hands before and after touching your rabbit and their gear
  • Keep your rabbit warm (if you bring an outdoors pet in, warm them gradually)
  • Clean the nostrils with a cotton bud dipped in clean, warm water

Note: When rabbits breathe through their mouth, this is a sign that they’re in severe respiratory distress. Go to the vet immediately. Your vet will decide on the best course of action, which might include antibiotics and possibly a nebuliser (a warm mist that helps your rabbit’s breathing).

If your rabbit isn’t treated promptly, bacterial infections can rapidly progress to become pneumonia, which unfortunately can be fatal.

Which rabbit breeds are most susceptible to respiratory infections?

Breeds most at risk of respiratory infections include the Netherlands Dwarf, Mini, Dwarf and French Lops and Lionheads. This is often because these breeds have been bred to have flatter faces. Breeds with broader, flatter-skulls are referred to as brachycephalic. While they’re often considered ‘cute’, unfortunately they often have problems breathing properly.

Myxomatosis in rabbits

This is a contagious viral infection, which can be spread by biting insects such as fleas and mosquitoes. It can kill a rabbit within two weeks. The only way to keep your rabbit safe from this devastating disease is to have them vaccinated – in high-risk areas, as often as twice a year.

Symptoms include:

  • Redness, swellings and ulcers
  • Discharge from the eyes and nose
  • Tiredness and loss of appetite
  • Breathing problems
  • Inflamed eyes that can lead to blindness

There is no cure for myxomatosis in rabbits, so the only way to protect your pet is to ensure they’re regularly vaccinated.

Viral haemorrhagic disease in rabbits is another fatal disease your pet might contract. Find out more about this illness and how to prevent it here.

Can rabbit illnesses affect humans?

If your rabbit has the snuffles, there is a small risk that you or your family could get ill. However, as long as you follow the hygiene tips above, the risk is small unless a family member has problems with their immune system.

Is my rabbit at risk of hypothermia?

While rabbits can usually cope with cold weather, damp and windy conditions can make them miserable, so it’s important to ensure that their hutch is warm and dry. Make sure the hutch is in a sheltered spot and facing away from the prevailing wind. Keep it covered in winter with an old blanket plus a waterproof cover such as a plastic sheet or tarpaulin to keep it protected and check for signs of decay in the wood regularly. Raise it from the ground on bricks or legs to protect from frost. The inside of the hutch should have an adequate layer of bedding and a cardboard box filled with straw that they can snuggle up in.

If your rabbit gets too cold, it could develop hypothermia, when their body temperature drops to a dangerously low level – however, this is rare, especially if you’ve already taken precautions.

Symptoms of hypothermia in rabbits include:

  • Hunched stance and associated lethargy
  • Pale gums and lips
  • A loss of coordination – they may look wobbly when they walk

Checklist: keeping your rabbit safe in winter

Here are some practical things you should do to keep your pet rabbit happy in winter.

  • Keep an eye on your rabbit to ensure they’re not getting too cold or an illness.
  • Keep them warm and sheltered and turn their hutch away from the wind and rain.
  • Keep the hutch well-maintained, with no rotten wood or gaps.
  • Make sure the hutch has a waterproof roof and replace the roof felt if necessary.
  • Add additional layers to the roof and sides in winter, such as a tarpaulin and blanket.
  • Make sure the hutch is above the ground on legs or bricks to prevent the frost and dew getting in.
  • Create an environment similar to a burrow, with a box filled with straw, tubes or pipes to shelter in. Make sure they have enough bedding to keep them warm, plus newspapers to soak up urine.
  • Add a litter tray at one end of the hutch, away from your rabbit’s food bowls and line it with straw, paper or other filling. Change it daily.
  • Make sure your bunny has plenty of fresh food and hay, plus fresh water. Check it’s not frozen and add an insulated cover if prone to freezing.
  • Keep an eye on their weight in winter, as they may put on weight due to a reduction in their exercise.
  • Disinfect the hutch once a week with a rabbit-safe product.
  • Think about adding heating to your hutch in the coldest months. You could place a heat lamp at the top of the hutch or use a heated pad.
  • If it’s really icy, move your rabbit hutch indoors or to the likes of an unused garage for a while. Bear in mind that they may then shed some of their coat, so you can’t move them back outside until the weather is warmer.

Has your bunny been sick this winter? Share your rabbit care and health tips with other bunny owners on social media using #PethoodStories.

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