Rabbit History IV – The Great Pasteurella Epidemic

As soon as we had our rabbit population down to manageable numbers again, we were approached by someone who had recently had a litter of bunnies. He couldn’t find a home for the babies and was going to put them down if he didn’t find them a place soon. Anyway, we agreed to take the rabbits. They were four young, small bunnies of undetermined breed. One of them had half an ear missing, probably an accident in his baby days. 

The bunnies looked fine. They were not very well socialised, but we thought they would come round. We housed them in the guinea pig cage for now, until we could be sure what sex they were. We never for a moment thought they could be sick.

Until we noticed they all started to have strangely bald and wet noses. We asked the vet about it and he was visibly alarmed. He told us to keep them separate from the others and to watch them for sneezing and runny noses.

This is when I found about the existence of the dreaded rabbit disease Snuffles, which is caused by the Pasteurella bacteria. I read everything I could about it and learned that Pasteurella is a bacteria that is often present in rabbits’ noses, but that it can gain the upper hand and cause illness at times of stress – such as relocation, pregnancy or heat stress. The affected bun starts sneezing and spreads the bacteria to other rabbits he comes into contact with. Those rabbits then start sneezing and spread it even further… And you have a full-blown epidemia.

Pasteurella is very hard to treat. It is often chronic. It can become resistant to the type of antibiotics used. Sick bunnies can develop nose and eye infections, breathing problems, abscesses and can die quickly. I found out that rabbit breeders often cull an animal immediately when it sneezes a couple of times. That is how much this disease is feared. Breeders will try to breed the animals that are resistant (some of them never get sick) and cull the ones that aren’t.

I understand this reasoning, harsh as it may sound. Maybe I should have done it, to protect the rest of my rabbits… But I’m not a rabbit breeder, at least not an intentional one. I can’t just “cull” animals because they had the misfortune to get sick. I wouldn’t even know how to do it. I kept the sick bunnies separate and watched them anxiously, hoping for the best.

But they did sneeze. We started treatment with antibiotics. It didn’t seem to help much. And the disease spread. Within a few weeks’ time, half the rabbit population was sneezing and looking miserable. I kept having to pull rabbits out of their groups, house them in a separate cage and dose them with medicine. I got a different type of antibiotics, because the first one didn’t seem to be working.

It was horrible. It lasted for weeks on end. It was the first time that I dreaded going to the pet zoo in the morning to find a rabbit dead or another one affected. Snowy and Petel died, as did some of the younger ones. Some died very quickly without ever showing symptoms. Some developed terrible abscesses that had to be drained and cleaned. Some died after being sick for a long time – but others got better. About half of the number of rabbits seemed to be resistant and were never affected at all. 

At some point, the disease seemed to lose its momentum and we got it under control. The original sick bunnies got better and I rehomed them (gave them to people who had no other rabbits). They reminded me too much of what had happened. 

Petel in better days

I had lost some of my favourite rabbits and was very sad. I was seriously wondering whether to throw in the towel completely. Maybe this whole pet zoo thing was just too hard… Maybe they needed someone tougher than me, or more effective than me..? But I’m glad I stuck with it. I now know how to recognise the early symptoms of Pasteurella. Some rabbits have developed a chronic case and it flares up again at times of stress, such as in the heat of the summer. The affected bun is quickly separated, dosed with medicine and fed a lot of herbs. I don’t know if that helps, but it can’t hurt… 

Peter gets it particularly badly. He also has severely misaligned teeth and his whole face is prone to infection. I clip Peter’s teeth myself whenever they grow too long. It is a genetic problem, so I am doubly glad we got him neutered. 
I know this is not a nice story. I don’t like to tell it or to be reminded of it myself. But it illustrates just how much we had to learn – and still have, I am afraid. Rabbits are not the robust, low-care creatures that people often take them for. They are by far the most fragile animals we have. A friend who adopted one of our bunnies had to put the rabbit down after he managed to break his back simply by making a wrong movement while running through the garden. I have seen rabbits being literally scared to death by a predator trying to break into their cage. They are very prone to abscesses and there are numerous diseases that can kill them quickly. 

This is the reality of keeping rabbits… Cuteness, fluffiness, daintiness – and violents fights over territory or mating rights. Incredibly tiny, soft and cuddly baby bunnies – and predators trying to grab them. Adorable antics, funny jumps and binkies – and horrible diseases taking them down. They can melt your heart and break it.

But I love them. I have made many mistakes – I should have kept all cages locked from the beginning, I should not have accepted those sick bunnies or at least quarantained them better, or even put them down at the first sign of disease… But I didn’t, because I felt so bad for them. And some of my original rabbits paid the price for my weakness. I feel sick and guilty about that. But I did my best. I will always do my very best to give each and every one of them a good life… And to keep them safe and sheltered. I promise you that, buns! 💚💚💚

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About tarnegolita

Dutch expatriate, mother of 3 boys, freelance translator and pet zoo keeper in a kibbutz in Israel.
This entry was posted in Animals. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Rabbit History IV – The Great Pasteurella Epidemic

  1. aheikkinen says:

    Oh no, so many of them got the rabbit disease snuffles. It’s sad. But, don’t be too hard on yourself. You love all your animals, you do everything needed for them to be happy and healthy. Sometimes things happen but you learn from them. Wish you and your pets all the best.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. A touching post. I agree with Aheikkinen that you shouldn’t be hard on yourself. All rabbit, guinea pig and small furry pet owners and rodent lovers have their own small graveyard with these vulnerable but much loved fur babies. We care, so we buy them from shops, adopt them, take them into our home and hearts, but that doesn’t make them less vulnerable. As long as they have felt safe and loved, and had a good change, their short lives have been worth living. I admire your post, work and I wish you and your zoo all the best. You do great work. Keep going.

    Liked by 1 person

    • tarnegolita says:

      Thank you so much for your kind comment! That does make me feel better. I always used to think that if your animals get sick or die, you’re not doing a good job… But I’ve realised it’s not quite as easy as that! But we do our best, always. 💚

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I go back (as I often do) to Bondi Vet. Dr. Chris had a bunny patient that had severely injured its back leg. The owner didn’t know how, just found it that way. Dr. Chris tried everything he could but the poor thing died during surgery. Dr. Chris was devastated but pointed out — as you have — that they’re MUCH more delicate than people think. You do the best you can for your charges and hope it goes as well as possible. Please don’t beat yourself up!

    Liked by 1 person

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