Pet Factsheets

Tracheitis

Normal endoscopic view of the trachea in a rabbit
©Stephen Hernandez-Divers

Tracheitis is a rare condition where the windpipe gets inflamed after an infection or irritant. It can result in difficulty breathing.

What is tracheitis?

The trachea (commonly called the windpipe) is a small tube that runs from the back of the mouth (larynx) to the lungs. This tube is reinforced with cartilage rings and provides a passage for air during breathing. Rarely, an infection or irritant can cause the inner lining of the trachea to get inflamed, this condition is called tracheitis. As a result of the inflammation, the trachea can swell and prevent efficient passage of air, making breathing difficult and in rare cases, impossible.

What causes tracheitis?

Tracheitis is a rare condition that usually results as a side effect to infection or trauma of the upper respiratory tract. The most common viral causes of respiratory disease in rabbits include Rabbit Viral Haemorrhagic Disease (VHD) caused by a calicivirus, poxvirus, Myxoma virus, or Herpesvirus.

The most common bacterial causes of upper respiratory disease in rabbits include Pasteurella multocida (commonly referred to as snuffles), Bordetella bronchiseptica (one of the bacteria that causes kennel cough in dogs), Staphylococcus aureus, Pseudomonas spp, Chlamydia spp, Acinetobacter spp, Moraxella catarrhalis, Mycoplasma spp, and others.

Non-infectious causes of tracheitis include irritation from intubation (as when an endotracheal tube is placed in the airway during general anaesthesia); exposure to chemical irritants such as cigarette smoke, or ammonia from unhygienic or unventilated toileting areas; chronic/excessive exposure to dust from pollen or hay; obstructions from tumours or foreign bodies such as hay.

What are the signs?

Specific signs of tracheitis include coughing and difficulty breathing (laboured, noisy, rapid, or shallow breaths). A rabbit having difficulty breathing may show a hunched posture with or without the nose pointed upward, reluctance to move, lack of appetite. Mouth breathing is an extremely poor sign in rabbits and shows severe respiratory distress.

Bearing in mind that tracheitis is seen concurrently with upper and lower respiratory tract disease, signs of upper respiratory tract disease may also be seen including redness and discharge from the eyes and nose, sneezing, noisy breathing, and head tilt (from inner ear infection).

Signs of lower respiratory tract disease may also be seen, including a blue discoloration of nose, lips, tongue, gums, or ears due to shortage of oxygen, and mouth breathing.

How will my vet diagnose the problem?

A thorough medical history will be obtained, and a complete physical examination will be performed. Endoscopy (using an endoscope to examine the nasal passages and trachea) may also be performed.

Diagnostic tests include bacterial culture (nasal aspiration, tracheal wash), blood tests, radiographs and possibly electrocardiography to rule out heart disease.

Can my rabbit be treated?

Supportive care will be provided and may include cage rest, oxygen therapy, intravenous fluid therapy and supportive feeding if your rabbit is not eating or drinking.

Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat bacterial infections.

A nebuliser may also be used to deliver steam which can break down mucus secretions blocking the airway. The nebuliser can also deliver aerosolised medication like antibiotics, or mucolytics to break up mucus secretions.

What can I do to help my rabbit recover?

Recovery from tracheitis depends on a number of factors including the cause and how advanced the disease was before it was treated. Complications from respiratory disease can be numerous and even with complete recovery, rabbits may be predisposed to ongoing respiratory disease if airways have been permanently damaged.

For the rabbit recovering from tracheitis, provide a clean, well ventilated housing area that is free of dust, chemicals, and drafts. Reduce stress by minimising contact with other pets and children and ensure the rabbit has its trusted companion for company.

Good nutrition, clean water, and frequent cleaning of toileting areas is paramount.

How can I prevent tracheitis?

Prevent tracheitis by taking your rabbit to the vet as soon as you notice any signs of respiratory disease.

Minimise the chances of respiratory diseases by providing good nutrition, husbandry and reducing excessive stress.

Do not expose your rabbit to cigarette smoke and ensure their litter trays/areas are cleaned frequently to prevent the build-up of ammonia fumes.

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