Q: I live in Massachusetts and own a harlequin Mini Rex rabbit named Tristan. He just turned a year old in March. I was petting him yesterday evening after he had been out for about a half an hour running around, and I noticed that his nostrils were wet, and the fur under each nostril seemed to be damp. They didn’t have any colored discharge coming out, the fur around and under his nose was not discolored or crusty. The discharge wasn’t thick or gooey, it was clear and basically just like water. I haven’t seen him sneeze at all, the fur on his front paws is smooth, soft and not matted at all. He is his normal little self, eating, drinking, going to the bathroom regularly, and racing around and playing whenever he comes out. His droppings are formed and look healthy. He is getting fresh vegetables and greens every day, and his cage is cleaned every day. Right now he is shedding, and I brush him regularly.
Later that night, after he had been put back in his cage and before I went to bed, I went to pet him, and the fur under his nostrils was not damp anymore. I pressed my finger to his nose, and it wasn’t wet.
If I parted his nostrils a little and then touched my finger to his nose, my finger came away a little damp, but it was clear, and my finger didn’t have a big drop of liquid on it, it was just moist. This morning while I was emptying his litter box and changing his food, the fur around and under his nose was still dry. I did the same test I had the night before, and again my finger only came away moist. I let him out a little later, and the fur around and under his nose was dry. After he ran around for about an hour or so, I sat down and started to pet him, and I noticed that the fur under each nostril was damp, like it had been the night before. It looked exactly as it had the night before. And when I put my finger to his nose, it came away with clear liquid, just like water on my finger, not a lot, just a little bit. I know that it is not water, both times he did not have any water.
Is this OK? I really don’t know what to do, because he is not acting sick in the least. I would be worrying about a respiratory infection, except he is not sneezing, there is no trouble breathing, there are no mats on his front paws or legs, the discharge, when it is there, is clear, and not sticky, gooey, and is not leaving any kind of crusty residue on his fur. He is eating like normal, and drinking like normal as well. His droppings all look healthy, and there is the usual amount of them.
He is getting neutered in about three weeks, so I brought him to his veterinarian last week to have a checkup, and for his veterinarian to give him the OK for surgery.
I’m a little worried after reading all of the horror stories online about rabbits with the snuffles and rabbits with respiratory infections. One other thing to mention is that I got him in May of 2010, and since then every once in awhile I noticed that his nose was a little damp after he had been out with me for a while. I could never tell if it was damp right when I let him out, because he doesn’t like to be petted or snuggled until after he has raced around and explored for a while. I never really thought about it until last night. Is this OK? Does he need to be seen? I just don’t know what to do, and I don’t want to bring him back in unless I have to because the vet’s office does see sick animals, and I don’t want to expose him to anything unless I absolutely have to.
A: As you probably know, respiratory disease in pet rabbits is very, very common. We do not know all of the reasons for this. We do know that many rabbits have respiratory disease that is almost unapparent, we call this “subclinical,” and we worry about those patients when we do anesthesia as we may be unaware of how sick they really are.
For your rabbit, it may be that there is respiratory disease that is subclinical as your rabbit does not appear sick most of the time, has signs that are only seen occasionally, and when your rabbit does show signs of disease, it gets better on its own.
What you describe may also be a normal response to the environment. Maybe when you are seeing the small amount of discharge, the environment has become too full of particulate matter as can happen when a central air system starts up and the ducts are dusty. The rabbit’s response to the increased dust in the environment is to produce copious amounts of mucous, as evidenced by some wetness near the nostrils.
Based on everything you wrote, it is more likely your rabbit is responding to the environment rather than respiratory disease. But, and this is important, because nasal discharge can represent early and subclinical disease, when you next see this occurring to your rabbit, please call your veterinarian and describe what is happening and let your veterinarian determine if this condition warrants a visit to the hospital.