Bordetella bronchiseptica is a contagious bacterium that doesn’t discriminate. Dogs, guinea pigs, rabbits, and even primates can catch the illness. Depending on the species, it can be a hop in the park or a matter of life and death.
According to Dr. Alicia McLaughlin, veterinarian at the Center for Bird and Exotic Animal Medicine in Bothell, Washington, most rabbits are asymptomatic carriers of Bordetella. This means Bordetella is naturally found in rabbits’ respiratory tracts and rarely makes them sick. “However, rabbits that are carriers can shed Bordetella into the environment, potentially putting other animals at risk for infection,” she says. This means that even healthy rabbits with no signs of illness can spread deadly Bordetella to a guinea pig pal.
Symptoms of Bordetella in Rabbits & Guinea Pigs
Although it’s unlikely rabbits will develop illness from Bordetella alone, it is possible. According to former Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians president Dr. Dan H. Johnson, Diplomate ABVP – Exotic Companion Mammals, from Avian and Exotic Animal Care in Raleigh, North Carolina, “In both rabbits and guinea pigs, Bordetella can cause upper respiratory infection with sneezing and ocular/nasal discharge; however, while rabbits only have mild symptoms or none at all, guinea pigs are susceptible to overwhelming respiratory infection resulting in lethargy, difficulty breathing, loss of appetite, and sudden death.”
Dr. McLaughlin elaborates: “Guinea pigs are very susceptible to infection with Bordetella. It typically causes them to develop serious upper respiratory tract infections that can quickly morph into a fatal pneumonia. The classic symptoms of Bordetella infection in a guinea pig include discharge from the eyes and nostrils (which may be either clear or colored), difficulty breathing/wheezing, and sneezing. The progression of disease can be very rapid, with death ensuing less than 24-48 hours after development of symptoms if left untreated.”
In theory, any animal that is a carrier of Bordetella could transmit it to other pets. “Dogs, cats, and rabbits have all been documented as chronic asymptomatic carriers of this organism. However, a dog would be unlikely to transmit Bordetella to a rabbit, because the rabbit probably already has Bordetella naturally,” Dr.
McLaughlin explains. Remember, rabbits are commonly asymptomatic carriers of Bordetella. They can shed the bacteria silently, and transmit it to guinea pigs (one of the reasons the two species shouldn’t be housed together).
Always keep a close eye on all animals in the household for a few weeks after introducing a new family member. Even if the new animal appears healthy, it could be a carrier of illness. Dr. McLaughlin explains that if a guinea pig survives an infection with Bordetella, they could become a chronic asymptomatic carrier of the disease. “This is why it is so important to quarantine all new pets coming into the home in a separate room (ideally a separate air space). Monitor for signs of illness, in case that animal was recently exposed to a pathogen but not showing symptoms yet.”
“Bordetella infections are treated with a combination of antibiotic therapy and supportive care. Mild cases may be treated with antibiotics, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, vitamin C supplementation, and subcutaneous fluid therapy,” Dr. McLaughlin describes. In moderate to severe cases, antibiotics may need to be nebulized in addition to given orally. Guinea pigs may need to be hospitalized to receive oxygen therapy, bronchodilators, and fluids.
“The best way to prevent the guinea pig from requiring more aggressive care and hospitalization is to bring it to a veterinarian experienced in the care of exotic animals RIGHT AWAY, as soon as any symptoms of a respiratory tract infection are noted. This is considered a medical emergency, and
the sooner treatments are started, the better the chances are that the animal will not develop pneumonia or die,” instructs Dr. McLaughlin.
Dr. Johnson describes how dogs can transmit the bacteria to guinea pigs and vice versa through direct or indirect contact, but it’s not necessarily typical. “Nevertheless, vaccinating your dog against Bordetella will make it less susceptible to infection, and thereby reduce the likelihood of spreading infection to other pets in the home,” he notes. Dr. McLaughlin recommends keeping dogs in a separate space from small mammals after receiving a live Bordetella vaccine to be on the safe side and prevent spreading infection to guinea pigs or other species.
According to Dr. Johnson, “Rabbits and guinea pigs have been experimentally vaccinated for Bordetella, but this is not usually done in clinical practice. There is no commercially available vaccine produced for use in rabbits or guinea pigs.” Dr. McLaughlin adds, “There would be no point in vaccinating rabbits for Bordetella, as it is part of their normal respiratory tract bacterial flora. Vaccinating animals against Bordetella will not prevent them from carrying the bacteria; as a matter of fact, according to one study, giving guinea pigs a Bordetella vaccine may cause them to become carriers,” she warns.
The best way to prevent guinea pigs from falling ill due to Bordetella is to avoid direct contact between species. Good ventilation, safe bedding, a clean cage, and vitamin C to boost the immune system will also promote overall respiratory health.
If you suspect your little one is showing symptoms of an infection from Bordetella, book her an appointment with their exotic vet right away. The vet will listen to her heart and lungs, check for discharge from the eyes and nose, and may even take X-rays or run other tests. “We prefer to obtain a bacterial culture to know for sure what bacteria we are treating and what it is susceptible to. If we don’t do that, it is possible that a resistant bacterial infection will not respond to treatment, and another antibiotic will need to be selected,” Dr. Johnson explains. The quicker the vet is able to start treatment, the better the chances of recovery and stopping Bordetella in its tracks before it spreads to other pets.
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