A total of 305 Escherichia coli strains isolated from diarrheic and healthy rabbits in 10 industrial fattening farms from different areas of Spain were serotyped, biotyped, and tested for the presence of the eae gene and toxin production. The characteristics found in strains isolated from healthy rabbits were generally different from those observed in E. coli strains associated with disease. Thus, strains with the eae gene (74% versus 22%); strains belonging to serogroups O26, O49, O92, O103, and O128 (64% versus 12%); rhamnose-negative strains (51% versus 5%); and rhamnose-negative O103 strains with eae genes present (41% versus 1%) were significantly (P < 0.001 in all cases) more frequently detected in isolates from diarrheic animals than in those from healthy rabbits. Whereas a total of 35 serogroups and 17 biotypes were distinguished, the majority of the strains obtained from diarrheic rabbits belonged to only four serobiotypes, which in order of frequency were O103:B14 (72 strains), O103:B6 (16 strains), O26:B13 (12 strains), and O128:B30 (12 strains). These four serobiotypes accounted for 48% (112 of 231) and 5% (4 of 74) of the E. coli strains isolated from diarrheic and healthy rabbits, respectively. Only six strains were toxigenic (three CNF1+, two CNF2+, and one VT1+). We conclude that enteropathogenic E. coli strains that possess the eae gene are a common cause of diarrhea in Spanish rabbit farms and that the rhamnose-negative highly pathogenic strains of serotype O103:K-:H2 and biotype B14 are especially predominant. Detection of the eae gene is a useful method for the identification of enteropathogenic E. coli strains from rabbits. However, a combination of serogrouping and biotyping may be sufficient to accurately identify the highly pathogenic strains for rabbits
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