Bowel stasis or ileus is a common condition of domesticated rabbits which can be very serious and life threatening. But you will be pleased to hear you can help to prevent this happening again with some natural changes to your rabbit’s environment and diet. Let Paul Boland tell you more.
In the wild rabbits graze on grass, flowers and some root vegetables throughout the day meaning that there is always food in the stomach and bowel.
This dense fibrous food is fermented in its large caecum as rabbits are hind gut fermenters, like cows. Rabbits have two types of pellet stools. The two types of pellets that rabbits produce are called faecal pellets which they leave behind and caecotrophs. Unable to digest all of its food the first time rabbit pass pellets that have a mucus covering called caecotrophs which are soft and pungent and are normally arranged like grapes. These are passed in early evening and are immediately eaten from the anus. The acidic stomach of the rabbit then further ferments the caecotrophs into vital nutrients, vitamins and volatile fatty acids which are absorbed.
Liquid or extremely soft cecotropes can be the result of floral imbalance from drugs such as antibiotics and penicillans. They can also be due to a diet too rich in certain carbohydrates and low levels of fibre. It is also very commonly caused by the slowing or stopping altogether of peristalsis of the intestine which is known as gatrointestinal stasis or ileus.
How does a Rabbit develop GI stasis?
There are a number of reasons why a rabbits intestine can become static;
-Stress, death of another rabbit, foxes, storms, surgery
-Lack of exercise
-Pain, e.g. dental pain, abdominal pain, musculoskeletal pain
It is relatively common that this can be misdiagnosed as a hairball, however, it is actually the GI stasis that causes the hairball. Not the other way around. Because like most herbivores the intestines of a rabbit are never empty, a rabbit’s hairball is usually composed mostly of food which is mixed with hair and mucus.
How can you tell if your rabbit has GI statis?
The signs of GI stasis are very small or no faecal pellets at all. If the rabbit with GI stasis is passing pellets they are likely to cling to the rabbits behind and may be coated in a clear, or yellowish mucus. You may also notice a loud grumbling sound originating from the intestine area.
Intensive veterinary care
Any rabbit I see with GI stasis would be treated as a medical emergency and they are intensively monitored. We would always perform a full clinical examination, administer fluids, pain relief and bowel stimulants.
Some vets would routinely give antibiotics either to combat the overgrowth of clostridium or prevent secondary bacterial infection. However I feel prescribing antibiotics is unnecessary and is a prime reason why so many resistant strains of bacteria are evolving. So unless we are sure of bacterial infection I would not give antibiotics as it could make the condition worse.
Sometimes we will feed the rabbit another rabbit’s caecotrophs taking care not to stress it by force feeding it.
Our nurses will gently rub the rabbits abdomen to stimulate bowel movement. (Please don’t try this yourself as a rabbits internal organs are very delicate and great care must be taken to avoid bruising and make the situation worse.)
Rabbits can’t vomit because they have powerful cardiac sphincter in the stomach so any blockage can only come out one way.
The temperature of a rabbit is 101-103F and these rabbits may well become hypothermic. We will try to increase their body temperature with warm fluids and towels wrapped about hot water bottles.
Sometimes we will inject B Vitamins to stimulate the appetite. This might also supply the rabbit some of the vitamins that the rabbit is missing from not eating caecotrophs.
What to do after treatment at the Vets?
It’s important to remember that GI stasis is not an illness but actually a sign of an underlying disorder so it’s very important to try and find the cause of the problem.
A simple checklist would be;
-Are you giving your Rabbit any starchy treats?
-Is your rabbit’s diet high enough in fibre?
-Is there a problem with your Rabbits teeth. Overgrown molars can cause an unwillingness to eat.
-Is there an underlying infection causing stress on the intestine?
-Have there been any major changes in the environment which could cause psychological stress such as a new home, visitors, increased noise sources?
Many commercial rabbit foods have a mixture of ingredients but because rabbits have a sugar tooth they tend to eat the carbohydrate parts, ignoring the vital fibrous parts of the diet. This is called selective feeding and leads to bowel stasis and fibre is needed to stimulate bowel movement.
Rabbits should get plenty of dietary fibre at a minimum of 22% fibre content.
Ideally your rabbit should be allowed to graze on your lawn for most of the day. This grazing will also allow the teeth to wear down.
I would also suggest offering plenty of fresh wet leafy greens every day. Don’t be afraid to offer a lot of these. I would work on the basis of 3-4 cups per every 2kg of body weight. The fibre and moisture in fresh greens will help to keep the intestine healthy and stimulated. Kale is a good choice however if your rabbit refuses to eat you could try more fragrant herbs such as basil, dill, sage, fennel, parsley or mint. You can encourage your rabbit by lightly patting the herbs in the corner of the rabbits mouth.
There are commercially available liquid feeds available such as Science recovery diet. This has been designed specifically for recovering small herbivores that is very high in dietary fibre (19%) and vitamins. It can be added to your rabbits drinking and syringe fed to ill rabbits. This highly palatable diet contains fructo-oligosaccharides (FOS) that helps promote a healthy digestive system. Mix one 20g sacvhet with 70mls of warm water and administer small amounts directly into the mouth using an appropriate oral doser. Allow one 20g sachet per kg per day and use within 12 hours once mixed with water.
Normal fluid intake should be in the region of 100ml per every kg of bodyweight and water is always the best source of fluid. Avoid any fluids that contain sugar as these can exacerbate the overgrowth of harmful bacteria.
Regular exercise will keep the skeletal muscles strong whilst also makes sure the smooth muscles of the intestine are kept in shape.
Papain which is found in papaya and bromelain found in pineapple may help breakdown the mucus binding any obstruction thus allowing it to break up and pass through. Both the materials are totally natural and can be bought in powdered form from health food stores. The best way to get your rabbit to ingest them is to mix them with water.
Rabbits are easily stressed and excessive handling should be avoided. Don’t make more trips to your vets than absolutely necessary.
In the wild, rabbits form couples so it is best to house a spayed female (they are prone to uterine cancer) and a castrated male rabbit. Rabbits of the same sex will fight, so having two rabbits decreases stress.
Never separate your rabbit from their bonded partner however if this is unavoidable due to death or it doesn’t have a partner it is extremely important for you to show it a great deal of affection. If any major environmental changes have been made try and change them back.
Other things to look out for
If your rabbit has not passed faecal pellets for 12 hours it needs to be taken to the vet straight away.
It’s also important to get a regular molar check. Rabbit’s teeth will grow continually throughout their lives and need to be constantly worn down by the food they eat.
Want to improve the health of your rabbit? Browse our selection of natural pet supplements.