For many years, it was thought that rabbits commonly developed hairballs (also called trichobezoars) because they are fastidious groomers. It was thought that hairballs were the main cause of a rabbit not wanting to eat and not passing stool. While hair accumulations in the stomach may occur when the hair mats together with food, rabbits normally have some amount of hair in their stomachs that does not typically cause any problems.
"GI stasis is not typically caused by an actual physical obstruction, but by a change in GI bacteria."
Veterinarians now know that rabbits that are not eating have developed gastrointestinal (GI) stasis. GI stasis is the slowing of passage of food through the GI tract. This is due to a change in the population of bacteria normally living in the GI tract that ferment (digest) rabbits’ food. GI stasis is not typically caused by an actual physical obstruction (such as a hairball or ingested foreign object, such as a towel or rug), but by a change in GI bacteria.
What can cause GI stasis in rabbits?
Rabbits stop eating for several different reasons. They may become sick with other diseases, such as dental problems or kidney disease, that commonly cause them to have a decreased appetite. They will also often stop eating when they are stressed, overheated, painful from injuries or arthritis, or uncomfortable from other gastrointestinal problems such as bacterial, viral, or parasitic intestinal infections.
Some rabbits get GI upset when they are eating too much carbohydrate (e.g., pellets) and not enough fiber (e.g., hay). Regardless of why they stop eating initially, rabbits that do not eat undergo a pH change in their GI tracts that favors the growth of gas-producing bacteria. When these bacteria proliferate, they produce painful gas that makes the rabbit want to eat even less. These bacteria also may produce toxins that, if untreated, not only make the rabbits feel sicker, but also lead to organ failure and death.
How will my veterinarian diagnose GI stasis?
Your veterinarian will start by asking you a series of questions about your rabbit's signs and behavior, and then a complete physical examination will be performed on your rabbit, as well as tests such as X-rays and bloodwork to evaluate your rabbit's condition. Rabbits with GI stasis often look bloated, pass little to no stool, and have big, gas-filled stomachs and intestines on X-rays. Blood tests often reveal evidence of dehydration and abnormal electrolyte values. There may also be changes associated with other underlying diseases (such as kidney or liver disease). An examination of your rabbit’s mouth may show sharp points on the teeth, causing discomfort upon chewing, or evidence of a dental abscess (infection).
How will my veterinarian treat GI stasis?
Once your veterinarian confirms that your rabbit has GI stasis and determines the underlying cause for why your rabbit has stopped eating, supportive care treatment, either in or out of the hospital, depending on the rabbit’s condition will be prescribed. This may include:
- fluid therapy for rehydration
- nutritional support (syringe feeding if not eating)
- antibiotic(s) (if there is an underlying bacterial infection)
- motility modifying drugs to enhance movement of food through the stomach and intestines
- pain relievers
- anti-inflammatory medications
What can I do to keep my rabbit from getting GI stasis?
The best way to prevent GI stasis from developing in your rabbit is to feed it a high-fiber, hay-based diet with supplemental vegetables, a small amount of pellets, and small amounts of fruit (as fruit is high in carbohydrates). The high fiber in hay stimulates normal intestinal motility, as well as helps wear down rabbits’ continuously growing teeth, thereby lessening the likelihood of dental problems.
You can allow your rabbit lots of supervised out-of-cage time to encourage physical exercise to promote normal gut motility. Prevent your rabbit from chewing on rugs, towels, or other material that may cause a true, life-threatening physical obstruction in your rabbit's GI tract.
"You can allow your rabbit lots of supervised out-of-cage time to encourage physical exercise to promote normal gut motility."
You can also help your rabbit avoid GI stasis by having him or her checked regularly by your veterinarian who can monitor for the occurrence of other underlying diseases that may contribute to the development of GI stasis.
Finally, you can watch your rabbit carefully at home for signs such as decreased appetite, reduced stool formation, or any other abnormal behaviors and have him or her checked immediately by your veterinarian if any of these signs occur.