Health Problems in Rabbits

By Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Medical Conditions, Surgical Conditions, Pet Services

Rabbits have several unique problems; understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care problems.

Gastrointestinal Problems

rabbits-problems-1Diarrhea is often seen in rabbits, and it can be life-threatening if not managed properly. Diarrhea is a sign of gastrointestinal problems and can have multiple causes including incorrect diet (too high in carbohydrates, too low in fiber, or rapid diet changes), bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections, consumption of inappropriate oral drugs (such as certain antibiotics), toxin ingestion, or secondary to other illnesses. Sometimes, it can be challenging to determine the cause.

Rabbits eating a diet that is too high in carbohydrates (typically pellets) are prone to developing intestinal problems because they are not consuming adequate fiber (grass hay). Excessive amounts of carbohydrate change the pH of the gastrointestinal tract (GI) which upsets the bacteria living there that normally ferment and digest the rabbit’s food. High-carbohydrate, low-fiber diets favor the existence of gas-producing bacteria that produce painful gas and toxins, resulting in decreased appetite, lethargy, dehydration, and typically reduced fecal pellet formation.This situation is termed gastrointestinal stasis (GI stasis), since food stops moving through the GI tract. It is common in rabbits and can be deadly if not treated.

"Gastrointestinal stasis is common in rabbits and can be deadly if not treated."

Previously, GI stasis was referred to as hairballs because many rabbits that died from this condition had hair in their stomachs. In fact, rabbits are very fastidious groomers that normally ingest hair during grooming and therefore normally have hair in their stomachs. Very rarely do rabbits accumulate so much hair in their stomachs that they develop a true GI tract obstruction. Rabbits that are known to have ingested foreign objects, such as carpet fibers, towels, or toys, and that are lethargic or not eating should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible so that X-rays may be taken. Since bunnies cannot vomit, those with true hairballs or foreign objects visible in their GI tracts should have surgery right away to prevent life-threatening GI tract perforation or rupture.

Mucoid enteropathy is a distinct diarrheal disease of young rabbits that also can be fatal. The diarrhea contains a large amount of mucus with a gelatinous consistency. The cause is unknown, but predisposing factors include dietary changes, low dietary fiber, antibiotic treatments, environmental stress, and intestinal infections with other bacteria. Proper diet is critical for prevention.

Treatment of diarrhea in rabbits involves identifying and treating the cause, if possible. Specific treatment options vary among veterinarians, but as a rule, fiber in the diet is increased (often nothing but hay may be offered for several weeks). Hospitalization for pain relief, fluid administration, and syringe feeding may be necessary in a compromised animal.

"To the inexperienced owner or veterinarian, diarrhea can be easily confused with normal cecotropes."

To the inexperienced owner or veterinarian, diarrhea can be easily confused with normal cecotropes (cecal droppings, nocturnal droppings, or night droppings). See Coprophagy below for more information on cecotropes. If your rabbit is having loose stools, always consult a veterinarian familiar with rabbits.

Bladder Stones

Rabbits, like many pets, can develop bladder stones. Bladder stones in rabbits are typically composed of calcium. Signs include decreased appetite, lethargy, weight loss, teeth grinding (due to pain), frequent urination, straining or hunching up to urinate, urine staining around the hind end, and blood in the urine. Your veterinarian may be able to palpate (feel) the stones during a physical examination, but not always. Abdominal X-rays can confirm the diagnosis. Surgical removal of the stones will resolve the problem temporarily, but stones often recur. Sometimes a stone is not present, but an accumulation of crystalline sediment or sludge forms in the bladder, causing irritation of the bladder lining. While growing or lactating rabbits can consume high-calcium alfalfa hay and vegetables, to minimize stone formation, adult, non-breeding rabbits that have been eating a diet high in calcium (including alfalfa hay, alfalfa-based pellets, and high-calcium vegetables, such as kale, dandelion greens, parsley, and spinach),  should be weaned onto a diet lower in calcium (such as Timothy or other non-alfalfa hay).

Antibiotic-Induced Toxicity

Certain antibiotics such as penicillin, ampicillin, amoxicillin, lincomycin, erythromycin, cephalosporin, or clindamycin, should never be given orally to rabbits. These antibiotics suppress the normal, healthy bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and allow toxin-producing bacteria to grow and take over, leading to severe diarrhea and the release of toxins into the body. Antibiotic-induced toxicity is one reason to make sure that your veterinarian is properly trained in treating pet rabbits. Discuss any concerns you have with your veterinarian about antibiotics for your pet. If your rabbit develops diarrhea while being treated with any medication, STOP giving the medication, and call your veterinarian immediately.

Coprophagy

Rabbits engage in coprophagy, which means they eat their own feces. While this may be a problem in other animals, this is a normal and healthy behavior in rabbits. Rabbits typically do this overnight, so owners never observe their rabbits do this. The fecal pellets they ingest are different from the ones normally excreted and seen by owners. They are called cecotropes, cecal droppings, nocturnal droppings, or night droppings and are usually small, soft, pasty, darker, and have a strong fermented or sweet smell. These pellets serve as a rich source of nutrients for the rabbit, specifically protein and vitamins B and K. While cecotropes are softer than normal fecal pellets, they should not be confused with diarrhea.

Heat Stroke

Rabbits tolerate cold better than heat and are very sensitive to heat stroke because they cannot sweat. It is critical to keep their environmental temperature at or below 80°F (26°C), and make sure their enclosure is well ventilated. Ideally, they should be housed inside, or if outside, they should have plenty of shade and water. Rabbits may even develop heat stroke on a hot day in the car on the way to your veterinarian. Rabbits with heat stroke are lethargic, have difficulty breathing, and may collapse. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and must be managed properly by a veterinarian.

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