Rabbits - Trichobezoars (Hairballs)

By Rick Axelson, DVM

Medical Conditions

farm-rabbitHairballs (trichobezoars) are fairly common in rabbits because a rabbit is a fastidious groomer, just like a cat or a ferret. As a result of constant grooming, hair accumulations occur when the hair is matted together with food and then accumulated in the stomach.

"Hairballs can cause serious problems in a rabbit’s
stomach or intestine as they
attempt to move through the gastrointestinal tract."

What kinds of problems do hairballs cause in rabbits?

It’s normal for a rabbit to have hair in the stomach. Rabbits swallow hair during the normal course of grooming. But over time, the accumulated hair and other factors can create a tight mass or hairball in the stomach.

These hairball masses can be troublesome at any size. When they’re as small as a jellybean, they get stuck in the intestine. Or they may not cause problems until they grow to the size of a small fist. Rabbits aren’t able to vomit, so if the hair doesn’t pass through the stomach and intestinal tract, it will in time, mat together and cause an obstruction.

  • Serious problems occur when the hairball stops moving the intestines or slows down (stasis or hypomotility)…  or if it obstructs the flow through the stomach and intestines.
  • When the gut motility slows, hair may accumulate and if the food/hair mass dehydrates, it will be harder to pass, leading to further problems and potentially death.
  • In addition, if the normal bacterial microflora of the gastrointestinal tract is altered, good bacteria is disturbed, which leads to an overgrowth of bad bacteria.
"Rabbits with total hairball obstruction can develop bloat, which is very dangerous. The rabbit will go into shock and need immediate, emergency attention from your veterinarian!"

How will my veterinarian diagnose a hairball (trichobezoar)?

A hairball itself is not a disease, but it certainly can create a serious disease or medical issue. Hairballs are so common in rabbits, you should always consider them if your rabbit is lethargic and not eating.

Your veterinarian will diagnose a hairball-related problem by evaluating the rabbit’s history and conducting a physical examination including palpation of the abdomen, oral examination, blood tests and x-rays.

If you’re sure your rabbit hasn’t eaten within the last 24 hours, and your veterinarian’s x-rays (radiographs) reveal food (or a distension) in the stomach, it’s very likely that something (often a hairball) is altering the motility of the stomach or intestines or causing an obstruction.

Sometimes, your veterinarian may need to conduct exploratory surgery to make a diagnosis.

How will my veterinarian treat a hairball (trichobezoar) problem?

If your veterinarian is familiar with treating rabbits, or he/she refers you to a veterinarian familiar with rabbits, the underlying problem will be addressed with supportive care that may include:

  • Fluid therapy for rehydration
  • Nutritional support
  • Antibiotic(s) as needed
  • Motility modifying drugs to enhance movement of food through the stomach and intestines
  • Vitamins
  • Pain management

Some rabbits will require surgery.

What can I do to keep my rabbit from getting a hairball?

You can reduce the amount of hair your rabbit swallows by grooming your rabbit regularly. Plus, if you include a high roughage/high fiber diet (unlimited long stem Timothy hay) that’s low in simple carbohydrates, you’ll support proper gut motility and the passage of the hair normally ingested throughout the day.

"Be sure to give your rabbit plenty of physical exercise to promote gut motility."

And of course, avoid letting your rabbit chew and eat rugs, towels, or other fiber material that may accumulation in the stomach and cause the same symptoms hairballs cause.

This client information sheet is based on material written by Dr. Rick Axelson, DVM.

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