A brief explanation of your rabbit's GI system will help you better understand GI problems and the supreme importance of diet. The rabbit's digestive system is adapted for the processing of large quantities of fibrous food. They are hindgut fermenters. That means to extract nutrients, they depend on microbial fermentation of food within the caecum, a part of their intestines. After digestion in the stomach, the end products are separated in the colon into indigestible material and substances that can be metabolized by caecal microorganisms. Indigestible fiber passes down the colon and is eliminated as hard, dry fecal pellets (bunny berries). Digestible substances and water are passed into the caecum where bacterial fermentation releases nutrients by forming pellets of soft caecal contents. These are known as caecotrophs (or cecotropes). They are periodically expelled from the anus and re-ingested as a source of nutrients.
⇒ "Rabbit Gastrointestinal Physiology" by Ron Rees Davies, BVSc, CertZooMed, MRCVS & Jennifer A.E Rees Davies, BVSc, MSc, MRCVS
This process is known as caecotrophy and is essential to your rabbit's good health and nutrition. In healthy rabbits, caecotrophs are consumed straight from the anus and swallowed whole. It is unlikely that you will ever see them unless your rabbit is ill.
Problems that disturb caecotrophy threaten the health of your rabbit. Any condition that reduces flexibility and causes immobility can result in uneaten caecotrophs. This includes insufficient space in living quarters, musculoskeletal conditions that limit flexibility or cause pain, obesity, dental disease, any condition that reduces appetite, and neurological disease. Healthy rabbits that are fed a high fiber diet will consume all of their caecotrophs. Rabbits fed a low fiber diet will often leave caecotrophs uneaten because they are deprived of certain vitamins and amino acids that are necessary to their health.
Caecotrophs are differentiated from true diarrhea by their strong characteristic odor and soft pasty consistency. Hard pellets continue to be produced whereas in diarrhea no hard pellets are produced. Uneaten caecotrophs are a hygiene problem but not life threatening. Your rabbit will continue to eat well and produce his/her usual number of hard fecal pellets. Consult with rabbit knowledgeable people and/or your vet to get help with keeping your rabbit clean and making diet changes that will end the problem.
To recognize symptoms of GI illness in your rabbit, you should do a ⇒fecal pellet exam and a ⇒pain assessment. In addition, feel his/her abdominal area for masses and listen for the presence or absence of bowel sounds.
The most common types of GI aliments that you may see in your rabbit are ⇒anorexia ⇒bloat, ⇒diarrhea ⇒gas, and ⇒gastro-intestinal stasis/ileus.
Anorexia is when your rabbit won't eat. It's usually a symptom of another problem, and must always be treated as an emergency. See ⇒Rabbit 911.
⇒"The Anorexic Rabbit" by Frances Harcourt-Brown, BVSc MRCVS.
⇒"Bloat in Rabbits" by L. Seeman, MSN
The cause of bloat appears to be an obstruction- food, fur, or some inorganic material the bun has swallowed- in the pyloric sphincter or somewhere in the intestine. It can also be related to scar tissue from an ulcer. Rabbits are very prone to ulcers.
The obstruction causes the food in the stomach to ferment and creates gas that backs up into the stomach. A rabbit's stomach does not have the ability to greatly expand. As the stomach bloats, it compresses the chest cavity causing cardiovascular collapse and death. The gas also causes severe pain leading to shock and/or causing the rabbit to give up the will to live. Torbutrol (butorphanol) sub-Q is the only medication that seems to help the pain.
Find a rabbit savvy vet who will perform tubing procedures and recognizes the possibility that rabbits who re-bloat within a 24-hour period often die. Lab analysis of each fatal case has revealed the evidence of kidney/liver disease.
Rabbits with diarrhea are usually anorexic and depressed. Because of major disturbances in metabolism, diarrhea can become rapidly fatal. See your vet or emergency clinic immediately. Your vet will probably take a fecal swab and test your rabbit for parasites. If none are found, your vet will probably advise you to take your rabbit off all fruits and vegetables. A diet of hay for about four weeks is the treatment of choice for this problem, but do what your vet recommends.
Usually occurs from eating too many gas-producing vegetables. Symptoms of gas problems are indicated by your rabbit not eating normally, by posture that is hunched up with his/her stomach pressed to the floor, or by you hearing loud gurgling noises.
To treat gas, you can give the infant formula of simethicone (available in drug and grocery stores as Mylicon). Check with your vet for dosage for your rabbit. Gentle abdominal massage with your fingers, placing your rabbit on a towel on the top of a running clothes dryer, or taking him/her for a car ride also helps. The goal of all these treatments is to break up the bubbles so that the gas can be passed.
Ileus (GI Hypo-motility / Slowdown / GI Stasis / Obstruction)
Occurs when there is a decrease in normal GI movement (motility) that pushes digesting food through the intestines. Obstruction occurs when food, hairballs, or foreign material that your rabbit ate and cannot digest (carpet, fabric, computer cable, etc.) cannot pass through the GI tract. This problem may also be caused by stress, dehydration, insufficient dietary fiber, lack of exercise, or another underlying medical problem. It is often accompanied by gas.
Your rabbit exhibits symptoms of GI hypo mobility by hunching up in pain, grinding his/her teeth, not being as active as usual, not grooming, not demonstrating usual inquisitiveness, not responding to a favorite treat, and/or not eating or producing fecal pellets. This is a rabbit emergency.
Get your rabbit to the vet or rabbit-approved emergency clinic immediately. Do not wait, even if a vet tells you so (if you are told this, get a new rabbit vet).
⇒"Ileus in Domestic Rabbits"
by Dana Krempels, Mary Cotter, and Gil Stanzione.
⇒"Rabbit Hairballs: Fact or Fiction" by Susan Brown, DVM. Includes dietary recommendations for treatment.
⇒"Nursing your Rabbit Through Gastrointestinal Stasis" by Cat Logsdon
⇒"How to administer Sub-Q fluids at home" on The VelveteenLop's Youtube channel.
Preparing for and while in transit, keep your rabbit warm. If you know how, ⇒take your rabbit's temperature. Because rabbits have a low tolerance for GI pain, their body tends to go into shut down with a resulting drop in body temperature. One of the most common causes of death during GI slowdown is low body temperature. Wrap your rabbit in a towel and put him/her on top of a hot water body or heating pad set on low.
If you know what your rabbit has eaten that may be the source of the problem, tell the clinic staff. Diagnosis will probably be confirmed by radiographs. Treatment is aimed at removing the underlying causes, preventing dehydration and imbalance of critical physiologic chemicals (electrolytes), softening the mass by moistening it, maintaining or restoring gut motility, protecting normal gut bacteria, and preventing liver damage. You can expect the vet to administer oral and/or subcutaneous (under the skin) fluids and/or enemas, medications for pain management, and possibly medications to increase GI motility. Hospitalization and/or surgery may be required.