It’s an all too familiar story. “My bunny stopped eating, and then she just died.”
When we ask for details, we often learn that not only did the bunny stop eating, but she had been producing extremely small or even no fecal droppings, or showed symptoms of “runny stool.” True diarrhea (unformed, liquid fecal matter) is uncommon in rabbits. The runny stool sometimes misidentified as “diarrhea” in rabbits is more often composed of unformed, almost-liquid cecotropes.
Rabbits produce two types of pellets: fecal pellets (left in the litterbox) and cecotropes (soft, pungent, normally shaped like a cluster of grapes and reingested by the rabbit to obtain essential nutrients). Liquid or mushy cecotropes can result from an imbalance of the normal bacterial and fungal flora of the cecum (the bunny’s intestinal “fermentation vat”). The floral imbalance can be caused by a number of factors, such as the wrong antibiotic (oral penicillins and lincosamine antibiotics can be very dangerous to rabbits for this reason!) or a diet too rich in digestible carbohydrates and too low in crude fiber. Often, however, it is caused by a slowing of the normal peristaltic muscular contractions which push food and liquids through the intestines. The slowdown or cessation of peristalsis of the intestine is known as gastrointestinal (GI) stasis or ileus.What Causes GI Stasis?
A rabbit’s intestine can become static for a variety of reasons, including (1) stress, (2) dehydration, (3) pain from another underlying disorder or illness (such as gas, dental problems, infections, or urinary tract disorders) (4) an intestinal blockage or, (5) insufficient dietary crude fiber. Left untreated, the slowdown or complete cessation of normal intestinal movement (peristalsis) can result in a painful death, in a relatively short period of time. If your rabbit stops eating or producing feces for 12 hours or more, you should consider the condition an EMERGENCY. GET YOUR BUNNY TO A RABBIT-SAVVY VETERINARIAN IMMEDIATELY.
An intestinal slowdown can cause ingested hair and food to lodge anywhere along the GI tract, creating a potential blockage. Also, because the cecum is not emptying quickly enough, harmful bacteria such as Clostridium species (related to the ones that cause botulism and tetanus) can proliferate, their numbers overwhelming those of the normal, beneficial bacteria and fungi in the cecum. Once this overgrowth occurs, gas emitted by the bacteria can cause extreme pain. Some Clostridium species also produce potentially deadly toxins. It is the liver’s job to detoxify these poisons, at a high cost to that all-important organ. Damage to the liver can be a serious–even life-threatening–side effect of GI stasis.How Can GI Stasis be detected?
Symptoms of GI stasis include very small (or no) fecal pellets, sometimes clinging to the bunny’s bottom. In some cases, very small fecal pellets will be encased in clear or yellowish mucus. This potentially serious problem (enteritis, an inflammation of the intestinal lining) should be treated as an emergency.
With GI stasis, the normal, quiet gurgling of the healthy intestine may be replaced either by very loud, violent gurgles (gas moving around painfully!) or silence. The bunny may become lethargic, have no appetite and may hunch in a ball, loudly crunching his teeth in pain.GI Stasis and the “Hairball” Myth
Sometimes, a rabbit suffering from GI stasis is diagnosed as having a “hairball.” In reality, an apparent hairball usually is a result of GI stasis–not the cause. A vet who has not palpated many rabbit abdomens may be unfamiliar with the normal, sometimes “doughy” feel of the healthy rabbit stomach. A “doughy” stomach is usually cause for concern only when accompanied by an empty lower GI and symptoms of abdominal discomfort.
Like those of most herbivores, the stomach and intestines of a healthy rabbit are never empty. A rabbit may eat relatively normal amounts of food, almost up to the time the GI tract shuts down. Because of this, the stomach may contain a large bolus of food when stasis occurs. Unlike the typical cat hairball, which usually consists entirely of hair, a mass misidentified as a “hairball” in a rabbit is usually composed mostly of food held together by hair and mucus. Such a bolus, even if it is dehydrated and unable to pass out of the stomach when initially found, usually can be broken down slowly with plenty of oral fluids and even enzyme supplements, if the vet deems them necessary. However, if the mass is there as a result of chronic GI stasis, simply treating the mass without addressing the GI stasis will be unproductive in the long term.
If you suspect that your bunny is experiencing GI stasis, you must take him/her to your rabbit-experienced veterinarian without delay. Tell the vet your suspicions. S/he will probably listen for normal intestinal sounds and palpate the bunny’s abdomen. The vet also may wish to take radiographs (x-rays) to see whether the various parts of the digestive tract contain normal ingested matter, feces or foreign objects–or are empty and gassy. The appearance of the digestive tract will help the vet determine whether there is an obstruction and, if so, where it is located.
If a true intestinal obstruction (almost always accompanied by severe bloating and acute pain) is present, the use of intestinal motility drugs (described later) could make the situation worse by pushing the blockage into a narrow area where it completely obstructs the intestine. However, if the mass is not causing an acute, complete blockage, medical alternatives to surgery should be considered first. A gastrotomy–surgical opening of the stomach–may be performed to remove a gastric obstruction, but rabbits who undergo this procedure have an abysmally low survival rate. Those who survive the surgery itself often succumb a few days later to peritonitis or other complications, even when under the care of the most practiced, skillful rabbit surgeon. Surgery on the rabbit GI tract should be considered only as a last resort.Can GI Stasis Be Successfully Treated?
If your vet has determined that there is no intestinal obstruction, there are several treatments s/he may wish to use to help your bunny in distress. As always, do not perform any of these procedures or try to administer any of these medications without the supervision of a veterinarian experienced with rabbit disorders and treatments.
I. Mechanical Treatments
A. Abdominal massage.
C. Monitoring Body Temperature.
E. Petroleum-based laxatives: use with caution.
II. Non-prescription supportive measures
A. Oral fluids
B. Force feeding.
C. Unlimited grass hay.
D. Fresh, wet, leafy herbs.
E. Lactobacillus acidophilus
III. Prescription/veterinary treatments
A. An intestinal motility agent,
B. Subcutaneous Fluid Therapy.
C. Cholestyramine (Questran)
D. Enzymatic digestive aids
E. Appetite stimulants.
F. Antibiotics: Use with caution, if at all.
IV. Pain Relief: The key to keeping the bunny fighting to live.
The importance of analgesia to a rabbit’s recovery cannot be overstated. A rabbit suffering from GI stasis will sometimes just seem to give up and die, possibly because of the sometimes extreme abdominal pain. Although officially approved only for use in horses, flunixin meglumine (Banamine) is an excellent NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) for use in rabbits. Although this drug can produce gastric ulcers in some species, substantial anecdotal evidence (involving many hundreds of rabbits over a period of many years) suggests that Banamine is tolerated well by rabbits, even when administered daily for several weeks. We have observed no adverse side effects from Banamine in our rabbits, some of whom have had to receive it daily for a week or longer.
Meloxicam (metacam) and Rimadyl (carprofen) are other NSAIDs which have been used with good results in rabbits.
Torbugesic, an opioid analgesic, provides good pain relief at relatively low doses. Although some practitioners fear that an opioid might contribue to GI slowdown, pain can certainly do the same. We have used opiods repeatedly in cases like this, with good results. We also have had success at relieving colic pain and inflammation of the intestinal lining with sulfasalazine, a combination sulfa antibiotic and NSAID compound. Sulfasalazine works topically to reduce intestinal inflammation.
Barium also may be useful as an intestinal “tonic” to relieve pain and help stimulate peristalsis, but its action is slow as compared to that of the aforementioned analgesics. As always, your veterinarian is the one best able to decide which type of pain relief is appropriate for your rabbit, given the specific conditions of his/her illness.
V. The Road to Recovery: Reduce Stress. (“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”)
It is essential that the caretaker faced with a rabbit in GI stasis be patient, allowing the treatments and medications to work. Rabbits are easily stressed, and excessive handling should be avoided. It may take several days before any fecal pellets are seen, and it may take two weeks or more of motility therapy before the intestine is moving normally again. We know of one case in which a rabbit produced no fecal pellets for 14 days, but finally did respond to gentle, consistent administration of the above treatment regimen. Patience and persistence are key.
Do not make more trips to the veterinarian’s office with the rabbit than absolutely necessary (the stress of travel can slow recovery), but DO contact your veterinarian frequently to report on progress and any changes. Whenever possible, administer medications at home, where the rabbit feels safe and secure.
While you are treating your sick bunny, NEVER separate him/her from his/her bonded partner(s). The stress of separation itself can make the problem worse. We have known bunnies who seemed at death’s door to recover when they were provided with the love and constant attention of their bonded mate. If your bunny does not have a mate, it is even more important that you, his best friend, show him a great deal of calm attention and affection during his ordeal. Rabbits seem to understand when they are being fussed over, and it may help them recover more quickly to know that they are not being abandoned in their misery. But do this within reason. Many a rabbit can sense a caregiver’s fear for his safety, and this in itself can cause stress. Visit and love your bunny, but also give him time to himself to recover.
Every bunny parent should have a stethoscope (not necessarily an expensive one) to monitor intestinal sounds. The gradual return of gentle gurgling is a very good sign: once this begins, the rabbit is on the road to recovery, even if fecal pellets don’t begin pouring out the chute. Administration of intestinal motility agents, gentle massage and supportive care as recounted above should be continued, and gradually tapered as fecal pellets slowly begin to come through the system.
Do not be alarmed if the first batch of fecal pellets is small, hard and misshapen, and even accompanied by some mucus. This is to be expected. Also do not be surprised if the rabbit produces a small bunch of pellets, nothing for a day, and then a bit more. The intestine sometimes seems to regain its function in fits and starts, rather than all at once. Consistent, gentle nursing and reduction of stress are essential at this time.
PLEASE RESIST THE TEMPTATION TO FORCE ADDITIONAL, AGGRESSIVE TREATMENT ONCE THE RABBIT BEGINS TO RECOVER. RECOVERY FROM GI STASIS IS SOMETIMES MADDENINGLY GRADUAL. [We know of one instance in which a rabbit was starting to produce fecal pellets and showing signs of recovery, but the veterinarian overseeing the case insisted on anesthetizing the rabbit to perform oral gavage, enemas with an extension tube and vigorous abdominal massage. Despite advice to the contrary, this veterinarian believed that the mass in the stomach could not possibly pass without such treatment. Tragically, the rabbit died. Necropsy revealed a ruptured liver. We cannot help but wonder whether excessive handling and the unnecessarily aggressive treatments contributed to, or even caused this rabbit’s demise.]VI. MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL: Backtracking to the CauseRemember: Ileus is not an illness in and of itself. It is a SYMPTOM of an underlying disorder that has caused the bunny enough stress or pain to cause the GI tract to slow down or stop. Hence, ileus may be your first clue that something else is wrong that needs proper diagnosis and treatment.
Once your bunny is recovering from the immediate GI stasis threat, it’s time to look for the ultimate cause of the problem.
- Does your rabbit get insufficient fiber in her diet?
- Are you giving her too many starchy treats?
- Does she have an underlying infection or illness that’s causing enough pain/stress to shut down her intestine?
- Does she have overgrown molars or an abscessed tooth? (NOTE: It is wise to check this possibility at the first sign of any change in your rabbit’s eating habits. If your bunny has overgrown molars, this alone can cause an unwillingness to eat certain items, or even result in complete anorexia.)
- Have there been major changes in the household that are causing psychological stress to the bunny (loss of the bunny’s bonded partner, a new pet in the house, visitors, construction, etc.)?
Any of the above could trigger an ileus event, and must be diagnosed and corrected if your bunny is not to suffer a chronic recurrence of the ileus problem. If your rabbit does not seem fully normal, even after the GI tract is moving well again, it’s time to ask your vet to do some blood work, a deep oral exam (to check for molar problems), radiographs (don’t forget the head!), a complete check of the urinary tract, and any diagnostics your rabbit-experienced veterinarian deems necessary to get to the root of the problem.
DO NOT wait for an emergency to find a veterinarian who is experienced and good with rabbits. Unfortunately, many emergency clinics will not even see rabbits, let alone know how to properly care for one in acute distress. A veterinarian who treats a rabbit as if s/he were a dog or cat might do more harm than good. Plan now and avoid heartache later! Find a good rabbit vet in your area via the House Rabbit Society Veterinarian Listings.
VII. Prevention: The Best Medicine
The best cure for GI stasis is prevention. Be sure your rabbit companion gets plenty of dietary fiber from fresh grass hay. Feed high fiber (22% or higher crude fiber) pellets. Be sure your rabbit is drinking sufficient water to keep ingested food hydrated and moving smoothly. It helps to offer at least 4 cups of fresh, wet leafy greens per 5 lbs. of rabbit daily. And don’t forget that regular exercise not only keeps the skeletal muscles strong: it also keeps the smooth muscles of the intestines well-toned and active.
Regular visits (including a molar check!) to your rabbit-experienced veterinarian will ensure that your bunny pal doesn’t develop health problems that go undetected. Once such a problem becomes serious, it may manifest itself as GI stasis.
So here’s to healthy peristalsis! May your home be blessed with great, big, healthy piles of gorgeous bunny poops. All in the litterbox, of course.
This article is dedicated to Alex, who died because no one attending him recognized the symptoms of ileus before it was too late. Alex, I wish I had known then what I know now. But your life and untimely passing inspired this article, which I hope will save the lives of other rabbits.
The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of Mary Cotter, Ed.D. and Susan Kelleher, D.V.M., for their input and feedback.
I also thank George Flentke, Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin Pharmacology Dept.) for information on the pharmaceuticals named in this article. I thank Mary Cotter, Ed.D. for her contribution to treatment protocols and for her editorial expertise. I also thank Kevin Johnson for his support and editorial expertise.
The treatments and protocols outlined in this article were developed after discussions with many veterinarians familiar with the condition of ileus in rabbits. In particular, I wish to thank (in alphabetical order) Thomas Goldsmith, D.V.M., Jeff Jenkins, D.V.M, Susan Kelleher, D.V.M. and Maya Menchaca, D.V.M. Also, several experienced, knowledgeable rabbit rescuers have contributed hints and tips for home treatments. Of these contributors, Mary Cotter Ed.D. has been an invaluable resource and constant inspiration.
copyright July 1997 – Dana Krempels
Revised: June 2005