Digestive problems are common in pet rabbits. The most common digestive disorder is gastrointestinal stasis (GI stasis). If not treated, GI stasis can lead to bloating, weight loss, kidney failure, and sudden death.
GI stasis means that food and water cannot pass through the gut at a normal rate. This is because the muscle contractions in the GI tract have slowed down or stopped. This will cause severe digestive problems. GI stasis can be caused by stress, dehydration, a poor diet, or an underlying illness.
25% of domestic rabbits get GI stasis during their lifetime. This is unfortunate because most cases of gastrointestinal stasis are avoidable. We’ll show you how to protect your rabbit from GI stasis.
What is GI Stasis in Rabbits?
In healthy rabbits, small muscle contractions (in the GI tract) push food through the intestines. These muscular contractions are called peristaltic movements. When peristaltic movements slow down (or stop), the result is GI stasis.
So, if a rabbit is diagnosed with GI stasis, this means that the intestines have become sluggish. In other words, the intestines have become static. This means food cannot be digested, absorbed, and excreted in the normal way.
Why is GI Stasis So Serious?
Like other herbivorous animals, rabbits spend most of their lives eating. This is because the food they eat is very low in calories and high in fiber. GI stasis is problematic because it stops rabbits from getting the nutrition that they need.
While omnivorous humans and carnivorous cats could survive several days without food, rabbits must eat very regularly to get the calories and nutrients they need.
So, at the very least, GI stasis will cause malnutrition and weight loss.
If food cannot pass through the intestines, it may clump together with hair or carpet and cause a blockage in the GI tract.
The GI tract is comprised of the esophagus, stomach, intestines, and cecum. So, blockages could occur in any of these areas. Internal blockages are life-threatening.
Although blockages (such as hairballs) can be the cause of GI stasis, they are usually the result, rather than the cause.
Rabbits with GI stasis will lose their appetite. If they stop eating, this can quickly lead to dental disease. This is because the act of chewing helps to file rabbits’ teeth. Rabbits’ teeth grow 2-3 mm per week, so constant chewing is necessary to prevent dental disease.
Changes to Cecum Flora
Rabbits have a small pouch called a cecum which is connected to their large intestine. In healthy rabbits, some of the undigested food from the large intestine will pass through into the rabbit’s cecum. The bacteria in the cecum then breaks down the remaining food and turns in into cecotropes (the pellets that rabbits eat).
Crucially, GI stasis changes the balance of the bacteria in the cecum. This means that a rabbit with GI stasis either cannot produce any cecotropes, or they can only produce runny cecotropes. These runny cecotropes will be difficult to eat. Since cecotropes provide rabbits with vital B nutrients, they are needed for survival.
If the flora within the cecum changes, this may lead to a more serious condition called Enterotoxaemia. Enterotoxaemia is severe diarrhea.
It happens when the cecum is overloaded with undigested food and/or when the flora in the cecum changes. This allows harmful bacteria (such as the Clostridium species) to multiply. This will cause extreme pain and death if not treated immediately.
When Clostridium bacteria start to multiply in the cecum and intestines, the liver will try to remove these toxins from the body.
But, if there are too many bacteria present, the liver may become overwhelmed. So, the longer you leave GI stasis untreated, the more likely a rabbit is to develop liver damage.
When rabbits die a sudden death, this is often due to GI stasis.
Just this year, AMVA monitored 117 rabbits diagnosed with GI stasis. During the study, 15 of the rabbits died and 18 had to be euthanized. This suggests that more than 1 in 4 rabbits diagnosed with GI stasis will die from it.
So, you must know how to recognize gastrointestinal stasis in rabbits. This will enable you to intervene as early as possible.
Symptoms of GI Stasis in Rabbits
To prevent sudden death in rabbits, we need to be clued up on the signs of GI stasis. According to NCBI, symptoms of GI stasis include:
- Inactivity – Also, rabbits with GI stasis will probably avoid human contact.
- Sitting Crouched or Huddled Over – This suggests abdominal pain.
- Not Eating or Drinking – This is a very common sign of GI stasis.
- Constipation – Or only producing a few fecal pellets.
- Excessive, Watery, or Mushy Cecotropes – Remember, we said GI stasis alters the cecum flora? Well, this explains why mushy cecotropes are produced.
- Violent Stomach Gurgling – Gentle gurgling is normal in rabbits, but very loud gurgles are a sign of trapped gas. Complete silence in the stomach can also be a sign of GI stasis – especially if your rabbit’s stomach usually makes a faint gurgling sound.
- Teeth Grinding – If teeth grinding is present with GI stasis, this suggests the GI stasis is being caused by an underlying painful illness.
- An Abnormal Body Temperature – A body temperature lower than 101 or higher than 103 degrees Fahrenheit would be worrying.
If you recognize any of these symptoms in your rabbit, you should seek medical attention immediately. A rabbit can die from GI stasis in just a few hours, so don’t delay treatment.
What Causes Gastrointestinal Stasis in Rabbits?
GI stasis occurs when food and drink cannot move through the GI tract. But what causes the GI tract to become sluggish?
Well, GI stasis is a syndrome (a collection of symptoms) rather than a disease in itself. This means there is not one specific cause. Indeed, some vets refer to this condition as Rabbit Gastrointestinal Syndrome (RGIS).
Nevertheless, we know that GI stasis is linked to at least 7 different risk factors. These are discussed in detail below.
Low Fiber Diet
Rabbits are herbivores, so they need a high-fiber diet. A low-fiber diet is one of the leading causes of GI stasis in rabbits.
As fiber passes through the rabbit’s gut, it stimulates the peristaltic muscles. These muscle contractions sweep food through the gut and aid digestion. In contrast, a low-fiber diet forces the gut to become sluggish and lazy.
High Carbohydrate Diet
Rabbits require small amounts of carbohydrate in their diet. They get all they need from fresh greens and veggies. This means processed carbs, such as cookies and muesli, should be off the menu.
If rabbits eat processed carbohydrates, this can over or under-stimulate the peristaltic muscle movements. As a result, this can cause bloating, GI stasis, and runny stools. In fact, according to MSD, Enterotoxaemia can be caused by eating sugary, starchy foods.
Changing the Diet Very Quickly
Research shows that changing a rabbit’s diet too rapidly can result in GI stasis and Enterotoxaemia. This can happen even if the dietary changes are positive ones.
When changing a rabbit’s diet, do so gradually. PDSA recommend changing a rabbit’s diet over a minimum of 2-4 weeks. This will protect against GI stasis and other digestive problems.
Rabbits who are diagnosed with GI stasis are often dehydrated. Dehydration can be a cause of GI stasis, a side-effect, or both.
Dehydration can cause GI stasis because it forces the intestines to ‘shut down.’ Over time, this may desiccate the contents of the intestines and cause the feces to become impacted. Blocked intestines are extremely serious and require immediate medical treatment.
We often think of stress as something that will speed up digestive processes rather than slow them down. But, according to NZVNA, stress can cause a rabbit’s gut to ‘shut down’.
This can cause the intestines to become sluggish. A stressed rabbit will also avoid food and water, which can exacerbate the problem.
Common stressors for rabbits include losing their bonding partner, being exposed to predators, and living in an unsanitary cage.
Severe Pain from Illness
Pain from an underlying illness can cause GI stasis. This is because the pain becomes so overwhelming that it causes the gut to shut down. This will halt the peristaltic muscle movements and block the passage of food. Some common and painful illnesses in rabbits include:
- Dental disease
- Urinary Tract Disorders
- Rabbit Snuffles (Pasteurella Multocida)
In fact, any condition that causes the rabbit to feel pain could potentially lead to gut stasis. This is another reason to ensure rabbit illnesses are treated immediately.
Very occasionally, intestinal blockages can be the cause of GI stasis. Diet and stress are much more often the cause of GI stasis, though.
The blockage could be caused by felts of hair and/or carpet, raisins, uncooked pulses, impacted feces, or other small objects. An intestinal blockage will usually cause a painful bloat and a loud gurgling sound in the stomach.
GI Stasis in Rabbits Treatment
Although GI stasis is severe, it can usually be treated (if caught early). The first step is to take your rabbit to a reputable vet. Attempting to treat GI stasis at home may make the situation worse. Your vet may recommend one or more of the following treatments.
If the symptoms are mild, a mechanical massage may be enough to relieve the gas in your rabbit’s tummy. This will help to stimulate gut motility. If appropriate, your vet may show you how to perform this massage at home to support your rabbit’s recovery.
Massage can be an effective home treatment for GI stasis, but don’t attempt it unless your vet has advised you to do so. Rabbits are very delicate creatures, so massage needs to be performed safely.
Dehydration can be both a cause and side-effect of GI stasis. If your vet diagnoses GI stasis, he or she will probably administer some kind of fluid therapy to your rabbit. If your rabbit refuses to drink water independently, subcutaneous fluids can be provided.
This may be an appropriate treatment to remove impacted feces from the intestines. But if the GI stasis is caught early, an enema shouldn’t be necessary.
Gut Motility Drugs
Drugs such as Cisapride and Metoclopramide may be used to stimulate your rabbit’s intestines. These are usually prescribed for 1-2 weeks at a time.
These drugs are usually very effective, but they must be used with care. Gut motility drugs can sometimes produce side-effects, so you’ll need to monitor your rabbit closely during treatment.
Force Feeding and Appetite Stimulants
To promote recovery, rabbits should be encouraged to return to normal eating as soon as possible. This will help to stimulate the peristaltic muscle movements. If your rabbit has no appetite, appetite stimulants and/or force-feeding could be an option.
B-complex vitamins are commonly used to stimulate a rabbit’s appetite. Rabbits get most of the B vitamins they need from eating cecotropes. If your bunny is unable to produce cecotropes due to GI stasis, B-complex vitamins can help to prevent a deficiency.
The bloating associated with GI stasis can be very painful. Added to which, pain can make GI stasis worse because pain ‘shuts down’ the rabbit’s intestines. Pain relief is a priority during treatment and throughout the recovery period.
Simethicone is a type of pain relief that seems to work well for most rabbits. Your vet may also recommend some additional treatments. Also, to minimize pain during the recovery period, it’s important to create a calm and relaxing environment for your bunny.
Home Treatment for GI Stasis
If you suspect your rabbit has GI stasis, don’t attempt any home remedies. First, see your vet for a diagnosis. This will ensure your rabbit gets the best treatment. Once treatment has been prescribed, the road to recovery can be quite slow. But you can support your rabbit at home during the recovery period. Here are some tips for nursing your rabbit back to good health:
- Follow your vet’s instructions and administer your rabbit’s medication daily. Monitor your rabbit closely for any signs of improvement or deterioration.
- Your vet may recommend adding Lactobacillus powder to your rabbit’s food to aid digestion.
- Encourage your rabbit to drink water. It’s best to provide a bowl and a bottle to drink from.
- Try to stimulate your rabbit’s appetite. Does your rabbit have a favorite type of food? If so, make sure you stock up on this. Fragrant herbs such as parsley and fennel can be very tempting. Also, Burgess recommends flowers such as yellow dandelions, broccoli and rocket flowers for stimulating a rabbit’s appetite.
- Allow your rabbit to spend time with his/her bonding partner (unless your vet has told you to keep them apart). This should help your rabbit to stay calm and relaxed.
- Make sure your rabbit is warm enough (though not overheated). 60-70 degrees F is the best temperature for most rabbits. If your rabbit usually lives outdoors, bring them indoors until fully recovered.
- Limit household noise as much as possible. Anything that stresses your rabbit will delay recovery.
- Gentle massage may be helpful – if recommended by your vet. If your rabbit appears tired or distressed, stop the massage. Rabbits need plenty of quiet time while recovering.
How Long Does GI Stasis Last in Rabbits?
GI stasis can last for a few days up to several weeks. It depends on how severe it is, how early it was caught, and what type of treatment has been provided.
If your rabbit is prescribed motility drugs, it will usually be 1-2 weeks before the intestines return to normal functioning.
You’ll know your rabbit is returning to good health when their tummy gurgles gently. This suggests the gas has been removed from the belly. It may take a further week for bowel movements to return to normal.
Stay in close contact with your vet during the recovery period, and report anything concerning. It’s not uncommon for rabbits to experience recurrent bouts of GI stasis. So, the most important thing to do now is to prevent GI stasis from returning.
How to Prevent GI Stasis in Rabbits
The leading causes of GI stasis are diet, stress, and dehydration. This is good to know because these factors can be managed through proper husbandry. So, to keep your rabbit’s gut in tip-top condition, make sure you are providing the following:
- A bale of grass hay that is at least the size of your rabbit (each day)
- Unlimited water
- A small portion of fresh, green veggies and herbs
- A consistent diet – any changes should be made very gradually
- A clean hutch that is disinfected regularly
- A home environment that is largely free from stress. So, predators should be kept at bay and noise should be kept to a minimum
- A bonding partner
- No processed carbohydrates
- Visit the vet if bowel habits or behavior are out-of-the-ordinary
If you provide your rabbit with these basics, this should protect against GI stasis and other digestive problems.
Is GI Stasis in Rabbits Contagious?
GI stasis cannot spread between rabbits. On the contrary, keeping rabbits together can help to support recovery.
Some underlying causes of GI stasis can be contagious. For example, rabbit snuffles can sometimes cause GI stasis.
Though the GI stasis itself is not contagious, rabbit snuffles are highly contagious. So, if your rabbit is diagnosed with an underlying disease, this may be transmissible to other pets.
How Common is GI Stasis in Rabbits?
Unfortunately, GI stasis is quite common in rabbits. According to Veterinary Record, 25% of domestic rabbits developed GI stasis (between 2008 and 2013).
Many of these cases were probably caused by a poor diet. Indeed, until a few years ago, it was common for pet owners to feed their rabbit muesli. Muesli is high in carbohydrate and relatively low in fiber, and we now know that it is bad for rabbit digestion.
Thankfully, most rabbit owners now feed their rabbits a species-appropriate diet, such as hay and green veggies. So, we may find that over the next few years, fewer rabbits are diagnosed with GI stasis.
It’s good to know that improving your rabbit’s diet could have a huge impact on their health.
Other Digestive Disorders in Rabbits
Enteritis is an inflammation or infection of the intestines. It has various causes, but one of the most common causes is parasites. If your rabbit’s stools are covered in a yellow mucus, this indicates enteritis. This condition is very serious and must be treated immediately.
The second digestive disorder is acute gastrointestinal dilation. This is when the stomach dilates (bloats). According to Wabbit Wiki, it is slightly different from GI stasis because diet, stress, or underlying pain disorders do not play a role. Instead, the bloat tends to be caused by an obstruction in the GI tract.
Preventing Digestive Disorders in Rabbits
If you suspect your rabbit has any type of digestive disorder, you must act fast. Rabbits cannot ‘shake off’ digestive problems in the same way that humans can. While there are human foods that are safe for rabbits, they should be fed to your pet in moderation.
Rabbits rely on large quantities of high-fiber food to stay healthy. Also, to get the nutrients they need, rabbits need to produce and consume cecotropes. So, if your rabbit cannot eat and/or poop, the situation will quickly become life-threatening.
So, treat rabbit digestive disorders with the seriousness they deserve. In the long term, this means feeding your rabbit the correct diet and keeping stress to a minimum.