what causes rabbits to have diarrhea?
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What Gives Rabbits Diarrhea? (Runny Stools)

There are a number of things that can trigger diarrhea in rabbits. Everything from stress, to improper diet, to certain types of medicine can cause a rabbit gastrointestinal upset. Unfortunately, getting to the bottom of the issue requires fast action as diarrhea can be fatal for rabbits, especially for young kits.

Diarrhea in rabbits must be distinguished from unformed cecotropes. Diarrhea is watery feces, but unformed cecotropes are dark puddles of odorous feces that may have been squished into the floor or fur. Unformed cecotropes are easily mistaken for diarrhea, and are often caused by unbalanced diets, stress, a lack of exercise, and indigestible matter collecting in the cecum. True diarrhea usually is a symptom of a more serious illness such as an E. coli infection, bacterial enteritis, a parasitic infection, or mucoid enteropathy.

Diarrheademands quick action. In young kits, diarrhea can cause death in hours. Vet clinics that specialize in small mammals will likely prescribe medicinal treatment and supportive therapies for recovery. This will involve ensuring that the rabbit remains hydrated and calm. Preventing diarrhea centers around providing a balanced diet, staying up to date with worming, and proper cleaning and maintenance of its enclosure.

What Causes Rabbits To Have Diarrhea?

A sudden change in diet is only rarely the sole cause of a rabbit having watery stools. Diet changes can cause intestinal upset, but this usually resolves as an internal impaction, a blockage of the intestinal tract, or unformed cecotropes. Diarrhea is often a symptom of a more serious underlying issue.

A change in diet, or an improper diet, can cause soft or runny stools. This is not true diarrhea, however. These are unformed cecotropes, which are the second kind of feces that rabbits pass.

Gastrointestinal Problems

As herbivores, rabbits have a very specific set of gut microflora for breaking down food. Certain antibiotics can upset this delicate environment by killing off these microflora. In their place, harmful bacteria grow out of control. This results in diarrhea.

It is often recommended that owners seek out vet clinics that specialize, or have a specialist on staff, learned in treating small mammals. A specialist will know what medicines are safe to use on rabbits, and what ones should be avoided unless there is no other choice.

A few of the antibiotics to avoid are penicillin, ampicillin, erythromycin, and clindamycin. There are more, and all can cause diarrhea. Should you currently be treating your rabbit with an antibiotic and it develops diarrhea, stop treatment and immediately call your vet.

Mucoid Enteropathy

The Canadian Veterinary Journal notes that mucoid enteropathy is a bacterial disease that largely affects young rabbits between 7-10 weeks of age. This infection affects the intestines and causes an excessive amount of mucous production. Often causing uncomfortable bloating, mucous-laden diarrhea, and the intestines to fill with jelly-like liquid. It can easily be fatal.

The cause for mucoid enteropathy has not been determined. The running theory, as suggested in the Journal of Exotic Pet Medicine, is that an improper diet is the primary cause. Issues that arise due to an improper diet, such as impaction or an imbalance of gut bacteria, are suspected as the second catalyst.

what food gives rabbits diarrhea?

Internal Parasites

There are many internal parasites that rabbits can be afflicted with. Diarrhea is a symptom of two:  pinworms and eimeria.

Pinworms will affect young rabbits more severely than older rabbits. Largely, due to younger rabbits not having established microflora in the gut to combat infestations. This allows pinworms to more easily infect and reproduce in the rabbit’s intestine. Pinworms can be quite dangerous to young rabbits, as alongside diarrhea they cause anorexia and weight loss.

Pinworm infections begin when a rabbit ingests contaminated feces. Treating pinworms can be difficult, as rabbits often re-infect themselves through coprophagy. A vet will prescribe an anti-parasitic treatment to kill the little critters off. This, alongside extremely diligent and thorough cleaning of the hutch, will eliminate pinworm infections.

Of the 16 species of eimeria parasite, only eimeria stiedae causes diarrhea. This protozoal parasite infects the liver, unlike the rest of the eimeria family which lives in the intestine. A rabbit infected with this parasite will develop hepatic coccidiosis, a symptom of which is diarrhea. Untreated, this condition will cause the rabbit’s health to deteriorate, and potentially die.

Chemotherapeutic treatments will be prescribed to remove the parasite. Much like with other parasites, hutches and enclosures will need to be rigorously cleaned.

Escherichia Coli

You may be more familiar with the shortened name for Escherichia coli: E. coli. This bacteria can infect rabbits and cause, as said in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology, profuse watery diarrhea. These stools can contain mucous or blood.

There is no treatment for an Escherichia coli infection. Depending on the severity of the infection, supportive therapies may be applied. Largely, these will focus on keeping the rabbit hydrated and comfortable.

Bacterial Enteritis

Sadly, bacterial enteritis is common in rabbits that are weaned too young. A young rabbit should not be taken away from its mother until it is 8 weeks old. Or older. Baby rabbits, or kits, have a sterile intestinal environment until they begin to eat solid foods at around 4 weeks of age.

The antibodies naturally occurring in the mother rabbit’s milk allow the baby rabbits to slowly develop healthy gut microflora during the weaning process. Antibodies also ward off the more harmful microorganisms ingested alongside food.

A rabbit weaned too young can very easily develop an intestinal issue. A likely form of which is bacterial enteritis. This is a bacterial overgrowth in the gut and causes inflammation of the intestinal lining, resulting in diarrhea. In young rabbits, diarrhea can become fatal.

It is best to avoid buying a rabbit that was weaned too early. Not only is it illegal to sell rabbits younger than 8 weeks of age, although many do, it is almost certain that this rabbit will develop an intestinal issue like bacterial enteritis.

As the kit was taken from its mother before its gut microflora was properly established, it is vulnerable to harmful bacteria. Seek out reputable breeders if you want to add a young rabbit to your family, or get in touch with a shelter or rescue group.

Is It Normal for Rabbits To Have Diarrhea?

It is not normal for rabbits to have diarrhea. Diarrhea is usually a sign that there is a serious health issue affecting your rabbit. Diarrhea itself can be deadly, too, as it causes severe dehydration.

Diarrhea vs. Cecotropes

It is important to distinguish true diarrhea in rabbits from cecotropes. Diarrhea is watery stool. Cecotropes are clumps of shiny, dark, sticky, and soft stools. Unlike diarrhea, cecotropes are a perfectly normal and healthy bowel movement. Rabbits actually pass two types of stool, the round pellets you should already be familiar with, and the dark cecotropes. You may not be familiar with these, and here’s why.

Rabbits practice coprophagy, which is when an animal eats feces. Either its own or those of other animals. A rabbit will eat its down stool when said stools are cecotropes. As stated in Nature, rabbits will pass this type of stool (usually) during the night and consume it immediately. Meaning that owners shouldn’t ever see cecotropes in the enclosure.

Consuming cecotropes allows the rabbit to extract as many nutrients as possible from its food. If you do find cecotropes during the day, it means that the rabbit is no longer eating them. This is a cause for concern, as it means that the rabbit could be ill.

Rabbits eat cecotropes whole and directly from the anus. Unformed cecotropes will usually go uneaten.

Unformed Cecotropes

Do not mistake mushy cecotrope stools with true diarrhea. Unformed cecotropes are dark, smelly piles of mush, which may be mashed into the floor or the fur of your rabbit’s rear end and feet. These can mistakenly be labelled as diarrhea by the uninformed.

Cecotropes are produced in the cecum. This is a pouch attached to the small and large intestine. As stated by FEMS Microbiology Letters, the cecum is home to a diverse range of important bacteria and yeast populations – the full extent of which has yet to be described by science.

These bacteria and yeast break down matter that is more difficult for the digestive tract to fully digest. Then, it forms the matter into mucus-coated cecotropes. This mucus protects the beneficial bacteria in the cecotropes until it returns to the intestines, while the organic matter is fully processed and all the nutrients are absorbed. This is how a healthy rabbit cecum functions, as a fermentation chamber.

Many things can upset the cecum. Or, more accurately, upset the delicate microflora inhabiting it. The results of which are often unformed cecotropes, which can be mistaken for true diarrhea. Unformed cecotropes are also called cecal dysbiosis, especially when it is a recurring problem and the rabbit passes firm fecal pellets as normal.

The uneaten cecotropes pressed into the hutch floor or smashed into your rabbit’s fur may also have been fully formed prior to being squished. While a rabbit will not eat unformed cecotropes, it will also refuse to eat normal shaped ones if they are abnormal in smell, taste, or consistency. This is another indication that there is an underlying illness.

Diet

Rabbits can respond poorly to a sudden change in diet, just as poor diets can quickly cause issues to develop.

Fiber is incredibly important for maintaining a rabbit’s overall health. A rabbit should always have access to grass hay – except for alfalfa hay, which is too rich for the daily diet. A rabbit that does not have enough dietary fiber will see its internal system move more sluggishly. This delay in flushing digested food, and its associated bacteria, can greatly upset the microflora in its gut and cecum.

This sluggish internal movement will cause harmful bacteria populations to explode. There are many types of bacteria that can cause diarrhea, some of which we have discussed above.

A rabbit with a particularly sensitive intestine may also develop diarrhea if fed certain types of pellets.

Always be cautious about changing your rabbit’s diet. Should you have recently introduced a new food to your rabbit’s regular diet and it develops diarrhea or soft cecotropes, remove said food from its diet.

Stress

Flighty as rabbits can be, many may not be surprised to learn that stress can cause soft cecotropes.

Stress causes the cecum to become more alkaline. This upsets the microflora in the gut, allowing more harmful bacteria to quickly grow out of control. In itself, such an imbalance can lead to other conditions, such as bacterial infections. These can cause diarrhea. However, stress alone can result in soft cecotropes.

Young, recently weaned rabbits are more susceptible to stress-triggered soft cecotropes. Due to the fragile balance of its developing intestinal microflora, young rabbits can also develop true diarrhea if continuously stressed. Stress in rabbits can be caused by any number of things, including:

  • Environmental factors (noises, smells, other animals)
  • Pain and discomfort
  • Territorial rabbits in the household
  • Being moved to a new environment
  • Improper enclosures

Non-Organic Matter Ingestion

Usually, when a rabbit ingests very small amounts of non-organic matter it will pass through its system without issue. At times, though, this matter can accumulate in its intestinal tract. Namely, in the cecum. This matter could be carpet fibers, cat litter, or straw.

As this matter collects in the cecum, it can cause either impaction or cecal dysbiosis. Treatment may involve surgery.

Lack of Exercise

A lack of exercise can cause cecal dysbiosis due to health issues that arise secondary to poor physical activity, including obesity and muscular, skeletal, or neurologic disorders.

Vet Record notes that obesity is linked with a number of health disorders. As it turns out, soft cecotropes can be caused by obesity as well.

Talking the rabbit for a walk around the block may not be a possibility. There are other ways to get your rabbit to exercise, though. Even simply letting it follow you around the house or play with its toys is good!

What Foods Give Rabbits Diarrhea?

Rabbits are strict herbivores. However, there are still many plants, fruits, and vegetables that will upset your rabbit’s digestive system or gastrointestinal tract. Over-feeding some foods that are safe for rabbit consumption can also do this.

Certain foods can also be toxic. Diarrhea itself is usually a symptom of food-induced toxicity and internal upset. Usually, a rabbit will only have diarrhea caused by food when that food is toxic and the body is trying to purge itself of the substance. Diarrhea resulting from poisoning, food or otherwise, is watery and often contains mucous. It may also have an abnormal color and smell.

What Fruits Give Rabbits Diarrhea?

One of the food groups that can safely be fed to rabbits, but will cause gastrointestinal upset if not fed in moderation, is fruit. Fruit is high in natural sugars and starches. Too much of either in the rabbit’s diet can cause diarrhea. So, when it comes to rabbits, there can indeed be too much of a good thing.

Fruit should only be given to a rabbit 1-2 times a week. Serving sizes should not be big either. Consider fruit snacks as a sweet treat for your rabbit. The following fruits are safe for rabbits to eat, but can cause diarrhea if fed too much!

  • Bananas
  • Grapes
  • Papayas
  • Pears
  • Pineapples
  • Plums
  • Strawberries
  • Raspberries
  • Apples (seedless and stemless only)
  • Oranges
  • Cherries

As much as your doctor will encourage you to eat a healthy, balanced diet with 2 servings of fruit per day, your rabbit does not need the same.

What Vegetables Give Rabbits Diarrhea?

Rabbits have evolved to live strictly off of grass hay and herbs. Including vegetables in a rabbit’s diet though has many benefits, and rabbits seem to love eating a plate of fresh vegetables.

A cup of vegetables every day is okay. Keep in mind that not all vegetables can be fed daily. Some can cause impaction and diarrhea or unformed cecotropes. Vegetables that can be fed daily include:

Vegetables that should be fed no more than once a week include:

  • Clover
  • Carrots
  • Broccoli (stems and leaves only)
  • Kale
  • Spinach

All of that said, it is still important for a rabbit’s diet to be around 90% grass hay. Feeding a rabbit more than the recommended amount of vegetables can cause diarrhea.

Runny stools in rabbits

Can Rabbits Die from Diarrhea?

Diarrhea is dangerous if left untreated. Not only because it is usually a symptom of a more serious illness, but because diarrhea causes severe dehydration. Diarrhea in young rabbits is considered life-threatening, to the point where death can occur in a matter of hours.

For this reason, it is highly recommended that you contact a vet immediately if your rabbit has diarrhea, especially if the rabbit is young or if any of the below symptoms are also present:

  • Tooth grinding
  • Shivering
  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Bloating
  • Dirty bottom
  • Shivering
  • Hunched position
  • Lethargy
  • Hiding more than usual

Collecting a sample of the diarrhea will be helpful for your vet. They will more easily be able to diagnose the problem with a stool sample.

What To Feed Rabbits with Diarrhea?

It is important to be careful with any changes to a rabbit’s diet. Equally, you should also be hesitant to treat true diarrhea without first consulting a vet. Depending on the cause of the diarrhea, a change in diet may do more harm than good.

There are some food items that you can offer your rabbit that may help it recover from diarrhea. This includes:

  • Dill, which stimulates the appetite
  • Oregano leaves, which promote digestive tract heath and help against bacterial infections of the intestine
  • Thyme, which stimulates the appetite, helps against bacterial infections and assists with gas in the intestine
  • Blueberries, which help with stopping diarrhea
  • Strawberries, which are good for digestive tract health
  • Carrot, which helps with lessening the diarrhea
  • Apple, which in small amounts can help with diarrhea

Vitally, you must ensure that your rabbit has plenty of fresh water. True diarrhea can quickly result in severe dehydration, which is deadly.

How Do I Stop My Rabbit from Having Diarrhea?

There are several steps that you can take to prevent your rabbit from developing both true diarrhea and cecal dysbiosis. The first step is to ensure that your rabbit’s diet is both high quality and nutritionally balanced.

Provide it with good rabbit food and plenty of grass hay every day, and go easy on vegetables and treats. This doesn’t mean that the occasional treat can’t be offered. There are plenty of little snacks that you can treat your rabbit to, just do so in moderation.

The next step is two-fold. Pair regular and thorough cleaning the rabbit’s hutch and enclosure with worming treatments. This prevents the rabbit from being infected with worms and other parasites. On top of this, ensure that your rabbit’s hutch and environment are as stress free as possible.

Rabbits are flighty prey animals, and stress can alter internal pH levels to the point where diarrhea is triggered. Preventing diarrhea also involves finding a vet clinic that specializes in small mammals. Otherwise, ensure that the vet knows what antibiotics are safe for rabbits.

Preventing diarrhea, both true and not, in rabbits really comes down to proper animal ownership. With the right diet and care, the chances of a rabbit developing diarrhea is slim. Much the same can be said for unformed cecotropes, which are symptomatic of a variety of issues. As always, if your rabbit is having health issues, we recommend getting it to a vet.