Gut stasis in rabbits
Rabbits are a prey species and therefore experts in hiding any signs of illness or weakness that may result in their predation. This instinct still exists in our domestic pets which makes the identification of ailments within our pet bunnies much more challenging. It is therefore crucial that you monitor your bunny very closely for any changes in behaviour, appetite, passage of urine or faeces
What is gut stasis?
A fairly common, potentially life threatening condition affecting bunnies is gut stasis, also known as ileus. This is where the normal, regular, wave like movements of the intestines either slow down or stop all together. Bad bacteria build up within the gastrointestinal tract resulting in distension of the gastrointestinal organs (bloating) making the bunny more reluctant to eat and drink and hence worsening the condition. The affected bunny will become dehydrated and starved of the essential nutrients they require from their food. As the condition progresses any food or faecal material within the intestines will start to dry out becoming firm, impacted and very difficult to pass. This can lead to an obstruction.
What causes gut stasis?
The gastrointestinal tract of rabbits is very delicate and responds acutely to any disease process within the body. Therefore, the cause of the gut stasis hasn’t actually got to be within the guts themselves and can be found in almost any other part of the body. Common causes include:
- Pain from dental infections, sharp spikes (spurs) on the teeth, urinary tract infections or an accumulation of gas within the guts caused by an inadequate diet
- Stress from a change in environment or loss of a partner, or even something like fireworks
- Lack of water
- Lack of exercise
- Mobility problems caused by obesity, arthritis
- Long term use of antibiotics or the use of unsafe antibiotics
- Low fibre, high carbohydrate/fat diet
What are the symptoms of gut stasis?
The initial signs can be quite subtle with your pet maybe sitting quietly, being hunched up or accepting being handled when they are usually quite feisty. Conversely, if your bunny has pain within their belly they may resent being picked up, grunt or grind their teeth. Occasionally you may notice your pet having a larger belly than normal, this indicates bloating of the gastrointestinal organs.
Affected bunnies often have a reduced or absent appetite and thirst, can pass stools which vary from being small, to loose and malformed and in severe cases no stools at all. Urine production can be variable depending on the degree of dehydration that your pet is experiencing, it is typically either normal or reduced.
If your pet shows any of these signs it is an emergency and you must contact your veterinary surgeon immediately.
How is gut stasis treated?
When your pet is brought to a veterinary surgeon they will be given a full ‘head to toe’ examination in order to try and identify any potential causes for the gut stasis. In some cases a cause is never found, however as long as your bunny responds to treatment and makes a full recovery this is not a problem. But you will need to be very vigilant of your pet’s behaviour in case the problem recurs.
Depending on the severity of the stasis your bunny can be treated as an outpatient, may be hospitalised and given special medications to help the motility of their guts or may even require surgery to remove a physical obstruction caused by impacted food, faecal material or even fur balls. A simple way to determine the severity of your pet’s condition is to take a blood sample, usually from a vein in their ear and check the glucose level within the blood. As the severity of the gut stasis increases so does the glucose level, which helps vets decide on the level of care your bunny requires. An x ray may also be taken to try and identify the presence of an obstruction or accumulation of gas.
If it is decided that surgery is not required, typically treatment of gut stasis would include:
- Medications to promote the movement of your bunny’s intestines
- Fluids either injected under the skin or given as a drip into a vein, usually in the ear
- Pain relief to alleviate the discomfort caused by accumulation of gas
- Nutritional support via either a feeding tube into your bunny’s stomach or by encouraging them to eat their favourite foods
Early and aggressive treatment can result in the full recovery of your rabbit, however if an underlying cause is identified it is important that it is addressed otherwise there is a very high risk that your rabbit will develop gut stasis again.
The presence of a physical obstruction within the guts which cannot be treated medically and requires surgery carries a much poorer prognosis, however the vet will discuss all of the options with you at the time of your appointment.
What can I do to prevent stasis?
There are several, simple things that you can do to prevent your rabbit from suffering from gut stasis.
- Ensure your rabbit is receiving a high quality, hay based diet in order to provide them with the fibre they need for a healthy digestive system and also encourage the proper wear of their teeth, thus preventing painful spurs and overgrowths. Speak to your vet for further feeding advice.
- Take your rabbit for regular check ups at their vets so that any underlying health problems, which they may have been hiding, can be identified and treated early.
- Provide an enriched, stress free environment. Rabbits are sociable animals and like companionship, however the sudden introduction or loss of a partner can cause them great stress and upset. It is important that your bunny has sufficient space to run around without feeling threatened by their environment.