Many long time rabbit owners have experienced situations when their rabbits stop eating, produce extremely small or no fecal droppings, and become inactive and act depressed. Some of these cases progress and worsen to the point the rabbit experiences abdominal bloating and possibly diarrhea.
These rabbits quickly become lethargic, hunched over and may even grind their teeth as a sign of being in pain. These are classic symptoms for Gastrointestinal (GI) stasis where the normal muscular contractions of the stomach and intestines are greatly diminished and the normal intestinal/cecum bacterial flora is thrown off balance. Without medical attention this syndrome can result in a serious, life-threatening illness.
So what causes GI stasis? Several factors can be involved including environmental stressors, pain from another underlying condition such as dental/tooth points or spurs, intestinal blockage from foreign body ingestion, and most commonly lack of crude fiber in the diet. Grass hay is the most common form of crude fiber for the rabbit and if lacking in the diet can predispose to GI stasis. Making sure the rabbit has unlimited quantities of timothy or other grass hay all the time is the best way to prevent this syndrome from occurring.
Another cause of stasis is known as having a hairball. Rabbits may ingest various quantities of hair through normal grooming. If the bunny is consuming inadequate quantities of hay and the stomach wall is not contracting, this hair doesn't move through the intestines and can form a thick matt of wadded fur. This wad of hair can cause a blockage where food cannot get around. A large enough hairball may give the rabbit the feeling of a full stomach. With time the rabbit's dietary balance is off and the healthy bacteria normally found in the intestines begins to change and be replaced by abnormal gas-producing bacteria which start to produce excess gas within the intestines (bloat). Anyone who has experienced significant amounts of intestinal gas can testify to how painful this is. The bunny, that is already nutritionally compromised because its appetite is diminished, can become very sick within a short period of time.
How can GI stasis be treated? As with most medical conditions, the sooner the problem is recognized and treated the better the chance for full recovery and survival. Your rabbit veterinarian will institute a variety of treatment measures depending on the severity of the condition. These may include:
This list of therapeutic options is not all inclusive and rabbit veterinarians have other treatment protocols they can call upon if a sick bunny isn't responding. The bottom line to this serious syndrome is to seek veterinary treatment early in the course of the disease and to try and prevent GI stasis through proper nutrition (a diet made up of primarily grass hay, moderate vegetables and limited pellets) and keeping environmental stress to a minimum. The road to recovery can be slow – up to 2-3 weeks for some bunnies to return to near normal – so an ounce of patience needs to be added to the treatment protocol. With early and appropriate treatment, most bunnies will return to full health.
The typical diet for the house rabbit includes free choice grass hay (timothy hay is preferred by most and should be available around the clock), 2 tablespoon to 1/3cup of timothy-based pellets per day, and a cup of fresh leafy greens. Avoid high carbohydrate snacks and treats—Please! The rabbit may like them but their gastrointestinal tract doesn't! In fact, the number one reason for soft stools is feeding an inappropriate diet.