Rabbits have quite unique intestines. The health of their intestines is critical to the health of the rabbit. If the intestines slow down and stop working (gut stasis), death can follow if not treated quickly.
Rabbits have a special pacemaker in their intestines which controls their movement. This requires lots of long fibre such as hay and grass to keep it working properly. The pacemaker can be affected by a change in diet, by pain or stress, or medications such as anaesthetics.
Signs of gut stasis
- Reduced appetite, or stopping eating altogether
- Smaller, harder and fewer faecal pellets than normal, or none being produced at all
- Grinding teeth (Bruxism) – this is a sign of pain
- Distended abdomen (in some cases)
What should I do if my rabbit has gut stasis?
The first step is to get them to the vet’s as soon as possible.
The vet will need to assess the rabbit to make sure there is no intestinal obstruction (this will require emergency surgery). To do this, your vet may need to do some additional tests, such as:
- Blood sample to check glucose level – this is not conclusive either way but can give an indication
- X-ray of the abdomen
If there is no evidence of an obstruction, treatment for gut stasis can be started. There may be an underlying cause for the problem so this should be investigated alongside treatment. Anything which causes pain can lead to gut stasis. Dental disease is the most common.
How is gut stasis treated?
If gut stasis is caught very early, management at home with medication is possible. However in more severe cases, hospitalisation for treatment is better. Make sure that your veterinary surgery has facilities to hospitalise rabbits away from dogs as the stress of being in close proximity of dogs may delay recovery.
There are four main components to gut stasis treatment: fluids, pain relief, pro-kinetic medication and feeding.
Rabbits in gut stasis are always dehydrated. Dehydration will cause the contents of the intestines to become hard and paste-like and make it difficult for the gut to start moving again. Depending on the severity of dehydration, fluids can be given:
- intravenously – the best way to get fluid to the right places, however as the rabbit starts feeling better they may not tolerate an intravenous fluid line.
- subcutaneously – injecting the fluid under the skin. The fluid gets absorbed fairly slowly.
- orally – oral rehydration with a product like Bio-Lapis syringed into the mouth or offered for the rabbit to drink voluntarily is suitable on its own in very mildly dehydrated rabbits.
Gut stasis is often caused by pain and it is, in itself, a painful condition. Pain relief is therefore a key part of managing a rabbit in gut stasis and your vet will prescribe the most appropriate for your rabbit. There are normally two different pain relief medications given:
- Opioids – such as buprenorphine, methadone or morphine – are highly effective pain relievers but usually can only be given in hospital
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication – such as meloxicam. This comes in a tasty liquid which is normally very well accepted by rabbits.
This is medication targeted at getting the intestines moving again. They may be given by injection or by mouth, depending on the severity of the problem.
The most common medications given are:
- ranitidine – this works mainly on the part of the intestines nearest the stomach
- metoclopramide – this works mainly on the lower part of the intestines
- cisapride – this is a very effective medication but is not as easily available as the other to and may be too strong in mild cases
Getting food back into the rabbit as soon as possible is really important. This should ideally have some long fibre to stimulate the intestinal pace-maker. You can tempt your rabbit with treats such as dandelion leaves.
If your rabbit won’t eat voluntarily, syringe feeding will be needed. To do this you will need a special wide-end syringe to fit the food through and a special powder designed for syringe feeding rabbits. The powder is mixed with the recommended amount of water and then fed. An average 2kg rabbit should ideally have about 20ml of this 4 times a day. If your rabbit won’t tolerate this volume in one go, smaller amounts more frequently will be needed.
How long does gut stasis need treatment for?
Treatment should be continued until normal quantities and size of faecal pellets are being passed and your rabbit is eating voluntarily again. This can take from 24 hours to several days. Any underlying problems need to be discovered and treated as well. If you are treating your rabbit at home, you should take them to the vet daily until they are improving to make sure that the stomach is not filling up with food and fluid.
How can gut stasis be prevented?
Feeding a good quality diet with plenty of hay and long fibre is key.
Monitoring your rabbit for any sign of pain or discomfort, and regular check-ups by your vet to detect signs of problems before they lead to gut stasis.
Some rabbits are particularly prone to gut stasis. In these cases your rabbit may need to be on long-term prokinetics, or your vet may prescribe some medication to be used quickly if early signs of stasis develop.