GI Stasis in Rabbits
This article is written by our qualified in-house veterinarian, Dr Carla Paszkowski BVSc.
Gastrointestinal stasis is a fairly common problem for pet rabbits, yet many rabbit owners have never even heard of it. Also called gut stasis or ileus, the condition is painful, dangerous, and can quickly become life-threatening.
Every rabbit owner should equip themselves with the appropriate knowledge so you can recognise the signs and symptoms of GI stasis, and know how to prevent this awful condition from affecting your bunny!
What is GI Stasis?
GI stasis is just as it sounds; the gastrointestinal tract slows down and stops moving completely, instead of passing ingesta through continually like it should. The lack of movement leads to the growth and proliferation of harmful bacteria such as Clostridium species, which release gas, leading to bloating and pain.
All of this contributes to your rabbit feeling ill, sore, and not interested in their food or water. Of course not eating or drinking only makes matters worse, as the rabbit becomes dehydrated and depleted of nutrients. The dehydration causes the gut contents to become dryer and more difficult to move, leading to only more pain and inappetence. It's quite the viscious circle!
The situation can become deadly when the Clostridium species bacteria release toxins and overwhelm the liver, leading to blood poisoning.
Rabbits are at risk of developing gastric ulcers if they don't eat for extended periods of time. They need a constant supply of roughage, which means that even seemingly short periods of inappetance can be dangerous.
It's important to remember that gastrointestinal stasis is a symptom of an underlying condition rather than a primary condition in itself. The presence of GI stasis means that there is something else going on - such as stress, pain, or a poor diet - which also needs to be addressed and remedied.
What Causes GI Stasis in Rabbits?
- A diet low in fibre and high in starch (such as a pelleted diet with no grass or hay)
- Stress - such as from losing a mate or a change in environment
- Inactivity or lack of exercise
- Pain from underlying issues, such as dental disease or urinary disease
- An intestinal blockage such as a foreign body or hairball (however hairballs are usually a result of GI stasis, rather than a cause)
What are the symptoms of GI Stasis?
Always keep an eye out for the following 'red flag' signs:
- Small (or no) faecal pellets
- Sticky faecal pellets which cling to the fur around the backside, sometimes with yellow mucus (indicating possible enteritis)
- Lethargy and lack of activity
- Reduced appetite
- Hunched, painful posture
- Tooth grinding
- Abnormal, or absent abdominal noises (it can help to invest in a cheap stethoscope)
How is GI stasis treated?
If you notice any of the above signs, take your rabbit straight to a rabbit-savvy veterinarian.
In mild cases, mechanical treatments such as gentle abdominal massages with the hind quarters raised can help stimulate motility. A warm water enema using a soft rubber tube can also help.
However in most cases, depending on the severity of their condition, your rabbit will usually require:
Motility medication such as cisapride to get the guts moving again
An intravenous drip to replenish fluids, increase overall hydration and in turn soften intestinal masses
Pain relief to appease the discomfort from gas and bloating
Antibiotics to reduce the harmful bacterial overgrowth (Clostridium species)
Syringe feeding of a critical care solution
Throughout the entire process, it is also important to keep stress in mind as it can significantly impede recovery. Anything you can do to keep stress at a minimum is a must.
This means that handling should be kept to a minimum, and they shouldn't be separated from their bonded mate. Your rabbit shouldn't spend any more time in hospital than absolutely necessary, so try not to take them back into the vet hospital any more frequently than you really need to.
Remember to be patient and persistent, as gut motility can take a couple of weeks to return to normal again. Try to resist the temptation to increase the speed or aggression of treatment if you start to see improvement - steady does it!
How to Prevent GI Stasis
As with most diseases, prevention is so much easier than treatment! There are plenty of ways to reduce the risk of GI stasis, and most of it comes down to a good diet and proper husbandry practices.
1. A proper diet high in fibre.
Rabbits should be maintained on a grass / hay-based diet, as fibre is necessary to keep their digestive system moving. Grass and hay also help grind down your rabbit's teeth, preventing painful overgrowth. We recommend a diet which is 80% hay or grass, and no more than 15% pellets and 5% fruit, veggies, and treats.
2. Ensure they have enough living space.
Rabbits require plenty of room to move about, play, run, and exercise. A life spent in a cage is nowhere near suitable; in fact it's unacceptably cruel, akin to keeping a cat or a dog caged. Rabbits do best when they are included in family life and given free range of the house or backyard, with access to a cage only as a means of voluntary shelter or temporary enclosure (similar to a kennel for a dog). If you live in an apartment, you can keep your rabbit indoors-only (just like a cat!) by simply teaching them to use a litter tray.
3. Provide outlets for exercise.
Rabbits have unique personalities and some are more playful than others. Encourage your rabbit to play by providing plenty of toys. Many enjoy playing with toys that can be batted or thrown around around such as a ball.
4. Be mindful of stress.
You will never be able to keep your home completely stress-free, but you should always be mindful of certain activities and take measures to reduce their impact on your floppy-eared friend. Events that rabbits find stressful include having visitors over, being rough-handled by children or new people, moving house, a change in environment, the loss of a bonded mate, or general disruptive behaviours (such as loud construction work). Try placing them in a safe, quiet room if you have visitors over, and always supervise children around your rabbit.
5. Keep up with regular veterinary checks
Because GI stasis is often secondary to other conditions such as dental pain or urinary disease, it's important to ensure that none of these issues are creeping up on you. Early detection is key. Regular vet checks will help to ensure that your rabbit's teeth, skin and ears, and overall health are in good shape.
Gastrointestinal stasis is a horrid condition for pet rabbits, but it really is easy to prevent. Always make sure your rabbit's diet consists of at least 80% hay or grass to provide the high-fibre diet they need. Remember to be concious of your rabbit's stress in all home activities, and do what you can to reduce anxiety. And of course, always provide ample living space and exercise for your bunny.
Don't forget that while GI stasis does need to be corrected, it is usually a symptom of an underlying issue such as stress or pain. If the underlying issue isn't corrected, you run the risk of GI stasis occuring again.