Gut Stasis in Rabbits and Guinea Pigs 

LAST UPDATED 31st of January 2022

This article is written by Pet Circle veterinarians, Dr Nicole Wynne BSc BVMS MANZCVS (Unusual Pets) and Dr Emilee Lay BVSc BSc (Vet) Hons

Gut stasis is a commonly misunderstood condition in our exotic pets. While many owners know that inappetance is a medical emergency, the misconception that gut stasis is a disease is common.

Also called gastrointestinal ileus or GI (gastrointestinal) stasis, gut stasis is a syndrome, which is a group of symptoms that are commonly seen together. Because gut stasis is not a disease, there is no one cause for gut stasis, and no one treatment plan that will work for all cases.

 

What is Gut Stasis?


Gut stasis is caused by the gastrointestinal tract’s normal motility slowing down or stopping. Intestines perform peristalsis which is the squeezing motion that moves food through the gastrointestinal tract. When peristalsis slows or stops, the body becomes unable to absorb nutrients and fluid through the gastrointestinal tract. Gas also starts to build up which also contributes to abdominal pain. 

The caecum or hindgut is the fermenting chamber with which rabbits and guinea pigs break down tough plant material. Gut stasis may also contribute to abnormal fermentation. This can lead to more gas buildup, increased dehydration, and toxic byproducts building up. 

If gut stasis stays untreated, serious dehydration, imbalances of electrolytes as well as dysbiosis (disruption to the gut bacteria), pancreatitis (painful inflammation of the pancreas), and gastric ulceration may start to occur. The stomach may start to bloat due to fluid secretion, and this is made even more serious because rabbits and guinea pigs can’t vomit! 

It is vitally important to recognize symptoms of gut stasis and seek veterinary attention immediately. Luckily, most rabbits are very food motivated, especially with treats, and it is easy to notice a lack of enthusiasm during mealtimes. 

 

Symptoms of Gut Stasis 

Symptoms of Gut Stasis can include:

  1. Inappetance, refusing treats, or reduced food intake
  2. Lethargy and sitting in a hunched position
  3. Inability to get comfortable, constantly shifting
  4. Tooth grinding
  5. Reduced or no faecal pellets
  6. Small, dark, and hard faecal pellets

 

Causes of Gut Stasis


Common causes of gut stasis include: 

  1. Pain
  2. Underlying disease like kidney disease or dental disease
  3. Stress
  4. Lack of exercise and space
  5. Dehydration
  6. Inappropriate diet low in fiber or high in carbohydrates

Anything that can make a rabbit feel unwell, pain, stress, an inappropriate diet, dehydration, and a lack of exercise can cause gut stasis. It is very important to ensure that any potential underlying cause is investigated, as gut stasis can sometimes be the first sign of serious chronic illness such as kidney disease or dental disease. It can also be the first sign of viral illness like calicivirus or myxomatosis infection. Remember, gut stasis is not a disease in itself, but a sign that there is something not right. 

Symptoms of gut stasis closely mimic the symptoms of a small intestinal obstruction. 99% of small intestinal obstructions in rabbits are trichobezoars, or hairballs, and these are more common when rabbits in particular, are moulting heavily. A dehydrated rabbit or guinea pig may also develop a small intestinal obstruction due to hardening of the gut contents. 

Your vet may recommend further diagnosis such as blood and urine testing, x-rays, CT (computed tomography) scanning, or an ultrasound to ensure that there is no potential cause that is missed. 

The underlying cause that triggers an episode of gut stasis often remains undiagnosed. This is because environmental stressors can also cause gut stasis. For example, nearby construction may be enough to affect a shy or nervous animal, or the neighbour’s cat may be invading the garden and causing stress. If your pet is a repeat offender, and medical diagnostics have come back as normal, your vet may suggest keeping an event and food diary to see if a pattern shows up. 

 

Treating Gut Stasis



The first step of treatment is always to seek veterinary attention, even if you have medications at home. Some gut stasis medications can be dangerous if given when your animal has a small intestinal obstruction, and these are not always apparent. 

Your vet will likely recommend some quick in-house blood tests to guide treatment. These commonly are a packed cell volume (PCV) and total protein (TP) to assess for anaemia and dehydration, as well as a blood glucose (BG), which helps assess abdominal pain and liver function. 

Treatment always includes rehydration with fluid therapy, and your vet will discuss the pros and cons of intravenous (IV) fluid therapy and subcutaneous (SC) fluid therapy with you. Intravenous fluid therapy delivers an isotonic, sterile infusion via an IV cannula in your rabbit’s ear or leg. For guinea pigs this can be achieved through their leg, or sometimes directly into their bone. This is an excellent way of rehydrating a patient, but can only be delivered safely and effectively in hospital. Subcutaneous fluid therapy delivers a large volume of the same infusion into the subcutaneous space under the skin, where it is slowly absorbed into the bloodstream over the next several hours. This is a less effective method of rehydration, but does not require a hospital stay. 

Pain relief is always used, but the type of pain relief medication will depend on several factors. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, are a common choice, as well as opioid medications. Your vet will determine the best pain relief medications, or combination of, to use. 

Gut motility medications are also useful; however, they are not recommended if an obstruction is suspected. 

Syringe feeding of a “rabbit or guinea pig porridge” is also a cornerstone of treatment, as food intake helps to drive gut motility. 

Preventing Gut Stasis 


Most rabbits and guinea pigs will have 2-3 episodes of gut stasis in their life, but there is plenty we can do to reduce the risk of gut stasis occurring, as well as reducing the severity of episodes. 

  1. HAY, HAY , HAY Make sure that their diet is at least 80% hay. Be aware that when given unlimited pellets and unlimited hay, most rabbits and guinea pigs will choose to eat pellets rather than hay, and so it is important that pellets and greens are limited to encourage hay consumption. Hay should be available all the time.
  2. REGULAR VET CHECKS Keep to your 6 monthly vet visits and vaccinations to ensure that issues are picked up before they become a problem, and to reduce the risk of viral infection. 
  3. ROUTINE TESTING Start doing yearly blood and urine testing in rabbits and pigs above the age of 5 to screen for underlying disease.
  4. EXERCISE Ensure that your rabbit has enough space to exercise and move about. One rabbit should have at least 1m x 1.5m of space. 
  5. REDUCE STRESS Reduce stressful events. Contrary to popular belief, rabbits and guinea pigs do not make good pets for young children, and require careful, gentle handling, a quiet environment, and a consistent routine. 

 

Further Reading

Want to read more? Check out our other articles:

Dental Disease in Your Rabbit

Rabbit Care Guide

Complete Feeding Guide for Pocket Pets

Top Tips to Get Your Pet to Eat More Hay

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Please note that as our vets have not examined your pet, any advice given is general in nature. If you believe your pet is unwell, please seek direct veterinary attention.