Rabbits - Problems
Rabbits have several unique problems; understanding these problems will allow you to better care for your pet and minimize future health care problems.
Diarrhea / Mucoid Enteropathy
Diarrhea is often seen in rabbits and it can be life threatening if not managed properly. Diarrhea is a symptom, and it can have multiple causes such as incorrect diet (too high in carbohydrates, too low in fiber, or rapid diet changes), bacterial or viral infections, inappropriate use of oral drugs (certain antibiotics), toxins, parasites chronic disease or secondary to another illness. Sometimes, it can be challenging to determine the cause. Rabbits eating a diet that is too high in carbohydrates (pellets or alfalfa hay) are more prone to develop intestinal problems than rabbits eating a high fiber (grass hay) diet.
"To the inexperienced owner or veterinarian, diarrhea can be easily confused with normal cecotropes."
Mucoid enteropathy is a diarrheal disease of young rabbits that can be fatal. The diarrhea has a mucoid or gelatinous consistency. Again, proper diet is critical for prevention.
Treatment for diarrheal conditions of rabbits involves identifying and treating the cause if possible. Specific treatment options may vary among veterinarians, but as a rule, fiber in the diet is increased (often nothing but hay is offered for several weeks). Hospitalization for fluid and vitamin therapy may be necessary in a compromised animal.
To the inexperienced owner or veterinarian, diarrhea can be easily confused with normal cecotropes (see our handout "Rabbits-Cecotropes"). If your rabbit is having loose stools, always consult a veterinarian familiar with rabbits.
Cystic Calculi (Bladder Stones)
Rabbits, like many pets, can develop bladder stones. Signs include anorexia or inappetence, lethargy, weight loss, teeth grinding (pain), urinating frequently, straining to urinate, hunching up to urinate, urine staining around the hind end and blood in the urine. Your veterinarian may be able to palpate (feel) the stones during a physical examination. Radiographs (X-rays) can confirm the diagnosis. Surgical removal of the stones will resolve the problem. Sometimes a stone is not present but an accumulation of crystalline sediment or "sludge" forms in the bladder, causing irritation. To minimize stone recurrence, rabbits that have been eating a diet high in pellets (this may contribute to stone formation) can be weaned onto a diet lower in pellets and higher in grass hay.
Rabbits have sharp nails, and owners are easily scratched when handling their pets. The back feet, which are the most powerful, are usually the culprits. Scratches to owners most commonly occur when picking up the rabbit or placing the rabbit back into its cage or down onto the floor. Supporting the rear end of the rabbit during the entire lifting, carrying, and replacing regimen will usually minimize the problem. Periodic nail trimming (have your doctor show you the proper technique) is important. RABBITS SHOULD NOT BE DECLAWED!
Antibiotic Induced Toxicity
"If your rabbit develops diarrhea while being treated with any medication, STOP the medication and call your veterinarian at once."
Certain antibiotics such as penicillin, ampicillin, amoxicillin, lincomycin, erythromycin, cephalosporin or clindamycin, should never be given orally to rabbits. These antibiotics suppress the normal, "healthy" bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract and allow the "bad" bacteria to grow and take over, leading to severe diarrhea and the release of toxins into the body. Antibiotic induced toxicity is one reason to make sure that your veterinarian is properly trained to treat pet rabbits. Feel free to discuss any concerns you have with your veterinarian about antibiotics for your pet. Moreover, if your rabbit develops diarrhea while being treated with any medication, STOP the medication and call your veterinarian at once!
Rabbits engage in coprophagy, which means they eat their own feces. This occurs at night, and these fecal pellets are different from the ones normally excreted and seen by the owners. They are called cecotropes, cecal droppings, nocturnal droppings or night droppings. They are usually small, soft or pasty, darker in color, and have a strong fermented or sweet smell. These pellets serve as a rich source of nutrients for the rabbit, specifically protein and vitamins B & K. Most owners never observe this behavior as it happens in the early hours of the morning. If you do, remember that it is normal and necessary for the health of your rabbit. Don't confuse cecotropes with diarrhea.
Rabbits tolerate cold better than heat and are very sensitive to heat stroke. It is critical to keep their environmental temperature at or below 80°F (26°C) and make sure their "house" is well ventilated. Rabbits have been known to get heat stroke on a hot day or in the car on the way to the veterinarian. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and must be managed properly by a veterinarian.
Hairballs (trichobezoars) are relatively common in rabbits. Like cats and ferrets, rabbits are very clean animals and are fastidious groomers. During the grooming procedure, a rabbit may swallow a lot of hair; in time the accumulated hair may form a tight mass or hairball in the stomach. Rabbits can't vomit, so if the hair does not pass through the stomach and intestinal tract, it will cause an obstruction. Hairballs are so common in rabbits that they should always be considered as a problem in any rabbit that is lethargic and not eating. Diagnosis can be made by history, physical examination including palpation of the abdomen, and x-rays of the stomach. If the owner is sure the rabbit has not eaten within 24 hours and the radiographs reveal food in the stomach, it is extremely likely that something is causing an obstruction; that obstruction is often a hairball. Sometimes, the diagnosis is only made during exploratory surgery.
"Rabbits can't vomit"
Rabbits that chew and eat rugs, towels, or other material may also get a rug/fiber mass accumulation in the stomach and show the same symptoms. Regular grooming, a proper high fiber diet and removing the rug or other chewed item can greatly minimize the chances of hairballs or "rug balls" developing.