Updated November 29, 2020
‘At A Glance (Details Below)’ Emergency Care
What To Do If A Rabbit Isn’t Eating
- Provide a variety of quality fresh grass hays and leafy greens
- Avoid processed foods, fruits, grains, sugars or lucerne hay
- If the appetite does not improve within 12 hours, or if the rabbit is quieter than usual please see a vet ASAP
Now dive deeper…
Rabbits that stop eating, or even start eating or pooping less are in much more danger than most people think. The most common cause is a disease called Gastrointestinal Stasis, which is the subject of this page.
Before getting to the specifics, other common causes of a poor appetite need mentioning.
Causes Of Rabbits Not Eating
- Renal failure (often caused by lucerne hay)
- Dental problems
- Abscesses and pneumonia
- Liver lobe torsion
- Gastrointestinal obstruction
- Gastrointestinal Stasis
Only a vet can work out the cause. Of special note is the problem telling gut stasis apart from obstruction. Most vets use a combination of blood glucose, body temperature and X-rays.
What Is Gut Stasis?
It takes a very observant bunny owner to spot the early warning signs. One of the most common causes of death in rabbits starts off looking like nothing at all.
- Gut stasis starts with a gradual decrease in appetite over several days
- Then there is a gradual reduction in the number & size of faecal pellets
- Affected rabbits may be hunched, quiet and grinding their teeth
- Death is usually caused by an overgrowth of harmful bacteria such as Clostridium and E. coli
It’s far more likely in rabbits on poor diets, and is often triggered by another problem. This can be dental disease, pain, injury, illness, recent surgery or stress. It can even happen to rabbits on good diets if the trigger is severe enough, like HunnyBunny’s gut stasis story.
What Causes Gut Stasis?
Rabbits are unique and special. They somehow do two opposite things at the same time:
- Get nutrients from low energy sources like grass and plant material
- Use lots of energy to stay active, breed and avoid predators
To be able to do this, they control an amazingly sophisticated gut. However, as anyone knows, ‘sophisticated’ means ‘look after it or it breaks down’. Sadly, many rabbit lovers learn this too late.
The movement of gut contents through this system relies on extremely high fibre levels and low levels of fats, proteins and carbohydrates. If you feed the opposite diet, here’s what can happen:
- Lack of tooth wear causes pain from overgrown teeth
- Rich food causes the wrong sort of bacteria to take over the gut
- Low fibre gut contents start to sludge into a thick residue
- Things slowly grind to a halt. Say hello to gut stasis
How To Treat Gut Stasis
Getting the gut moving is no easy feat and you’ll need a vet to help. However, with appropriate care, a rabbit with GI stasis has a good prognosis.
- Look for, and treat the underlying cause- stress, illness, pain etc
- Rehydrate via intravenous and oral fluids- no gut will start moving when its contents are dehydrated
- Offer assisted feeding to stimulate the gut- we use Oxbow critical care formulas plus leafy greens
- Use pain control unless you’re certain it isn’t needed (who is?!)
- Add pro-kinetics drugs to improve or stimulate gut movement in bunnies that need them
- Use antibiotics when harmful gut bacteria are involved
It’s a fallacy that GI stasis is caused by hairballs but you’ll still read about lubricants, pineapple or papaya enzymes being used. These are usually unnecessary and may even be harmful. Affected rabbits have hairballs due to their gut not moving the hair through properly in the first place.
Please don’t try to massage your rabbit’s belly either without first making sure there isn’t an obstruction.
Recovery From Gut Stasis
Once rabbits start to improve, we need to wean them onto protective diets (see below). In the beginning, highly attractive and tasty foods like leafy greens may be the only thing eaten, and should be offered even when a rabbit is in hospital.
Assisted feeding can continue as long as needed but be careful not to force the issue. If you push too hard your rabbit might actually eat less.
As soon as practical, good quality hay should be offered. It’s worth shopping around to find Timothy hay for these bunnies as it seems more attractive and easier to digest.
Some experts think a lack of exercise may also contribute to gastrointestinal stasis so the more time out of the hutch with you the better.
Lastly, what is a good rabbit diet? It’s certainly not found in rabbit mueslis and pellets.
A Good Rabbit Diet
- High fibre, low carb pellets (maximum ¼ cup)
- Green leafy vegetables (maximum 2 cups)
- Unlimited amounts of good quality hay
- Everything else (like carrots) is a treat
Amounts are for an average 2.3kg bunny
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By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. These help topics are from a series regularly posted on email and Twitter. Subscribe via email here to never miss a story! The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.