Updated: September 23, 2014
Gastrointestinal hypomotility and gastric stasis is an extremely common condition in rabbits. In fact, it is one of the most common reasons rabbits go to veterinarian and veterinary emergency clinics.
Hypomotility is defined as a decrease in the contractions in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract (the “gut”). Stasis refers to little to no movement in the GI tract. Both can lead to severe life-threatening complications, and generally are simply referred to as “GI Stasis”.
Gastrointestinal hypomotility and gastric stasis in rabbits is most common in middle aged to older rabbits but can be seen in any age, sex, or breed rabbit.
GI Stasis is often associated with inappropriate diets and feeding regimens, specifically overfeeding of pelleted foods, foods with a high carbohydrate content (grains, sweets) and lack adequate indigestible fibrous foods, particularly hay. Rabbits with GI Stasis commonly have diets that lack adequate hay, are being fed primarily commercial pellet diets, are fed too many sweet foods, or are fed too many cereals such as crackers, breakfast cereals. Inappropriate diet is a major cause of GI stasis because a rabbit’s intestinal tract is different than other pet mammals. Rabbits can digest foods like hay and grasses that we (and our dogs and cats) cannot. This is because rabbits have a specialized area of the intestinal tract, the cecum, which digests these grasses for them. The cecum acts as a fermentation vat, fermenting indigestible grass and hay in to digestible food for the rabbit. In fact, approximately 60% of a rabbit’s nutrients come from the cecum. To digest hay, the cecum relies on a complex balance of bacteria. If not enough hay and/or too many carbohydrates go into the cecum, the bacteria die off, and toxin-forming or gas-producing bacteria overgrow. The toxins slow down the intestines, causing GI Stasis. This is often accompanied by painful gas. Painful rabbits don’t eat, so the bacteria in the cecum are no longer being fed, leading to more gas and toxin-forming bacteria growth. This vicious cycle can be fatal if not broken with appropriate treatment.
Anything that causes a rabbit to stop eating will result in GI Stasis. Stress alone can do this in sensitive rabbits. Other factors that make a rabbit not want to eat include dental problems, pain for any reason, liver or kidney malfunction, cancer, toxins, and infections.
Typically, clinical signs of gastrointestinal hypomotility and gastric stasis include loss of appetite or not eating at all. Often rabbits will stop eating pellets and hay but will continue to eat treats. This may gradually be followed by a total lack of appetite. Rabbits that suddenly refuse all foods and are passing no feces may an intestinal obstruction, not GI Stasis. An intestinal obstruction is an immediate, life threatening emergency.
The tests may include the following:
Treatment is symptomatic and aimed at rehydration, medications that stimulate the GI motility and dietary therapy.
Early and aggressive medical care with dietary modification carries a good to excellent prognosis.
Once your rabbit is out of the hospital and back at home, it is important to maintain the treatment protocol regimented by your veterinarian. Good hygiene is very important. Dietary therapy is critical. Provide the diet recommended by your veterinarian, with an emphasis on fresh greens and hay.
Make sure you feed your rabbit a balanced diet of some pellets with lots of fresh greens and hay. Proper digestive tract health requires grasses and high-quality long-stemmed hay. Don’t overfeed any cereal such as bread, breakfast cereals or crackers, sweets or large amounts of fruit. Minimize obesity and encourage routine exercise. Minimize stressful conditions.