Guts - understanding the fundamentals of rabbit health and disease

DVM DipECZM (Small Mammal)

Head of the Exotics Service, Alfort National Veterinary School, Paris, France

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Rabbits have some anatomical similarities with horses concerning their gastro-intestinal anatomy. They are hindgut fermenters with a well-developed cecum, their intestinal flora is fragile, and the conformation of their cardia prevent them from vomiting. Rabbits produce cecotrophs which shouldn’t be mistaken for abnormal stools. Cecotrophs are products of cecal fermentation, rich in vitamins and proteins, and eaten by the rabbit directly from their anus. 

When a rabbit is sick, the first clinical sign that an owner will see is anorexia. Another common symptom is the production of small, hard and dry stools in small quantities. While this symptom in domestic carnivores may be related to difficulty defecating or constipation, in rabbits this is a sign of decreased gastro intestinal tract motility that may lead to ileus. This ileus may be primary (low level of fiber in the diet, trichobezoar or foreign body) or secondary to any pathology causing pain or stress for the rabbit and therefore anorexia. The primary treatment options for ileus are pain medication (opioids) and rehydration, which allow stabilization of the rabbit in order to find the cause of the ileus and treat it. 

It is also common for rabbits to produce abnormal stools. It is important to recognize the difference between soft stools (often inappropriate diet) and true diarrhea which is often the symptom of a bacterial or parasitic enteritis. In addition to etiologic treatments (antibiotic or antiparasitic drugs), the animal should be quickly placed under intra venous crystalloids to prevent dehydration and electrolyte imbalances. 



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