Rabbits have a complex gastrointestinal (GI) tract, particularly when compared to other species like dogs and cats. Rabbits’ GI systems are designed to get the maximum amount of nutrients out the foods that they eat. Rabbits also consume some of their faeces (a process known as caecotrophy). This allows them to re-process nutrients that were not absorbed the first time through!

Unfortunately, due to the complexity of their GI system they are prone to developing problems. Many of these are easily treatable however some are life-threatening. This article looks at one of the most serious conditions that rabbits suffer from – gastrointestinal bloat.

What is GI bloat?

Gastrointestinal bloat generally occurs when there is a blockage in the GI tract, most commonly in the early intestine. Rabbits cannot vomit or eructate (burp) effectively meaning that the only way that food (and other items ingested) can leave the stomach is through the intestines. When food is broken down in the stomach, gas and different types of liquid are produced leading to more stomach contents than just the food that was first ingested. When an intestinal blockage occurs, this process keeps continuing leading to the stomach becoming enlarged or bloated. If a blockage occurs in the intestines there is nowhere for the stomach contents to go. This leads to the stomach becoming enlarged or bloated.

In some cases, the stomach can become so enlarged that your rabbit’s whole abdomen looks like there is a large balloon inside of it. As the stomach enlarges, it compresses a number of blood vessels, disrupting the blood supply which can become life-threatening very quickly. The stomach also can get so large that it ruptures.

What causes GI bloat?

In most cases, blockages are caused by a combination of hair and food ingested by the rabbit. This combination forms together into a small ball that is called a trichobezoar. Foreign items can also be ingested by your rabbit – causing blockages.

What are the signs to watch out for?

Rabbits that have a gastrointestinal blockage will generally go from perfectly normal to very sick within a few hours. They won’t want to eat anything, will not be moving much (often sitting in a hunched position) and their abdomen will feel bloated and painful. If your rabbit is showing any of these signs, getting them to your nearest vet as quickly as possible is very important.

Diagnosis

In many cases, your vet will have a fair idea that your rabbit may be bloated from examination and palpating their abdomen. Radiographs (x-rays) are taken to assess severity and treatment options. Taking a blood glucose measurement can also often help to confirm the blockage.

Is it treatable?

This condition is life threatening and in many cases will kill your rabbit if you do not seek veterinary attention promptly. The main options for treatment once at the vet include emergency surgery to relieve the obstruction or high levels of fluid therapy and pain relief (as well as other supportive treatments).

How do I prevent it from occurring?

GI bloat is difficult to prevent completely. Provide a good diet and regularly brush your rabbit to minimize hair ingestion and decrease the risk.

Article written by Dr James Haberfield from The Unusual Pet Vets