November 2021

Never wait until your rabbit is not eating to act. Even if your rabbit is eating well now, learning to recognize the signs of a problem arising before your rabbit stops eating is critical. A rabbit who has stopped eating needs to be seen by a veterinarian emergently

How long can a rabbit go without food? 

If you have rabbits, you know they love to eat. Rabbits as a species are designed to eat and reproduce, then eat some more! They do both very well. However, when a rabbit’s not eating, this is a true emergency. 

Rabbits are prey species. Their digestive tract and body are designed to respond to illness by hiding signs of sickness as long as possible, so other species don’t eat them. This means once your pet stops eating, your rabbit has been sick close to a week or more and has been showing very subtle signs of illness. 

So, how long can a rabbit go without food? Really, they can’t go long at all. An otherwise healthy dog can go 4-5 days without eating. While they may have dehydration and need assistance, dogs don’t develop a shut down of the digestive system or get a fatty liver. However, rabbits basically eat all day long, and if they stop even for a few hours (just 12-24)1, this could lead to grave consequences. 

Rabbit’s diet must-haves

This isn’t an article on diet recommendations but briefly, what a rabbit eats is crucial for their digestive health. In other words, feeding your rabbit a proper diet is key. An appropriate balance of free-choice hay (available all day long) and suitable leafy greens with a few fruits here and there helps keep your rabbit healthy and minimize the risk of illness and, ultimately, of your rabbit not eating.

GI Stasis AKA Ileus 

Regardless of the underlying cause for your rabbit not eating, ileus or stasis results when the digestive tract stops completely. A very commonly seen disease state in small pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, or other herbivores, stasis causes severe dehydration, pain, and eventually death. 

Why is my rabbit not eating so dangerous? 

Any stress (aka illness, disease, or a stressful event) causes a rabbit’s gut to slow down. This leads to a decrease in appetite. This causes changes in the bacteria that normally live in their cecum, a crucial part of their digestive tract. Dehydration follows. Then harmful bacteria and yeast grow, overriding the healthy ones. This leads to GI pain, further slowing down the gut and ultimately leading to liver damage and death.2 This process encompasses the changes in rabbit gastrointestinal syndrome, aka gastrointestinal hypomotility aka ileus or stasis.

What causes your rabbit to stop eating?

Numerous diseases may lead to your rabbit not eating. These include both infectious and non-infectious causes.  

  • Nutritional: Diets too low in fiber can lead to ingestion of inappropriate items
  • Dental disease: 
  • Points on the teeth (due to abnormal wearing of the teeth)
  • Abscessed tooth
  • Abnormal bite (malocclusion)
  • Heat injury – If your pet spends time outdoors, ensure they have protection from extreme weather conditions. Rabbits are extremely prone to heat-related illnesses.
  • Liver lobe torsion (twisting)
  • Fatty liver (hepatic lipidosis)
  • Eye problems such as an ulcer on the cornea
  • Ear infections
  • Skin infections
  • Bladder stones (urolithiasis)
  • Cancer – Uterine cancer in female rabbits and lymphosarcoma, in general, are common.
  • Heart disease
  • Arthritis or other orthopedic (bony) injury
  • Neurologic disease (infectious causes such as a fungal disease, Encephalitozoon cuniculi, or non-infectious causes such as spinal trauma) 
  • Respiratory infections 
  • Other infectious diseases, intestinal and topical parasites – These are more likely if your pet rabbit spends any time outside.
  • Stress – Any change in schedule or routine leads to stress. New people in the home, new pets in the house, or other potentially stressful events could be enough to trigger your rabbit to lose its appetite. 
  • Obesity increases the risk of various illnesses and increases the chance that disease will lead to stasis.
  • Lead toxicity – In homes built before 1978, lead toxicity, though uncommon, can cause illness. 

If your rabbit chews on the woodwork, this can be cause for concern.

Signs that your rabbit may be getting sick

  1. Decreased fecal pellet production – Simply put, if your rabbit has fewer poops from one day to the next, this is the first sign your rabbit may be getting sick. You may see smaller or drier stools as well. While a subtle change, it is often the most overlooked. You want to find out at this stage there is a problem before it becomes a life-threatening illness.5 
  2. Lack of energy (lethargy) – Take note if your rabbit isn’t active, isn’t running around playing like usual, or doesn’t want to come out and greet you. 
  3. Tooth grinding (bruxism) – Rabbits may do this because they have a tooth problem specifically. Still, often it is a non-specific sign of pain in rabbits and could happen with any condition. Do not ignore it. 
  4. Picking up the food only to drop it. This shows a rabbit who may be hungry but likely has a tooth or mouth problem.
  5. “Diarrhea” – This is in quotes because most often, they don’t truly have diarrhea. Instead, owners are usually seeing cecotropes or night feces. These stools are softer, pastier, and greyer in color and are produced at night. They contain vitamins and nutrients. Usually, the rabbit simply eats them as they are produced, but this doesn’t always happen when they are under the weather. You may see a pile of these in the enclosure or feces stuck in the fur. True liquid diarrhea is also an emergency but uncommonly seen.
  6. Hunched posture – They just look uncomfortable or off; they aren’t standing up straight and moving around much. 

A dangerous condition in rabbits, anorexia, or the complete lack of eating, is a late sign of illness. Knowing what signs may occur before your rabbit stops eating could be the difference between life and death.

What steps can you take at home if your rabbit isn’t eating well? 

Start supportive care immediately if you start to notice that your pet’s stool numbers are dwindling or a slight decrease in consumption of a favorite food. You can mix a portion of Oxbow’s herbivore critical care with water and put it in a bowl. Many rabbits will eat it directly. If they aren’t interested, you may need to syringe it to them. See this YouTube video that helps show you how to syringe feed and mix the product together. Once mixed, it is good in the fridge for 24 hours. Mix small amounts up to at a time. 

Please use our veterinary video call option if you need more information on how to feed, how much to feed, or what other support your rabbit may need. You can consult with a veterinarian live over video chat. See below for details.

When should you see a veterinarian? 

If you see any of the above signs such as teeth grinding, or a decreased stool quantity or consistency, or other signs, see an online vet. They may tell you that a physical trip to the vet is needed. The time you see a veterinarian is before your pet stops eating altogether. Even rabbits still eating small amounts should see an online vet or visit a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause and correct it or treat it when feasible.

Treatment at the veterinarian for GI stasis

Regardless of the underlying cause, GI stasis causes pain, dehydration and could kill your pet. If your pet has stopped eating altogether, it is an emergency. You cannot wait until your veterinarian has an opening and you need to go to an emergency room. But call ahead to ensure they are comfortable treating and handling rabbits, as not all vet practices are equipped or staffed with knowledgeable rabbit experts. Make sure they have staff overnight to provide appropriate 24-hour care.

Initial evaluation consists of diagnosing the primary cause of the loss of appetite – a tooth problem, bladder infection or bladder stone, diet imbalances, or other reasons. 

In addition to determining and treating, if possible, the underlying cause for the loss of appetite, supportive care ensues. This consists of pain management, fluid support (IV ideally, under the skin or oral fluids), and nutritional support. Unless an infectious disease is identified, antibiotics are not routinely and should not be routinely given to rabbits. The species is highly sensitive to many of them, and they are not indicated without evidence of infection.

Nutritional supplementation plays a crucial role in rehydration and getting their gut moving again. This includes a supplement such as that made by Oxbow, as discussed above, or other similar veterinary products. The only way for the gut to heal is to start eating! If the original diet was inadequate and possibly triggered the process, proper education on what to feed, how much, and why will be critical to preventing future episodes for your pet.

Steps to prevent your rabbit from losing their appetite

  1. Make sure your rabbit is on a high-quality diet mixed with free-choice timothy hay and a mixture of veggies, especially leafy greens and some fruits. Ensure that the hay they eat is at least 50% of the diet to ensure they get enough fiber for normal gut function.5 Pellets are not recommended, nor are they needed. 

Inappropriate food such as grains (rabbit foods high in carbs and sugars), too much fruit, too low-fiber diets can contribute to a sluggish GI tract.7 

Check back to our site for a future article on appropriate feeding ratios of fruits, vegetables, and hay for your pet rabbit. For hay options for your pet rabbit, feel free to check out this article https://www.petrabbits.org/best-hay-for-rabbits/

  1. Make sure your pet rabbit gets plenty of exercise. Exercise is crucial to keeping the gut moving. Sitting in a cage all day long is insufficient. Let your rabbit out to a larger space for several hours each day. 
  2. Ensure routine annual veterinary visits to assess your pet’s body condition (weight and body fat), teeth health, diet, and overall health. With regular visits, you can hopefully catch problems before they arise. 
  3. Spay and neuter your pet rabbits to prevent cancers and other reproductive diseases or behavioral concerns.
  4. Monitor fecal production daily!!! Clean out the cage regularly but always remove superficial feces daily. This way, you know what normal stool looks like in your rabbit and how many pellets the rabbit produces daily. If you see a slight decrease in quantity or the consistency has changed, this is the time to take your pet to the vet, don’t wait until Bugs Bunny isn’t eating.
  5. Minimize stress – slowly introduce new people or pets to your rabbit. Do not make sudden changes in their environment.
  6. Monitor for changes in urine frequency, volume, color, and if noted, alert your veterinarian.
  7. Fresh water – Always ensure a fresh, clean water source is available. Make sure if you are using a water bottle that it is cleaned frequently. Ensure that your rabbit has easy access to the water. 

Do you have questions about your pet rabbit’s health?

Do you have specific questions about your rabbit’s diet, health, appetite, or more? If so, feel free to schedule a video visit with one of our rabbit veterinarians. 

You can have a video visit directly with a veterinarian. Here they can answer general questions or guide you on changes that can be made at home to improve your rabbit’s quality of life. However, suppose you discuss a problem, and it is serious enough. In that case, they will let you know when it is time to take your pet physically to the veterinarian. Check the service out here. https://www.petrabbits.org/veterinary-video-call/ We look forward to hearing from you. 

Has your rabbit ever lost its appetite and what adjustments did you make to their diet?

References

1. Gladden J. Small Mammal Gastrointestinal Emergencies. In: International Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Symposium 2017. VIN.com; 2017. https://www.vin.com/members/cms/project/defaultadv1.aspx?id=8172583&pid=19113&

2. Krempels D, Cotter M, Stanzione G. Ileus in Domestic Rabbits. Exot DVM. 2000;2(4):19-21. Accessed November 7, 2021. http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/ileus.pdf

3. Oglesbee BL, Lord B. Gastrointestinal Diseases of Rabbits. Ferrets Rabbits Rodents. Published online 2020:174-187. doi:10.1016/B978-0-323-48435-0.00014-9

4. Mayer J. Noninfectious Diseases of Rabbits. Merck Veterinary Manual. Published July 2021. Accessed November 7, 2021. https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/rabbits/noninfectious-diseases-of-rabbits

5. Noonan B. Differentiating Gastrointestinal Stasis from Gastrointestinal Obstruction in Domestic Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus). MSPCA-Angell. Published 2021. Accessed November 6, 2021. https://www.mspca.org/angell_services/differentiating-gastrointestinal-stasis-from-gastrointestinal-obstruction-in-domestic-rabbits-oryctolagus-cuniculus/

6. Mitchell M, Vennen KM. Manual of Exotic Pet Practice: Chapter 14: Rabbits. In: Manual of Exotic Pet Practice. 1st edition. Saunders Elsevier; 2009:375-405. Accessed August 27, 2021. https://www.elsevier.com/books/manual-of-exotic-pet-practice/mitchell/978-1-4160-0119-57. Graham J, Lennox AM. The Critical Rabbit. In: Association of Exotic Mammal Veterinarians Conference 2015. VIN.com; 2015. https://www.vin.com/members/cms/project/defaultadv1.aspx?id=7184808&pid=13815&

Erica Tramuta-Drobnis, VMD, MPH, CPH, is a veterinarian, freelance writer, and public health professional. She is the founder and CEO of ELTD One Health Consulting, LLC. Her veterinary clinical experiences span over 22 years. These experiences include general practice, a keen interest in veterinary nutrition, pain management and prevention, emergency and critical care, and exotic animal medicine, including rabbits, ferrets, rodents, reptiles, and more.

She received her Master’s in Public Health in 2019 and became Certified in Public Health in February 2020. She has a keen interest in the One Health concept of public health and a multi-disciplinary approach to human health, animal health, and environmental issues. She currently works part-time in emergency and critical care while also writing and consulting on various topics, hoping to establish her niche in a One Health world. The human-animal bond plays a significant role in many people’s lives. Dr. Tramuta-Drobnis hopes to help rabbit owners improve their husbandry (environment, nutrition, and overall pet care). By doing so, she hopes to help strengthen this bond and enhance the well-being of both pet and parent.

Learn more about her: https://www.linkedin.com/in/eltdonehealthconsultingllc/

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