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Acute Diarrhea in Rabbits

By: Dr. Lani Steinohrt

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Acute (sudden onset) diarrhea in rabbits may be defined as an increase in the water content of fecal pellets with or without an increase in the frequency or volume of the bowel movements. Contrary to diarrhea in many other species, any changes in the normal appearance of a rabbit's fecal pellets are a concern and should be addressed with some urgency. Diarrhea should not be confused with the normal, soft cecotropes (night feces) that are produced and ingested by the rabbit primarily at night.

Causes

  • Inadequate amounts of roughage in the diet (in the form of grass or timothy hay)
  • Stress
  • Infectious agents (bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic)
  • Drugs (especially antibiotics) and toxins
  • Dietary indiscretion (eating inappropriate food or material)
  • Metabolic diseases

    Diarrhea can cause dehydration and electrolyte disturbances. It can also alter the normal cecal and intestinal pH (acidity or alkalinity) leading to disruption of normal bacterial flora that leads to abnormal bacterial growth and subsequent septicemia.

    What to Watch For

  • Small, watery, soft, mucus-like, scant or misshapen fecal pellets
  • Change in fecal color
  • Sudden loss of appetite (anything over 24 hours is potentially an emergency)
  • Decreased or lack of water intake
  • Lethargy – excessive sleepiness, or decrease in activity
  • Abdominal discomfort – rabbits will often act as though they can't get comfortable by frequently changing body positions from lying outstretched and switching from side to side, to sitting hunched and breathing rapidly.

    Diagnosis

    Veterinary care is aimed toward determining the cause of the diarrhea so that appropriate treatment recommendations may be offered. Many cases of acute diarrhea are short-lived, but unless the cause of the diarrhea is elucidated, serious consequences may occur.

  • Diagnostic testing includes a very thorough history and physical examination by an experienced veterinarian.

  • Examination of the feces (flotation, direct smear and grams staining)

    Tests

  • A complete blood count (CBC) and serum chemistry panel
  • Radiographs (X-rays)
  • Pasteurella test
  • Abdominal ultrasound

    Treatment

    Treatment is based on the cause of the diarrhea and may include:

  • Dietary modification
  • Fluid therapy
  • Motility drugs that change the rate the ingesta (food) is passed through the intestinal tract
  • Antibiotics
  • Deworming

    Home Care

    Administer only prescribed medication and provide fresh water at all times. Do not change the diet unless prescribed by a qualified veterinarian and encourage your pet to eat frequently.

    Closely monitor fecal output to ensure adequate food consumption. Observe your rabbit's general activity and appetite and notify your veterinarian immediately of any worsening of signs. Keep the environment stress free.

    Preventative Care

    Always keep diet consistent by offering free choice of timothy or grass hay (fresh and free of molds) and a limited quantity of plain, high quality rabbit pellets (no seeds or nuts)

    Avoid abrupt changes of brands of pellets and make all changes or additions of foods very gradual – keeping your pet on a consistent and regular diet is imperative. Avoid feeding of pellets only

    Have all new pets checked by a veterinarian, and then annually or bi-annually thereafter.

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