Diarrhea in Rabbits
Dr. Lani Steinohrt
Updated: August 18, 2014 Inadequate amounts of roughage in the diet (in the form of grass or timothy hay)
Diarrhea in rabbits can be intermittent, where soft or liquid stools are found along with normal fecal pellets, or constant, with soft or liquid stools occurring in the absence of normal fecal pellets. It is important to distinguish between these two types, as constant or "true" diarrhea in the absence of normal fecal pellets can be a serious, life threatening disease, requiring urgent veterinary care. In contrast, intermittent diarrhea, known as "cecal diarrhea" is less urgent, but nevertheless should be evaluated by a veterinarian if diet changes alone are not effective.
Diarrhea should not be confused with the normal, soft cecotropes (night feces) that are produced and ingested by the rabbit primarily in the early morning hours. Normally, rabbits will eat their cecotropes directly from the rectum, and you will rarely, if ever see them. However, if your rabbit cannot consistently reach its rear end to eat these, you may find them periodically. If your rabbit has not stepped on sat upon the cecotrophs, they typically look like a large clump of dark, soft round fecal balls. People often describe them as looking like a large blackberry. But if they are smashed or adhered to your rabbit's rear end, they loose this form and can be confused as diarrhea. The most common causes for uneaten cecotrophs are obesity or spinal/arthritis pain, both of which prevent the rabbit from consistently reaching its rear end to eat the cecotrophs.
Infectious agents (bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic)
Drugs (especially antibiotics) and toxins
Dietary indiscretion (eating inappropriate food or material)
True or constant diarrhea can cause dehydration and electrolyte disturbances, and is a serious disorder. Intermittent, or Cecal diarrhea is due to alterations in the normal cecal and intestinal pH (acidity or alkalinity) leading to disruption of normal bacterial flora that leads to abnormal bacterial growth. Untreated, both types can become life-threatening.
What to Watch For
Small, watery, soft, mucus-like, scant or misshapen fecal pellets
Soft or liquid feces intermixed with normal fecal pellets
Foul odor to feces
Soft feces adhered to fur around the rear end
Sudden loss of appetite (If you rabbit is unwilling to eat anything at all, this is potentially an emergency)
Loud gut sounds (owners often say they can hear the "tummy rumbling"
Decreased or lack of water intake
Lethargy – excessive sleepiness, or decrease in activity
Abdominal pain or 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.
Veterinary care is aimed toward determining the cause of the diarrhea so that appropriate treatment recommendations may be offered. True or constant diarrhea requires aggressive treatment, and even with this, may carry a poor prognosis. Many cases of cecal diarrhea are short-lived and can be easily treated, 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. Be prepared to list all food types that your rabbit eats.
Examination of the feces (flotation, direct smear and grams staining)
A complete blood count (CBC) and serum chemistry panel
Treatment is based on the cause of the diarrhea and may include:
Motility drugs that change the rate the ingesta (food) is passed through the intestinal tract
Pain medications – diarrhea is often accompanied by painful gas and gut contractions
If your rabbit has a normal appetite (is eating and drinking normally), is passing normal (round, firm) fecal pellets with occasional soft stool mixed in with the normal pellets, and otherwise acting normally, you can try modifying the diet. Feed only grass or timothy hay and a high quality rabbit pellet (with no seeds, nuts or colored nuggets mixed in). Eliminate all vegetables, fruits and other foods, and provide fresh water constantly. If soft stools are still mixed in with normal fecal pellets after 1 week of feeding hay and pellets only, see your veterinarian. If your rabbit stops eating, or stops producing normal fecal pellets, see your veterinarian immediately.
Administer only prescribed medication and provide fresh water at all times. Encourage your rabbit to eat frequently.
Closely monitor fecal output and 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.
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.