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Acute Diarrhea in Rabbits

By: Dr. Lani Steinohrt

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Veterinary care is aimed toward determining the cause of the diarrhea so 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. The veterinarian will recommend specific tests depending on the severity of the diarrhea and the condition of the rabbit.

Diagnosis

  • Examination of the pet's feces (flotation, direct smear and grams staining). The fecal flotation and direct smear may identify parasitic or bacterial causes of diarrhea. The gram stain will determine if the rabbit has abnormal types of bacterial flora in the intestinal tract.

  • Fecal culture and sensitivity is performed if abnormal bacteria are seen on the gram stain. Cultures identify the bacteria that may be causing the diarrhea; the sensitivity identifies the antibiotics that will destroy the "bad" bacteria.

  • A complete blood count (CBC), the number of circulating red and white blood cells, may help differentiate between infectious and non-infectious causes of diarrhea. This also helps to determine how much of the rabbit's system is affected by the infectious agent. The number of red blood cells may be low if the rabbit is losing blood through his gastrointestinal tract, or if other concurrent diseases are present.

  • Serum chemistry panel will detect any electrolyte abnormalities, and give evidence of other systemic involvement such as malfunctioning kidneys or liver.

  • Radiographs (X-rays) give an overall two-dimensional look at the rabbit's internal organs. Abnormal gas patterns of the intestines, tumors, and size and shape of the liver and kidneys may be noted.

  • Barium studies/contrast studies. The rabbit swallows a special dye and X-rays are taken over a period of time. This study will look for tumors or foreign bodies, and may identify ulcerations or thickenings of the intestinal tract. This study also helps determine if the ingesta is passed through the intestinal tract at the appropriate rate.

  • Pasteurella test. Determining the pasteurella status of the rabbit may be helpful in gaining an overall picture of the health status of the rabbit. A positive test means the bacteria is directly or indirectly contributing to the diarrhea.

  • Abdominal ultrasound allows visualization of the abdominal organs for evidence of masses, abnormal organ densities, intestinal wall thickening, and foreign bodies. If any masses are found, a small needle is safely guided into the mass (with the aide of the ultrasound probe), and a sample is obtained for evaluation under the microscope. A specialist usually performs this test.

    Therapy In-depth

    Diarrhea is a symptom that can be caused by many different diseases or problems. The diagnostic tests described above should elucidate the cause of diarrhea so that proper therapy can be instituted. Pending the results of the diagnostic test the therapy is directed toward preventing further consequences such as dehydration, loss of appetite, and spread of disease to other parts of the body.

  • Dietary modification is necessary for diarrhea that is the result of inadequate amounts of fiber. The ration of pellets is reduced and the amount of timothy or grass hay is gradually increased. Unlike the treatment of acute diarrhea in cats or dogs, withholding food from rabbits for a period of 12 or 24 hours should NOT be instituted.

  • Fluid therapy. Many rabbits that have diarrhea become dehydrated and require fluid therapy. The route the fluid is given (under the skin, through the vein or orally) is dependent on the severity of the diarrhea and the health status of the rabbit. Fluid therapy is an important part of supportive therapy that is used until a definitive diagnosis can be found.

  • Motility drugs that change the rate the ingesta (food) are passed through the intestinal tract are not usually used unless the diarrhea is caused by a hairball.

  • Antibiotics aimed at the infectious cause of diarrhea may be used based on the grams stain and/or culture and susceptibility.

  • Deworming will be performed based on the positive identification of diarrhea-causing parasites.

  • Forced alimentation. It is imperative for rabbits to continue eating during their time of convalescence. Syringe feeding of ground pellets, vegetable baby foods or formulated critical care foods for herbivores maybe necessary until the rabbit begins eating on his own.

  • Administration of a commercial product containing lactobacillus bacteria is often an adjunct to the therapy for diarrhea. These "good" bacteria may help provide a better environment in the intestinal tract for normal bacteria to thrive.

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