Stasis, where the gut slows down or stops completely, plagues many unlucky rabbits. Caught early, stasis can be treated. Getting the rabbit to eat is important for recovery. However, some foods can make stasis worse.
Pineapple, an old wives’ tale remedy, is particularly dangerous. A rabbit with stasis should consume as few sugars as possible. Sugar and starch is precisely what the bad bacteria – often at the root of stasis in the first place – are dying to feed on.
What’s going on with rabbits’ guts?
Even if your rabbit hasn’t sold you on that vegan life yet, she is a strict and loyal herbivore. Her digestive system is uniquely designed for plant material, and lots of it. Because bunnies eat so much fiber relative to their size, their digestive system doesn’t waste any time. The whole process from end A to B happens relatively quickly.
Rabbits’ digestive systems have a bonus step: Meet the cecum. The cecum is essentially a pouch that comes off where the small and large intestines meet. The cecum is the largest organ in a rabbit’s abdomen – 10 times the size of their stomach. It uses bacteria to ferment material that can be broken down further for nutrients and energy. The bacteria turn the formerly unusable fiber into digestible protein and vitamins.
The cecotropes that are produced as a result may look like wannabe poop, but these droppings are second-chance nutrients in disguise. Healthy buns instinctively eat all their cecotropes. Swallowed whole, no looking back. Those fed a high-protein diet, such as too much alfalfa, may ingest fewer cecotropes. The rabbit may experience dietary deficiencies as a result.
What does the cecum have to do with stasis?
Indigestible fiber isn’t as insignificant as it sounds. It’s key to keeping rabbits’ guts moving along. For this reason, rabbits that don’t eat enough hay are more prone to blockages and stasis. A slow-moving digestive system allows food and even hair to loiter places it’s not invited in the GI tract.
Keeping the balance of flora in the cecum in check is necessary for a rabbit to stay healthy. All rabbits have a small amount of “bad” bacteria in the cecum. With a low-carb diet, this is rarely a problem. Sugars and starches are taken care of before they reach the cecum and have a chance to cause chaos.
But the digestive journey isn’t always a smooth one. Too many carbohydrates, for example, can disrupt this sensitive process. Excess starchy treat foods are broken down too quickly in the cecum, which causes gas and gives the bad bacteria a chance to take over.
How can you recognize stasis?
Too many sugars and carbohydrates and not enough fiber sets a rabbit up for stasis. So can a lack of exercise, pain, and stress. GI stasis is commonly the secondary effect of another underlying illness causing decreased food intake. Cecal slowdown can cause impaction in the cecum. The disrupted bacteria balance that results can make rabbits ill quickly. Pudding-like cecotropes are trying to tell you something. Never ignore them.
Rabbits with stasis will lose interest in food and produce soft, weirdly shaped, small poops. There may be fewer poops or none at all and a lack of gut sounds. Sometimes rabbits’ body temperature lowers and the tummy looks distended. Rabbits can quickly lose weight and become dehydrated in this condition, which complicates matters. Even if she’s still acting tough, trust your gut and pay close attention to hers.
What’s the big problem with pineapple?
Pineapple got an undeserved reputation as a natural stasis remedy due to the enzyme bromelain. When the gut slows down or stops during stasis, food (and even hair) accumulates into a dehydrated mass that is reluctant to pass through. Bromelain allegedly has the ability to dissolve it. Here’s the problem. A rabbit’s stomach is extremely acidic. Depending on the type, heat and pH renders enzymes useless. Even if bromelain could solve the problem, it wouldn’t survive the journey there.
There is no scientific, veterinary research that supports the use of pineapple for curing GI stasis in rabbits. According to the 2014 Textbook of Rabbit Medicine:
“Pineapple juice or proteolytic enzymes have been recommended as remedies for hairballs because they are reputed to dissolve hair. Miller (1983) conducted an experiment in which they incubated rabbit hair for up to 3 days in papaya, proteolytic enzymes or pineapple juice.
The pH of the solution was adjusted to 2 with hydrochloric acid to mimic conditions in the rabbit stomach. They found no difference between the treated and untreated control samples and the authors concluded that none of the enzyme treatments exhibited any ability to dissolve hair.”
It would be one thing if pineapple was simply an ineffective remedy for stasis. Unfortunately, it can do more harm than good. Pineapple is packed with sugar. Giving too many sugary foods can upset a rabbit’s digestion in the first place. Giving extra sugar to a rabbit with stasis is especially dangerous. The sugar fuels the bad bacteria that’s potentially taking over and causing issues in the first place.
Tried and true safe remedies for stasis
If a complete blockage is found, traditional therapies can make matters worse. Don’t force feed a rabbit with a confirmed, full blockage. Surgery may be needed in these cases. Your vet will recommend a treatment plan based on what’s causing the blockage and the rabbit’s condition.
For a rabbit in the early stages of stasis, bribe them to up the hay intake. Alfalfa won’t help matters, but offer a variety of grass hays like orchard, oat, and Timothy. Both hydration and fiber is crucial for recovery. If your rabbit refuses to eat, you’ll need to syringe feed her every few hours. Supportive care at home can make all the difference.
- Fluids: Moisture is necessary to hydrate the hard mass in the intestines so it is able to pass through. Your vet might give subcutaneous fluids in the office and give you some to take home. Water is best to give orally. Sweetened fluids, like pineapple juice, can cause the overgrowth of bad bacteria in the cecum.
- Movement: Adequate room for exercise helps to keep things moving through as they should. Manual massage or a vibrating massager can break up gas bubbles and offer relief.
- Medication: Prescription motility drugs can help stimulate movement within the GI tract. Pain medication is important for recovery. A rabbit that isn’t comfortable is less likely to begin eating again on her own. Antibiotics might help in some cases, but they should be given with caution. Antibiotics can be counterintuitive, further disrupting the gut flora.
A hay-based diet is the most important thing you can do to prevent stasis in the first place. Fiber is responsible for the production of the cecotropes, their contents (secret recipe), and even the rabbit’s appetite to re-ingest them. When a rabbit is fed adequate amounts of hay, about the size of their body every day, the balance of bacteria in the cecum slowly breaks down the plant fiber that’s ready for Round Two. It creates fatty acids, enzymes, and vitamins needed for a healthy and energetic bunny.
Varga, M. (2014). Textbook of Rabbit Medicine (Second ed., p. 317). Ossining, NY: Butterworth Heinemann Elsevier.