Hairballs or furballs in rabbits

Hairballs or furballs in rabbits is, more than likely a condition caused by an underlying digestive problem. It is not a primary health disease and the underlying cause will need to be addressed.

It has become increasingly accepted, that the cause of hairballs or furballs, is not the presence of hair in the stomach, but rather a GIT (gut) motility disorder, that results in firm impacted stomach and cecal contents.

Impacted digestive tracks are common to domesticated rabbits and an easy way to stop this problem occurring is to simply increase the amount of fibre in the rabbits diet. By doing so, the problem is almost always solved.

It should be noted there is no point in doing this once the advance stages of GI Stasis has taken hold of the rabbit. If the condition has reached an advanced stage of GI Stasis or the gut is severely impacted, you must seek immediate veterinary help.

Throughout this article we refer to the subject matter as hairballs or furballs, since they may be called either, but are actually the same.

Rabbits constantly groom themselves, and each other, and in doing so, ingest small amounts of hair.

Rabbits in the wild are meticulous groomers, yet there is little evidence of GI Stasis or hairball or furball problems.

With house rabbits you should remember to keep a watchful eye in making sure your rabbit does not eat your carpet fibres.

Rabbits are not capable of vomiting, therefore all hair ingested must pass through the length of the digestive system.

If the rabbit's digestive system is already impaired due to improper diet, then the hair can collect in the stomach, creating what is commonly known as hairballs or furballs.

True hairballs or furballs (technical term trichobezoar) consists of nearly 100% hair. In the rabbit, hair is mixed with stomach contents, food matter, in a loose mass. As this material dehydrates, the larger particles, including the hair accumulate in the stomach.

The liquid stomach contents gradually turn into a tight solid mass, forming hairballs or furballs.

The problem is not so much an accumulation of hair, but more a decreased motility (movement) of the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, where the hair and food becomes impacted in the stomach, leading to dehydration.

A rabbit's digestive system is designed to process large amounts of fibre and a lack of fibre in their diet may cause the rabbit to seek another source of fibre.

The rabbit may want to chew the paper on the bottom of its hutch/ cage, the woodwork or other sources of fibre, but refuse to eat pellets. Some rabbits have periodic soft, pudding-like stools prior to complete loss of appetite,( although this condition is not always a sign of impaired gut motility).

Eventually the rabbit can become seriously ill and die if the condition is not treated.

GI (gut) diseases should always be suspected. Disinterest in eating may indicate a blocked digestive system, and is cause for alarm.

If you cannot get an immediate appointment with your vet, then in the meantime you must give the rabbit large amounts of leafy greens and access to unlimited amounts of grass hay.

If left untreated this condition will quickly progress into an extremely life threatening condition and the longer it is left, the smaller are the chances are of the rabbit surviving.

When rabbits have impacted stomach or cecal contents, they will stop eating, either suddenly or gradually over a period of time.

The stools will get smaller, and then stop altogether.

Deceivingly the rabbit can be bright, alert and seem well for a day or two after they stop eating.

Indications in your rabbit can be a decrease in the size or amount of stools indicating a GI gastrointestinal blockage but this symptom will follow the rabbits disinterest in water or food and therefore can be several days into the condition and should be a cause for alarm.

The rabbit will also be lethargic, listless and just sit in a corner of the hutch/cage showing no interest in anything.

At this point it is too late just to give the rabbit leafy greens etc , you will need immediate veterinary help.

The longer the rabbit goes without eating, the more dehydrated and impacted the material in the stomach and cecum will become and the rabbit simply will not eat or drink.

A further complication is the formation of dangerous toxins in the rabbit's digestive system which will cause death and the only option to save the rabbit's life is veterinary expertise.

The higher the percentage of fibre in diet, then the faster and more smoother will the contents of food and hair pass through the digestive system.

This will lessen the chances of any GI impacted gut or hairballs or furballs problem.

If there is not enough fibre present, then the passage will be sluggish. When this condition becomes more serious the rabbit will slow or stop eating and drinking since its stomach feels full.

There is no desire to eat and the lack of food and water further slows down the process and causes the contents to become further compacted.

Where the small intestine and large intestine meet, is a large blind sac called the cecum. This is where the digestible fibre and other diet matter, which need to be fermented are deposited.

A variety of microorganisms breaks down this material in the cecum and convert it into nutrients (fatty acids, amino acids and vitamins). This nutrient rich material is then excreted in the form of cecotropes, which the rabbit eats directly from the anus and re-digests.

Rabbits produce most of their own vitamins through their cecotropes when provided a diet high in hay and fresh foods.

Prevention is better than cure, therefore, in the case of hairballs or furballs and a rabbit's digestive system, it is vitally important to provide a diet that is high in indigestible fibre.

This can be provided, very easily and simply, by way of grass hay.

Grass hay is lower in calcium, protein and calories than legume hay such as alfalfa. The hay should be available to the rabbit at all times of the day, ensuring the rabbit never goes hungry and will always have a source of nutrition and fibre.

Another important part of a rabbit's diet is fresh leafy greens such as Basil, Dill, Dandelion greens, Kale, Mustard greens, Parsley, Romaine, Carrot tops, Watercress.

These provide the good fibre needed and moisture (as well as other nutrients), with the moisture helping to keep the gut mobile.

You should vary a couple of different types daily in order to provide a variety of nutrients and tastes.

If your rabbit is not use to these, it is best to introduce hay first, for a week or so before gradually adding the greens over several weeks, thereby trying to avoid any digestive problems.

By introducing gradually and individually you will be able to note if the rabbit has a reaction to one certain food, by producing a soft stools etc, and if so leave those out of the rabbit's diet.

Other vegetables and fruits that can also be given in small amounts, are Apples, Pears, Peaches, Blueberries, Cranberries, Strawberries, Raspberries, Pea pods, broccoli, mango, kiwi, melon, etc.

Wash all vegetables and fruit first.

Do not give high starch foods such as legumes (peas and beans) and grains.

Clean water should always be available in a water bottle or heavy bowl that can't be tipped over.

A rabbit will drink less on a diet comprising of greens and fruit combined with hay and pellets rather than a diet comprising of just pellets. Since hairballs or furballs is an impacted digestive system, the rabbit must be rehydrated.

Enzymes of any kind (pineapple, papaya or pancreatic) do not actually dissolve hair. The proper solution in treating this problem is hydration of the stomach/cecal contents and getting the gut system moving again.

Many rabbits that develop stomach/cecal impaction have been on a predominantly pellet diet and have had little or no access to greens or hay.

To readdress this they need fibre, fluids and the leafy greens mentioned previously. By fibre, it is meant, good quality grass hay.

Rabbits usually won't eat pellets when they are ill.

Following treatment, stools should be produced within a day or two. It is rarely necessary to perform surgery for this condition in the otherwise healthy rabbit.

Rabbits with intestinal blockages, including hairballs or furballs, will be very quiet, lethargic and suffering from a lot of pain in the abdomen.

Once you have had the rabbit thoroughly examined by your veterinarian to determine all the problems and when the condition is remedied, you should consider incorporating the diet mentioned above to try and avoid any re-occurrence.

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