Ileus (Gut Stasis)
What is it?
Ileus or gut stasis is the term used to describe a condition where the part of or the entire gastro-intestinal tract ceases to move. It is very common in rabbits. Movement along the gut (peristalsis) is what is required to pass food along the gastro-intestinal tract during digestion. Cessation of peristalsis can lead to the cecum not emptying quickly enough and can lead to harmful bacteria proliferating within the gut. These harmful bacteria can emit gas, causing severe pain and bloat. Some of these bacteria can also release deadly toxins, potentially leading to liver failure. Ileus can also cause dehydration and anorexia.
Rabbit digestion explained…
Rabbit diets consist of mainly fibrous or grass-like material, which passes through the small intestine mostly unchanged. It is the small intestine that is responsible for absorbing the nutrients. As the rabbit’s diet is high in fibre- and this cannot be broken down by enzymes in the small intestine- the fibrous parts of the food travel on through the colon. In many animals, this is usually eliminated as waste. Rabbits however, have a colon which is able to separate the fibre into two types: Digestible and Indigestible. The indigestible fibres are eliminated as hard round pellets, which are the type of faeces that rabbit owners will usually see lots of. These indigestible fibres are important in the rabbit’s diet to help with gastro-intestinal mobility.
The digestible fibres are then pushed backwards into the rabbit’s caecum. The caecum contains lots of bacteria which are capable of assisting with the digestion of these fibres. A portion of these are absorbed straight away- whereas others are eliminated as ‘caecotrophs’. Caecotrophs are small, soft droppings that you may not always see. The rabbit then eats these droppings so that they can pass through the digestive tract again. The caecotrophs contains lots of important nutrients, including vitamins B & K and essential amino acids.
Causes of ileus…
Ileus can be caused by a number of factors. It is commonly associated with:
- Poor Diet – Lacking in fibre or another deficiency. For more information on appropriate rabbit nutrition, please click here.
- Lack of exercise
- Dental disease
- Other underlying diseases related to any of the organs. (Including respiratory disease, liver disease and kidney disease).
How is ileus diagnosed?
Rabbits with ileus typically display clinical signs such as anorexia, depression and a lack of faecal output. Prey animals such as rabbits do not tend to show early signs of illness, and so their owners should assume that even a minor change in demeanour or loss of appetite could be very serious. If a rabbit is presented to the vet showing these clinical signs, the vet may wish to perform further diagnostic tests, such as radiographs and blood tests. This is to confirm the presence of ileus and to find out if there are any other underlying causes of the gut stasis.
Gut stasis is a very serious condition, and rabbits suffering from this condition will need intensive medical care if recovery is to be successful. This will usually involve hospitalisation so that fluid therapy and nutritional support can be given as well as other medications such as pain relief and gut stimulants. The underlying cause of the gut stasis will also need to be treated. In some cases, such as if there is a blockage present, the rabbit may require surgery.
Once discharged from hospital, affected rabbits will require on-going care at home to prevent the reoccurrence of ileus. They may have medications such as pain relief or gut motility stimulants to continue at home. Some rabbits may require supplemental syringe feeding until they are eating normally for themselves. You should monitor your rabbit’s appetite very carefully and ensure that they are passing normal faeces. If the rabbit shows any signs of inappetence or reduction in faecal output, veterinary advice should be sought without delay.
Although ileus can happen under any circumstances (no matter how well looked after the rabbit may be!) there are a few things that rabbit owners can do to minimise their rabbit’s risk. These include:
- Providing a hay based diet- this provides rabbits with the necessary long fibres which aid in gut motility, as well as helping to reduce dental disease. Hay and grass should form the majority of the rabbit’s diet.
- Keeping your rabbit in a stress-free environment- away from loud noises where there is lots of disruption, and away from predatory animals including dogs and cats.
- Increasing exercise – Ensure your rabbit has plenty of space to run and play.
- Arrange for regular veterinary check-ups- your vet will be able to check your rabbit for any signs of dental disease, or any other underlying issues that could lead to gut-stasis