What is Cachexia?
Diseases, such as neuromuscular, metabolic, and dental, among many others, can cause the inability to eat, a lack of appetite, and debilitating pain. These conditions can contribute to a wasting away of tissues and dramatic weight loss, as the body does not get enough calories to function correctly. Cancer and tumors can steal vital nutrients, leading to weight loss, heart disease, and other serious conditions. A poor diet, unsanitary living conditions, infections and parasitic attack can also contribute. Cachexia needs to be addressed immediately, as it is life threatening if left untreated.
Cachexia is the condition of major weight and muscle loss in rabbits. While a small amount of weight loss can be normal, when it is more severe, accompanied by muscle degradation, cachexia is a signal of a serious underlying medical condition.
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Symptoms of Cachexia in Rabbits
Symptoms of weight and muscle loss can include:
- Weight loss, with or without adequate caloric intake
- Listless, dull coat
- Unusual activity
- Searching for food or water
- Sits hunched over
- Decreased appetite
These can be accompanied by other symptoms, which are indicative of certain underlying issues:
- Visible worms in feces
- Diarrhea, with or without blood
- Thick, reddish brown crusts in ears
- Flaky skin
- Itchy skin
- Rough hair
- Easily removable hair, or patches of hair missing
- Pale gums
- Swollen areas of body, or lumps, which are sometimes painful
- Trouble urinating, or blood in the urine
- Secondary infections, such as upper respiratory, pointing to a compromised immune system
- Inability to eat
- Increased thirst
Causes of Cachexia in Rabbits
The causes of cachexia are numerous. The most common can include:
- Underlying disease, such as gastrointestinal, metabolic, musculoskeletal, neuromuscular, cardiovascular, malabsorption, and maldigestion
- Malnourishment or a lack of necessary calories, generally from an unbalanced diet
- Decreased or lack of appetite
- Reduced or inadequate activity, due to pain, lethargy, age or too much cage time
- Dental issues, including malocclusion, abscesses and disease
Diagnosis of Cachexia in Rabbits
Because of the wide range of causes of cachexia, a full and complete physical exam is performed, looking at all the body systems. This is often accompanied by bloodwork, urinalysis, X-rays, ultrasounds and CT scans. Fecal floats and analysis can indicate whether or not a parasitic infection is to blame. An oral cavity exam can be performed, and any lumps or swollen areas on the body are targeted.
Diet and lifestyle will be discussed, as well as appetite and health history. Any and all symptoms noticed are very helpful, as they often point to the underlying cause, so be ready to explain everything you have noticed about your rabbit during this visit.
The age of your rabbit is a significant factor in determining the cause of cachexia. The condition in young rabbits can signal parasites or other infection, while in elderly animals, it can be indicative of conditions like arthritis, an aging digestive system, a general decrease in activity, or a serious disease that can include organ failure. Signs of aging are usually apparent around 5 to 6 years of age.
Treatment of Cachexia in Rabbits
Treatment is wide ranging and appropriate to the underlying cause. Once the prognosis is confirmed, your veterinarian will discuss a treatment protocol specific to the needs of your rabbit. Because there is often such a significant and dangerous weight loss involved, it is critical to ensure the health and caloric intake of your rabbit. Often, assisted feeding is needed, until your rabbit can eat on its own. An appropriate diet will be discussed with your veterinarian. If cancer is suspected, often surgery will be needed to remove any tumors or growths found. A biopsy from collected tissue will confirm or deny this prognosis, and treatment as needed will continue from there.
If dental disease of any kind is involved, antibiotics and pain relievers may be prescribed. Malocclusion of incisors or cheek teeth will need to be addressed, either through surgery, or a routine filing as needed. If it is determined that a parasite is infecting your rabbit, it will be treated with sulfa based or other antiparasitic drugs. Care should be taken if there are more rabbits in the environment to ensure they are checked and treated also. Spot treatment for some parasites is available.
For age-related arthritis, often pain medication will be prescribed, as well as changes in the environment providing easier access to food, water, and other locations. In very severe cases of disease, where treatment will not ease pain or help to maintain a better quality of life, euthanasia may be recommended.
Recovery of Cachexia in Rabbits
Eliminate stress in your rabbit’s environment, and feed your rabbit an appropriate diet concurrent with its needs. A diet high in fiber can reduce dental and other disease. Take appropriate measures to encourage eating, such as providing food in a stress free environment for the length of time your rabbit requires.
Sometimes a mate for your rabbit can provide stress relief, and encourage movement. But be mindful of social interactions between your rabbits to be sure that the mate is not causing anxiety in the sick rabbit. Often, repeated visits for checks or maintenance are recommended, such as for teeth filing. If cancer was the prognosis, often X-rays are recommended every 3-6 months to check for reoccurrence and metastasis. Parasitic treatments will be made available if needed after initial treatments are given.