What are Digested Hairballs?
The complication of digested hairballs in rabbits is one of the most preventable health conditions in rabbits. Many veterinarians will explain that the accumulation of fur in a rabbit's stomach is the symptom of a much more crucial condition, caused by an inadequate amount of fiber in a rabbit's diet.
This condition is known as gastrointestinal stasis obstruction, as well as GI hypomotility or slowdown. It occurs when there are low amounts or no fiber present in your rabbit's diet. The passage of food and hair slows down, affecting how fast your rabbit's stomach is able to empty. When this happens, your rabbit will reduce his food intake or stop eating and drinking altogether because he'll feel full. Unfortunately, without food and water moving into the digestive system the stomach and intestinal tract become more compacted and dehydration begins.
The larger contents that are left behind in the stomach, including the fur, then slowly form a solid mass that ends up preventing further movement of food through the digestive tract. Your rabbit's fecal droppings will then become smaller and will end up stopping movement throughout the digestive system completely. Due to the serious nature of complications due to digested hairballs in rabbits, it is essential that you immediately contact your veterinarian if you notice any of the following symptoms in your rabbit. Without treatment, your rabbit will die from dehydration and starvation. The consequences of impacted hairballs and stomach contents will also lead to an obstruction.
Digested hairballs in rabbits are also known as trichobezoars or wool block. Because the digestive system of a rabbit is slow, hair, along with other materials can accumulate there, causing pain and abdominal distension. Digested hairballs in rabbits occur when rabbits groom themselves. They ingest a lot of their fur, especially when they're molting. If your rabbit is constipated or his digestive tract is impaired due to being fed an improper diet, the accumulated fur will remain in his stomach and create a mass that will block and impact his intestines.
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Symptoms of Digested Hairballs in Rabbits
Depending on the severity and type of gastrointestinal tract condition your rabbit may be suffering from, he may exhibit one or more of the following symptoms:
- Abdominal distention
- Abdominal pain
- Dry or dull hair
- Grinding his teeth
- Hair in his droppings
- Hunching his back in pain
- Lack of appetite for food or water
- Little to no droppings
- Strung together fecal droppings
- Weight loss
If your rabbit is displaying any changes in his normal behavior, you should take him to your veterinarian immediately. If left untreated, this condition will progress rapidly and become a life threatening condition.
Causes of Digested Hairballs in Rabbits
While the most common cause for digested hairballs and gastric stasis in rabbits is an inappropriate diet, any disease or illness that changes a rabbit's gastrointestinal tract motility can cause this condition including the following:
- Dental problems
- Ingestion of poisons or other foreign material
- Internal parasites
- Kidney disease
- Lack of exercise
- Liver disease
- Painful conditions
- Post surgical adhesions
- Prolonged dehydration
Diagnosis of Digested Hairballs in Rabbits
Your veterinarian will want to act quickly to find out if the gastrointestinal tract contents are impacted and whether or not your rabbit's condition is a life threatening emergency.
Your veterinarian will perform a thorough examination to find out what the exact cause of your rabbit's problem is. She'll take your rabbit's temperature, weigh your rabbit and then check his teeth to see if there are any problems. She'll examine your rabbit’s lymph nodes, palpate his abdomen, and check his heart with a stethoscope.
The veterinarian will evaluate your rabbit’s hydration level and run routine tests such as a blood panel, fecal examination to check for internal parasites, and a radiograph of your rabbit's abdomen before rendering a diagnosis and beginning any kind of treatment.
If hairballs are diagnosed, a couple of treatment options are available to treat the condition medically. However, if your rabbit's gastrointestinal tract is obstructed, emergency surgery may be the only available option due to this condition's ability to become critical rather quickly.
Treatment of Digested Hairballs in Rabbits
Because of the serious nature of this condition, your rabbit will need medication and nursing care from a qualified veterinarian in a clinical or hospital setting.
Your veterinary caregiver’s goal will be to re-hydrate your rabbit through his circulatory system and gastrointestinal tract. To do this the veterinary team will administer fluids under the skin or via one of your rabbit's veins. The veterinarian will feed your rabbit high fiber, wet feedings that consist of blended green leafy vegetables, ground pellets mixed with powdered alfalfa, and administer an electrolyte solution using a syringe or tube.
Next, she'll give your rabbit some medication to enable his gastrointestinal tract to start moving again, and analgesics to help ease pain. Due to this condition being an impaction problem and not an illness, antibiotics aren't usually necessary and could in fact cause more complications to the already impaired gastrointestinal tract.
In many cases, rabbits perk up in 1 to 2 days and begin eating and passing stool. However, it may take a couple weeks for full return to normal behavior. In any case, once your rabbit is eating and defecating without any complications your veterinarian will let you take your rabbit home.
Impacted or Obstructed GI Tract
If your rabbit's GI tract is impacted or obstructed, emergency surgery may be the only available option. Unfortunately, rabbits that have this surgery have a low survival rate. Rabbits that survive the surgery can be affected by peritonitis or other problems even under the care of the best surgeon. This treatment option may be considered as an absolute last resort.
Recovery of Digested Hairballs in Rabbits
Your veterinarian will prescribe additional medication if needed; adhere to the instructions carefully and continue the prescription for the full course, even though your pet may seem to be fully recovered. The veterinary team will advise you on the appropriate foods for the recovery period. In addition, once your rabbit has been cleared medically, ensure that he continues to get plenty of exercise and playtime in order to keep his intestinal motility working well.