Pet rabbits usually chew on everything they can get their teeth on. That's why a rabbit who suddenly stops eating is a big concern. It indicates a medical problem that needs to be addressed immediately and is potentially fatal far more quickly than with other types of pets. While this may warrant a trip to the vet, there are some things you can do at home, too.
Why Do Rabbits Lose Their Appetite?
The most common reason for a loss of appetite in rabbits is a gastrointestinal problem called ileus. Ileus occurs when the normal peristalsis—the stomach and intestine movement that pushes food through the gastrointestinal tract—decreases or stops. Ileus is extremely dangerous in rabbits and can cause death if left untreated.
Ileus is also usually due to another underlying problem, including:
- Abscesses in or around the body
- Overgrown teeth
- Dental disease
- E. Cuniculi and other neurological diseases
- Bumblefoot and hock sores
- Intestinal parasites
- External parasites like lice and fleas
- Environmental changes and stress
- Gastric ulcers
- Organ failure or disease
- Infectious diseases
- Respiratory diseases
- Poisoning and toxins
Sometimes, loss of appetite is obvious: your rabbit leaves its food untasted. In other cases, however, the changes may be subtler. If you aren't sure if your rabbit is eating, you can look for these signs and symptoms:
- Decrease or absence of fecal matter
- Decrease in size of fecal matter
- Change in the texture of fecal matter (sticky, watery, harder, etc.)
- Refusal to eat a favorite treat
- Decrease in weight (a baby scale can monitor your rabbit's weight)
- Increase in leftover food
- Decrease in activity
- Teeth grinding (bruxism)
Depending on the underlying cause, you may need to consult a veterinarian to get your rabbit eating again. If you are unsure of the reason, look over your rabbit for any obvious reasons of ileus or symptoms.
Sometimes you can determine why your rabbit isn't eating just by reviewing the list of reasons why they may have stopped. For example:
- Overgrown incisor teeth (front teeth) are easy to see by lifting up your rabbit's lips.
- Some tumors and abscesses are easily identifiable by stroking your rabbit and feeling for a lump.
- Nasal or eye drainage is easy to spot if it isn't normally there. Also, your rabbit may spend a lot of time wiping its face with their front paws, resulting in dirty front legs from the nasal drainage.
- By holding a mirror up to your rabbit's nose you can check to see if both nostrils are clear and creating condensation.
If you aren't sure why your rabbit suddenly stopped eating and no recent environmental changes were made, you can try some home remedies before heading to the vet.
- Start by getting some green mixed vegetable baby food and a syringe. Force feed your rabbit so they do not go without food and to stimulate gastrointestinal tract. If your rabbit goes too long without eating their intestines will fill with gas since the normal peristalsis has decreased or stopped. This gas is very painful and the scariest part of ileus.
- After force feeding, encourage your rabbit to exercise and massage their belly to encourage their gut motility.
- Increase the amount of water your rabbit consumes to provide extra hydration. Fill both a clean water bowl and a water bottle for your rabbit to drink from. Syringe water or an electrolyte solution (such as unflavored Pedialyte) can also be provided until your rabbit is defecating normally.
- If your rabbit is still eating a little bit, offer greens with higher water content such as lettuce and celery to increase water intake as well as lots of hay. Avoid feeding rabbit pellets at this time. If your rabbit still refuses food, call the vet right away.
It may not seem like a big deal if your dog, cat, or other pet skips a meal but if a rabbit does, it may be an indication of an emergency situation. Rabbits that stop eating for even just a day are in a life-threatening situation and require immediate veterinary attention.
Your vet may recommend IV fluids or another form of hydration, as well as medications for pain, gas production, gastric motility, and other concerns. Force feeding with veterinary grade products such as Oxbow Critical Care or Emerald Intensive Care Herbivore will provide the nutrition your rabbit needs while they aren't eating normally.
Your vet will likely try to figure out why your rabbit stopped eating in the first place. Sometimes this isn't easy to do and requires laboratory testing, radiology, ultrasonography, and a thorough physical examination.
Since there are so many different reasons why a rabbit may lose their appetite, there are also several different tests to diagnose the cause (or causes). A dental examination, blood tests, urine tests, fecal tests, radiology (x-rays), and other diagnostics may be recommended by your vet.
There may also be times when testing is limited or not practical, either due to the poor health of your rabbit or financial constraints. In these cases, the symptoms can be treated aggressively with fluids and medication but, depending on the root cause, the fasting may return.
How to Prevent a Loss of Appetite
Most diseases that cause your rabbit to stop eating are completely preventable and there are simple things you can do to promote a healthy appetite in your rabbit. Make sure you provide unlimited grass hays (not alfalfa) and leafy greens and fresh drinking water in a bowl. They also need a clean and protected place to sleep and a stable environment free of fluctuating temperatures and stressors.