Pet rabbits often seem to chew on anything they can get their teeth into. That's why a rabbit that suddenly stops eating is a big concern. 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. While this definitely warrants a trip to the vet, there are a few things you can do in the meantime to possibly help your bunny feel better.
Why Do Rabbits Stop Eating?
The most common reason for a loss of appetite in rabbits is a gastrointestinal problem called ileus. Ileus occurs when normal peristalsis—the contractions in the intestines that push food through the gastrointestinal tract—decreases or stops. Ileus is extremely dangerous in rabbits and can cause death if left untreated.
Ileus is usually due to another 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
Look your rabbit over for any obvious signs of ileus:
- Overgrown incisors (front teeth) are easy to see by lifting up your rabbit's lips.
- Some tumors and abscesses are easily identified 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 its front paws, resulting in dirty front legs from the nasal drainage.
- Hold a mirror up to your rabbit's nose so you can check whether both nostrils are clear and creating condensation.
When your rabbit leaves its food untouched, it's obviously a sign that it has lost its appetite. In other cases, however, the changes may be subtler. If you aren't sure whether your rabbit is eating, look for signs such as:
- Decrease or absence of fecal matter
- Decrease in the size of fecal matter
- Change in the texture of fecal matter (sticky, watery, hard, etc.)
- Refusal to eat a favorite treat
- Decrease in weight (use a baby scale to monitor your rabbit's weight)
- Increase in leftover food
- Decrease in activity level
- Teeth grinding (bruxism)
In the absence of obvious signs of ileus, consider first any environmental changes you may have made that might cause stress in your rabbit. Correct these by reversing whatever you changed; then see if your rabbit will eat a treat or some food.
You can try home remedies in the first few hours after you notice that your rabbit stopped eating. However, rabbits that don't eat for even just a day are in a life-threatening situation and require immediate veterinary attention. Don't delay and, even while you're trying home remedies, give your vet a call for a phone consultation.
- Start with some mixed-vegetable baby food and a syringe. Force-feed your rabbit to stimulate its gastrointestinal tract. If your rabbit goes too long without eating, its intestines will fill with gas since 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 its belly to encourage gut motility (the movement of the gastrointestinal tract muscles required for elimination).
- 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, as well as lots of hay. Avoid feeding your pet rabbit pellets at this time.
- If your rabbit still refuses food, call the vet right away.
To immediately get something into your rabbit's system, your vet may recommend IV fluids or another form of hydration. Medications for pain, gas production, gastric motility, and other concerns may also be prescribed. Force-feeding your bunny with veterinary-grade products, such as Oxbow Critical Care or Emerald Intensive Care Herbivore, will provide the nutrition your pet needs while it isn't eating normally.
At the same time, your vet will want to figure out why your rabbit stopped eating in the first place. Sometimes this isn't easy to do, and there are several tests for diagnosing the cause (or causes). Along with a thorough physical exam, your vet may recommend a dental examination, blood tests, urine tests, fecal tests, radiology (X-rays), and other diagnostics.
There may also be times when testing may be limited or isn't 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
Many diseases that cause your rabbit to stop eating are completely preventable through good care. For instance, overgrown or abscessed teeth (and the diseases they may cause) can often be prevented by providing regular dental care. Likewise, keeping your rabbit's cage clean can go a long way toward preventing infections and parasitic infestations.
You can also take simple steps to promote a healthy appetite in your rabbit. Make sure you provide unlimited grass hays (not alfalfa), leafy greens, and fresh drinking water in a bowl. Your rabbit also needs a stable environment that's free of fluctuating temperatures and stressors.
Gastrointestinal Stasis In Rabbits. Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital, 2020
Oglesbee, Barbara L., and Jeffrey R. Jenkins. Gastrointestinal Diseases. Ferrets, Rabbits, And Rodents, 2012, pp. 193-204. Elsevier, doi:10.1016/b978-1-4160-6621-7.00015-4
What To Feed Your Rabbit. Chicago Exotics Animal Hospital, 2020