Gastric stasis (silent killer) in rabbits

I don’t know who coined the term ‘silent killer’ but it’s an unfortunately accurate description of this problem. It’s not being overly dramatic to state that gastric stasis can kill a rabbit in a matter of hours. Gastric stasis occurs when normal gut motility (movement) slows down or stops. It’s best to think of the rabbit digestive system like a conveyor belt, it must keep moving for them to survive. It stops moving if the rabbit stops eating and/or stops producing poo.

Gastric stasis (or GI stasis) is not a disease itself, it is a secondary problem that is caused by something else – such as pain, disease, digestive blockage or bloating, poor diet or stress. Feeding a diet which is deficient in long fibre particles (i.e. a diet high in dry food with not enough hay and grass) can slow down the digestive system. Fibre is also required to push fur that has been ingested when grooming through the system.

The problem is that the symptoms can be very subtle, and it doesn’t take long for the condition to escalate from serious to life threatening.

Back in the summer, one morning as usual, I went out to the shed to feed and check on my rabbits Dobby and Hazel. Instead of running to greet me (to check what food I had) Dobby just stayed sitting where he was and only Hazel ran forward. This immediately set off alarm bells with me. Dobby is incredibly greedy and this was not normal. I picked him up and checked him over, I couldn’t see anything wrong. I put him back down and instead of hopping around he just hunched himself back up into a ball again and looked very uncomfortable. I tried to get him to move a little and he did a bit of stretching but he just looked ‘off’. With another animal such as a dog or a cat, you might leave them a little while to see if they feel better later but with rabbits every minute counts. I’m lucky enough to work at a veterinary practice and was on my way to work, so I took them with me.


Dobby with his bandage where the intravenous catheter had been placed.

The short version of this story is that Dobby ended up being admitted to the specialist exotics veterinary hospital and was in there for 4 days. He was given painkillers, prebiotics and drugs to get his gut moving again (once he was checked for blockages). He had blood tests, urine tests and his teeth checked (as tooth pain can be one reason for refusing to eat). He was syringe fed and put on fluids as he was beginning to become dehydrated. After 4 days he started eating by himself and pooing properly again and was cleared to come back home. However, we are none the wiser regarding what started the problem, I just know that had I have left him he would have died. Both rabbits were moulting heavily, and I wondered if he had eaten too much fur when grooming but no blockage was found. The vets could find nothing wrong with him and his routine the night before had been normal, with no stress or routine change I can think of.

So, I guess the take home messages from this experience are:

  1. If you think your rabbit isn’t quite themselves, acting slightly different, lethargic or not eating as much or pooing normally – get them to the vet immediately. You can’t afford to wait until the next day.
  2. Get pet insurance! I am extremely grateful I have insurance for him as the whole episode was over £1000 and I only had to pay an excess of £55. Phew!
  3. If you have a bonded pair of rabbits always take them to the vet together. I now have personal experience of what a disaster it can be if you don’t follow this advice. (see my next blog!).


PS. as a weird side note Dobby has ‘uppy’ ears and has never been a lop eared rabbit. When I went to pick him up from the vets I had to check they had given me the right rabbit as both his ears were hanging down!  I think the weight of the IV catheters into his ears caused them to bend. It took about a month in total for them to fully right themselves!


Dobby with his new ‘lop’ ears after returning from the vet.