Pet Factsheets

Anorexia

Anorexia is defined as a lack or loss of appetite for food. In rabbits this can be due to a variety of reasons and whilst the underlying cause needs addressing, the rabbit will also require supportive treatment while they aren't eating properly.

My rabbit isn't eating... is this an emergency?

Yes, it is an emergency!

Rabbits have a digestive system much like a horse that needs a constant throughput of food. Any length of time without food can cause the gastrointestinal (GI) tract to slow down and stop altogether, which is known as GI hypomotility or gut (GI) stasis. The condition is painful and there may be bloating or an impaction depending upon the cause. This can lead to hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar) and far more seriously, hepatic lipidosis. Hepatic lipidosis describes the changes seen in the liver, when an animal, especially a previously overweight one, mobilises fat during periods of anorexia. This can cause severe liver damage, which can prove to be rapidly fatal.

It is extremely important that if your rabbit stops eating or seems to be eating less and producing fewer, smaller or harder droppings, then to book an appointment to see your vet straight away. The sooner the problem is treated, the easier it is to get a rabbit eating again.

Why has my rabbit stopped eating?

Rabbits are a prey species and are extremely sensitive to stress and pain. Any pain or stressful occurrence can cause a rabbit to become anorexic. Reasons may include (this list isn't exhaustive):

  • Dental, abdominal or other pain source
  • Loss of a companion
  • Insufficient dietary fibre
  • Excessive carbohydrates in the diet
  • Sudden change in environmental temperature
  • Predators in or around the rabbit's environment
  • Respiratory disease (rabbits are obligate nose breathers, so if their nose is blocked they struggle to breath and eating is difficult)
  • Unfamiliar/change of food
  • Lack of fibre within the diet which causes the GI tract to slow down
  • A blockage within the GI tract
  • New home
  • Trip to the vets

Sometimes it is not immediately obvious, and there may be numerous causes. It is important to try and get to the cause of the problem, so adjustments or medical treatment can be implemented to try and resolve the problem, and stop it happening again.

What signs should I look out for?

Medical anorexia is normally a gradual occurrence happening over several days or even weeks. Often the rabbit will begin to eat less and less and if left without treatment will stop eating altogether. The droppings will become fewer and often smaller and harder, until they too cease production altogether.

If the rabbit is in pain, they may grind their teeth together harshly.

The exception to the rule is blockages; these are often acute (fast occurring) and the rabbit often deteriorates quickly.

Anorexia bought on by stress may also be sudden, especially if the rabbit has lost their companion or has been stressed by predators visiting the garden.

How can I help my rabbit?

Prevention is always better than cure, so it is important to feed your rabbit a high fibre diet consisting of lots of grass and hay, avoid stress as much as possible and always provide free access to water.

Don't let your rabbit become overweight or make any sudden changes to their diet or environment.

What should I do if my rabbit is anorexic?

Seek veterinary attention urgently!

Never wait and see what the rabbit is like tomorrow. Observe your rabbit of signs of pain and discomfort. Are they grinding their teeth in pain? Are they pressing their abdomen on the ground? Is there any saliva from the mouth? Have their droppings become smaller, harder and been fewer of them? Try and provide your vet with as much information as possible.

What will my vet do to treat my rabbit?

It is important that anorexic rabbits are supported to help prevent complete GI tract stasis, hepatic lipidosis and the serious risk of death. Offering tempting food (freshly picked grass, greens, herbs etc), syringe feeding, fluid therapy, pain relief (if the problem is medical) and prokinetic medication to help get the GI tract moving again are all the mainstay of treatment.

Some rabbits who are mildly anorexic may be treatable at home, and your vet will give you medication to give to your rabbit.

Others may need admitting into the veterinary practice for nursing support, medical procedures (dentals, imaging, blood tests, etc) in order to get to the cause of the problem and treat them.

If can take days or even weeks before rabbits start eating again, but if they seem to be coping with the treatment and not suffering unduly then it is worthwhile to persevere.

What about companion rabbits?

If your rabbit lives with another rabbit it is better to try and keep them together. A bonded pair offer each other security and support, and an already ill rabbit is likely to deteriorate if separated from their partner.

However, it can be difficult to determine what one rabbit is eating and who is passing faeces when more than one rabbit is kept together. For this reason, it may be necessary to separate the rabbits, but so they can still see and smell each other. Placing one inside a large carrier, which is then inside the other rabbit's environment can often work well.

Is my rabbit likely to suffer further bouts of anorexia?

This depends upon the cause. Causes such as dental disease are generally lifelong and can lead to repeated bouts of anorexia. It is important to try and spot signs at an early stage.

Others causes such as predators in the garden, the loss of a companion, or lack of fibre in the diet can be short-term and once the underlying cause is corrected, the rabbit should be at no higher risk of further episodes of anorexia than any other rabbit.

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