Rabbit and Rodent – Gut Stasis

Huh?  Gut Stasis?Guinea Pig
If you’re new to rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas you may not be familiar with a common problem – gut stasis.  This is a condition, from mild to severe, where normal gut movements start to slow down or stop entirely.  Without intervention your pet can die from this problem.

Let’s Back Up to Some Anatomy
rabbit giRabbits and some rodents (like guinea pigs and chinchillas) are hind gut fermenters.  Anyone familiar with horses knows what this means – they have a ton of large intestines and do most of their food processing there.  They do this through a large number of bacteria, hence fermentation.

Since it’s really difficult to digest grass or hay, these guys have a cecum and colon that actually separates large indigestible fibers from small fermentable particles and fluids.  The gut actually has two phases and switches from production of normal “hard feces” to cecotrophs of “soft feces” periodically throughout the day.  The cecotrophs are small, dark, soft feces that are packaged in a protective mucus coating.  You shouldn’t really see these as they get eaten as they are produced.  The mucus helps protect the cecotroph as it passes through the stomach in order to be re-digested.

What Causes the Gut to Slow Down?
Oh boy…here you go:

  • Pain
  • Diet (changes, not enough fiber, too many carbohydrates or proteins)
  • Stress (fright, fear, pain, poor home care, thunderstorms, the construction down the street…)
  • Husbandry Errors (overcrowding, lack of cleanliness…)
  • Other Illness (causing pain or stress)
  • Dental Disease
  • Diseases that Interfere with Eating
  • Medications that Disrupt the Gut
  • Certain Antibiotics (that disrupt the normal gut bacteria)

The Downward Spiral
So, once it starts it gets worse.  Slowed gut motility can lead to the build up of material in the stomach (trichobeozars), gas build up in the GI tract (resulting in pain), stomach ulcers, disruption of normal gut bacteria resulting in overgrowth, fatty liver disease … all things that contribute to making the problem worse.  As the food stays within the intestines, the body continues to remove fluids from the digesta.  Sometimes this can create a wad that is hard to get moving again or actually results in a fecal impaction.

What About Obstructions?
We used to think the trichobeozar in the stomach was the cause of their problems and needed to be removed – not anymore!  Experiments in the early ’80s proved the trichobeozar was the result of gut stasis and not the cause.  We don’t need to remove it unless there is a true foreign body present.  But they can get true obstructions – these are emergencies.  Your rabbit will be very sick and getting more sick very quickly.  Low body temperature is serious for both obstructions and more standard gut stasis.

What Can I Do?
Hind gut fermenters should never have an empty stomach – if there is any change in appetite or droppings start giving Critical Care until you can get to a vet.  The more abnormal your pet, the quicker you should get help.

What Does the Vet Do?
We may want to run some tests to better Guinea pig critical care feedingidentify your pet’s disease – radiographs and blood work can tell us a lot.  High blood glucose levels are actually more common in cases of obstruction.  The good news is that most of these animals can be managed with medical treatment such as Critical Care and fluids.  We will also consider if anti-gas medications, antibiotics or even medicines that promote motility should be used.

Can I Prevent Gut Stasis?
Yes…and no.  You can reduce the risks by feeding your pet a good quality grass hay with some leafy greens and a small amount of pellets.  Alfalfa hay has too much protein for regular bunnies, guinea pigs or chinchillas.  Lots of pellets means fewer long fibers that are so important to maintain normal gut movements.  A good healthy home environment can reduce stress as well.  Annual checkups with your vet are the best way to detect problems early and make sure problems you might not see (like dental disease) are identified as soon as possible.  Always brush your pet when they are shedding – if you have a long haired variety you’ll already be brushing very, very frequently just to keep the hair clean and prevent matts from forming.

Another Diet Post…

Plates

For some reason I was discussing children with my receptionist – she has 2, I have none. I discovered that she followed a similar practice to my mom. You didn’t have to eat the food that was served to you, but neither she nor my mother were willing to make anything special. I fondly remember foraging in the kitchen from a young age.

Our pets can be like young children – frustrating to feed. You do have to stay on top of them, learn what they need and figure a way to get them to eat it! Many of our exotic pets are “concentrate selectors”. That is, they pick out all the yummy stuff first and move onto the nutritional stuff later. In the wild, this works great. In the home, not so good.

HayFor many rabbits, guinea pigs and reptiles, all you have to do is offer them the correct mix. There are rabbits who prefer the pellets to hay – maybe the hay is stale, or they’d rather have oat hay than timothy…but for some, the nutrient rich pellets just are more yummy. The key is not to allow them to control what you are offering. If you’ve let your bunny eat nothing but pellets for years, you may not be able to get them back onto hay.

…and always, there is no such thing as too much hay!

Birds are a little different. They are very smart – sometimes it feels like you’ve got a toddler on your hands. But they can’t make cognitive leaps. If they haven’t been offered a food previously, they may not know that it is food. This is why you never just change the diet “cold turkey”. We’ve seen birds starve to death because their food dishes appear to be filled with rocks.

It’s a good plan to make sure your bird is healthy prior to working on a forced conversion to pellets. Modifying the diet can be stressful and the last thing you want to do is turn a mild self-limiting illness into a problem requiring a doctor’s intervention.

Check out our diet recommendations at Bay Area Bird Hospital for recommended food types, brands of pellets and conversion recommendations.

Don’t give up! Getting your pet onto a healthy diet is the single more important thing you can do for their long-term health.

Hay, It’s Not Just for Rabbits

What’s This Hay Stuff All About?
Hay is the primary food for most of our small mammals like rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs.  While rats, mice and hamsters will benefit from hay in their environment, they don’t need to eat it.  Pellets are very nutrient dense.  They can lead to obesity if overfed.  Pellets should only be a very small portion of your pets daily food intake.  On the other hand, grass hays provide the high fiber, low protein diet these small exotic mammals need.

Ok, So Which Hay?
All grass hays provide appropriate nutrients -that doesn’t mean your pet won’t have a preference.  The most common grass hay is Timothy hay.  It is readily available and usually a good choice for that reason alone.  Some people feel that Guinea Pigs prefer Orchard Grass hay.  It has a softer texture and a sweeter flavor.  Oat Hay has a high stem content resulting in a “crunchy” texture.  There are usually several immature seed heads present as well.  Organic Meadow Hay is generally a mix of several types of grass hays.  Keep in mind that different bags of hay will vary in color, taste, texture and smell – variations in soil, sunshine and weather cause these changes.  It is a good idea to transition between bags of hay (even bags of the same variety) rather than perform a sudden switch.  A good way to prevent hay bag snobbery (your pet won’t eat his or her new hay) is to offer a variety of hay all the time.

But What About Alfalfa?
Alfalfa hay is NOT a grass hay – it is a legume.  It has higher values of protein, calcium and energy.  Alfalfa hay is recommended for young, growing animals.  It can be used as a treat to tempt older animals that aren’t eating well.  In some cases, Alfalfa pellets may be appropriate in small quantities for show bunnies or pregnant bunnies because of their higher energy needs.

How Much Hay?
Small mammals should always have hay available – free choice feeding.  In general, a rabbit should consume its body size in hay daily, while chinchillas and guinea pigs eat about two times their body size.

OK, But How Much…Is There Too Much?
Nope!
Image(photo by Dr. Micah Kohles)

Isn’t this a happy bunny?  Now look at him without his hay…

Image(photo by Dr. Micah Kohles)

Not Just Food! 

One of the other “uses” for hay is to provide environmental enrichment.  Hay can stimulate natural behaviors such as foraging and grazing.  Hide treats (low sugar, high fiber treats that is) in baskets or hay mangers.  Provide deep piles for your pet to burrow through or hide in.  Even mammals that don’t eat hay can enjoy both a sense of security and fun from a large pile of hay.  Rats, mice, hamsters…even ferrets!

Image(photo by Dr. Micah Kohles)

A Final Word on Hay

One very important job of hay is to help our pets with “open root” teeth is to wear them down.  “Aradicular” or “Elodont” teeth have continuously growing teeth.  The teeth of rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas are all open-rooted, while in rats, mice, hamsters and gerbils it is only the incisors that continuously grow.  The best way to keep these teeth in shape is to be chewing long stems of fibrous plants (also known as hay!).  Without an appropriate grinding motion, open-rooted teeth can grow inappropriately, develop points and even grow in the wrong direction.  Once the tooth becomes abnormal only a dental procedure under anesthesia can correct the problem.