Huh? Gut Stasis?
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
Rabbits 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:
- 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 identify 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.