Question: My pet rabbit, Bugsy, seems to be losing weight and my friend thinks he is showing symptoms of hairballs. Can you please explain what that is?
Answer: Like cats, rabbits groom themselves almost constantly causing hair to pass through their digestive tract.
This is normal behaviour and only becomes a problem if too much hair is consumed or for some reason cannot pass through normally.
The accumulated hair forms a ball that cannot pass through the intestinal tract usually leading to an obstruction.
This is referred to as hairball, wool block, gastric stasis or hair block. The stomach is the most common part of the intestinal tract affected.
Unlike cats, rabbits do not have the physical ability to vomit these hairballs.
Common symptoms are poor appetite, smaller faecal pellets, weakness and weight loss with a history of a hair-chewing habit.
Sometimes, X-rays are taken to evaluate the intestinal tract.
Without treatment, it can become more serious and even fatal in extreme cases.
Treatment of hairball obstructions can be either medical or surgical.
Medical treatment includes drugs to stimulate the digestive system, administration of injectable fluids or medication to increase contractions of the intestinal tract.
Sometimes pain medication and anti-ulcer treatment will also be given.
If this is not effective, surgical removal of the hairball may be necessary.
Re-establishing the natural balance of micro-organisms in the digestive system can be assisted by certain medications.
Many rabbits afflicted with hairballs are found to be on a high carbohydrate, low fibre diet.
These rabbits are often kept caged and have been under stress, causing changes in the motility and function of the stomach and intestines.
Hair chewing is usually caused by a low fibre diet or due to boredom.
Providing adequate fibre in the diet is critical to maintaining good movement throughout the gastrointestinal tract and to prevent this condition.
This means that your rabbit should have plenty of fresh grass hay available at all times and plenty of fresh greens available.
Offer limited pellets or feed hay along with pellets.
Adding magnesium oxide to the diet may be helpful to provide sufficient moisture and fibre to keep your rabbits internal organs functioning in top form.
Prevention usually consists of providing a high-fibre diet, avoiding stress and obesity, adding toys and items for chewing to the cages to overcome boredom and regular grooming.
l Dr Hansel Geo is a veterinary consultant and surgeon for the BSPCA. Please send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.