Gastrointestinal Foreign Bodies in Rabbits
Obstruction of the gastrointestinal tract occurs when a rabbit swallows large amounts of hair, fur, bedding, or other foreign objects that do not belong in the digestive tract. Usually, these materials are absorbed and excreted through the feces. But when the rabbit is fed a low fiber diet, the gastric muscles become less active, and a stasis, or inactivity, develops. As a result these foreign materials build up in the digestive tract, causing an obstruction. This low motility can also lead to dehydration of the abdominal contents, further drying up the contents.
Some of the other materials that may be swallowed and cause accumulation include cat litter, heavy metal, and wires (such as from caging materials). If the obstruction is significant enough, loss of muscle mass and cardiac complications may occur and a sudden life-threatening emergency situation may develop. It is usually seen in older rabbits that are being fed poor diets or are refusing to eat the high in fiber foods that are offered to them.
Symptoms and Types
Many rabbits with gastrointestinal obstructions have a recent history of illness or stressful events. They will initially stop eating pellets but continue to eat treats, often followed by complete loss of appetite (anorexia). Some rabbits may seem bright and alert, but will also display signs of pain such as teeth grinding, hunched posture, and an unwillingness to move. Other common symptoms associated with gastrointestinal obstructions include:
- Abnormally small stool droppings
- Progressive abdominal distension
- Excessive salivation
- Persistent attempts at swallowing, with or without food in mouth
Some of the main risk factors include:
- Diets with inadequate amounts of coarse fiber content
- Inactivity due to pain, obesity, or cage confinement
- Anesthesia and surgical procedures affecting motility of intestinal muscles
- Unsupervised chewing behavior and access to foreign materials
- Underlying dental disease or injury, disorders of the gastrointestinal tract, or metabolic disease
You will need to give your veterinarian a thorough history of your rabbit’s health, eating habits, and onset of symptoms. He or she will then perform a thorough physical exam on your rabbit, palpating the abdomen to feel for hard masses — the abdomen may or may not be distended, depending on the size of the mass or the length of the time your rabbit has been affected by this condition. A buildup of fluid or gas may be palpable in the intestinal area, as it will be unable to move past the obstruction. The animal may even have a low heart rate due to the stress of the situation.
To make a precise diagnosis, your veterinarian will need to view the abdominal area internally, to be sure that there is in fact a mass in the intestinal tract, and to pinpoint the exact location of the obstruction. He or she will also need to differentiate between other conditions such as masses due to tumors or injuries to the abdomen (e.g., scar tissue), from obstruction due to an ingested mass.
Visual diagnostics will include X-ray imaging, and endoscopy examination. The latter method uses a small camera that is attached to a flexible tube, and which can be inserted by way of the mouth into the actual space to be examined. In this way, your veterinarian can get a more precise image of the cause of the blockage. Depending on the size and type of blockage that is present, your veterinarian may be able to use tools that can be attached to endoscopes to remove the material that is blocking the intestinal tract, or to gather a tissue sample for biopsy.
Because gastrointestinal obstructions can be a life-threatening situation, your rabbit will be treated on an emergency basis. Intestinal and stomach motility modifiers may be prescribed, but if non- or low-invasive techniques cannot be reliably used to move the obstruction out of the body, surgery will need to be performed to remove the foreign object. In addition, injury to the intestinal tract can occur due to the presence or movement of a foreign object, and antibiotics may be prescribed as a preventative measure against opportunistic infection. Analgesics and sedative agents may also be prescribed if your rabbit is in pain.
Fluid therpay will be given through oral or intravenous routes for dehydrated rabbits, which is a common finding. Meanwhile, gastric decompression techniques will be employed to relieve the intestines of internal pressure due to fluid and gas buildup.
Living and Management
It is important that your rabbit continue to eat during and following treatment. Encourage oral fluid intake by offering fresh water, wetting leafy vegetables, or flavoring water with vegetable juice, and offer a large selection of fresh, moistened greens such as cilantro, romaine lettuce, parsley, carrot tops, dandelion greens, spinach, collard greens, and good-quality grass hay. Also, offer your rabbit its usual pelleted diet, as the initial goal is to get the rabbit to eat and to maintain its weight and nutritional status. If your rabbit refuses these foods, you will need to syringe feed a gruel mixture until it can eat again on its own. Moroever, do not feed your rabbit high-carbohydrate, high-fat nutritional supplements unless your veterinarian has specifically advised it.
After the foreign body is removed, the rabbit may resume normal activity, which will also promote gastric motility and help it recover that much faster. Encourage your rabbit to graze and exercise (i.e., hopping) outside its cage, under supervision, for at least 10 to 15 minutes every 6 to 8 hours.
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