Ileus in rabbits – what is it?

Ileus in rabbits – what is it?

Food & Nutrition

Rabbits are complex little creatures, and there is much more to them than meets the eye. Like any animal, they have their faults, and in this Pets4Homes article, we will be looking at one of them - Ileus. This condition can affect any rabbit and will stop the well-oiled machine of their digestive system.

So how does the rabbit digestion system work?

We said rabbits are complex and this is the bit that makes them unique. The rabbit digestive system is finely tuned so once the food is eaten, just like us it enters the stomach and digestion starts with stomach acid, and then breaks down in the small intestine by enzymes.

This is where the magic comes in - with a fermentation chamber called the caecum.

All the digestible fibre is fermented in the caecum and has its nutrients unlocked. For the rabbit to make use of this nutrient-rich fibre it obviously needs to go through the system again. This is achieved by the rabbit coating the particles in mucus then they become caecotrophs. They are then passed out of the rabbit through the colon, and the rabbit eats them again – to be able to gain the goodness of the nutrients.

Once these nutrients have been extracted, they are passed out as normal faeces. So, in essence, the rabbit passes two lots of product from eating – caecotrophs and faeces.

So, what is Ileus?

When the system stops working properly and the small intestine fails to move the food along – known as peristalsis waves, – it becomes Ileus which is also known as gastrointestinal stasis, or gut stasis.

The knock-on effect from this is when food in the intestines and caecum mean bacteria goes into warp speed and produces a buildup of gas. This increase in gas pressure in the rabbit causes them a lot of pain, then they will stop eating which in turn causes lethargy and dehydration. If left untreated Ileus can prove fatal.

So, what causes it?

The four main contributing factors to rabbit Ileus are inappropriate diet, teeth problems, pain or stress, and lack of exercise.

Inappropriate diet:

If the rabbit has too much starch but not enough good quality grass or hay this can cause problems. Low water intake from drinking can cause dehydration and result in a dry gut. This makes the passing of food along the tract much more difficult, as it is dry.

Teeth problems:

Poorly chewed food from overgrown teeth can cause indigestion in the rabbit – this is why the vets should regularly check your rabbit’s teeth to ensure there overgrowing.

Pain and stress:

Dental pain, infections, or chronic pain, for example, arthritis can lead to gut stasis. Also, emotional stress such as loss of a friend, or even moving to a new house can put a rabbit into gut stasis.

Not enough exercise:

If your rabbit is not active enough, it can lead to the gut also being inactive, so please make time to play with them, and ensure they get enough exercise to help keep everything moving.

What are the symptoms?

If your rabbit does develop gut stasis, the symptoms are usually shown as:

  • Posture – as they will have stomach pain, the rabbit will generally sit in a hunched-up position to try and relieve it. Unusually the back and front feet will be closer together to allow them to arch their back.
  • Lethargy – your rabbit may become very quiet and not want to exercise.
  • Anorexia – this means your rabbit will not eat or drink.
  • Faecal problems: dry or very hard pellets can be an indicator that your rabbit is dehydrated, it can also be an indicator for Ileus. Sometimes there is a marked decrease in faecal output, and even stopping as well.

How can it be treated?

If your rabbit has Ileus, then they need to see a vet urgently. Vets will be able to give supportive treatment to try and help the situation. These can include:

  • Fluids – if your rabbit has stopped drinking and has become dehydrated, giving them fluids is vitally important to help their recovery.
  • Medication – drugs such as metoclopramide are called prokinetics, which mean they can help the gut to get moving again.
  • Painkillers – because this condition can be very painful and whilst any animal is in pain it will not want to eat or drink, getting the pain under control is vital to help recovery.
  • Probiotics – this doesn’t mean feeding your rabbit yoghurt, rather a mixture that contains good bacteria that will help the recovery of the gut. If the balance of good and bad bacteria in the gut is out of sync, this can cause problems in the digestive system.

Is it preventable?

Some rabbits are predisposed to Ileus, and if they do have a flare up of it, they need adequate vet support to help them recover.

  • To get to a point where there is a decrease in the risk of Ileus in your rabbit, the following steps can be taken:
  • Exercise – yes, you can get a rabbit to exercise, and you should. Allowing them to have a good run in the garden will help your rabbit's mental health by giving them stimulation. Some rabbit owners even take their bunnies out on leads. To encourage them to move more, hide food around the hutch for them to forage and trying.
  • Minimise stress – give your rabbit some company, allow them plenty of space and give them a good diet, reducing stress in your rabbit can help keep the guts working properly.
  • A good diet – plenty of fibre and drinking water are the two vital ingredients to good gastrointestinal health.
  • Keep an eye on their teeth – rabbits teeth grow constantly, and they need good quality fibre diet to help grind them down. You can even buy them toys they can gnaw on to help keep their teeth in the best shape. When you bring them to the vet for a health check or vaccination, ask them to check your rabbit's teeth. Rabbits are notoriously stoic creatures and will not show pain by vocalisation, so it’s really important to know your rabbit, by how they react to you. This is worth remembering because they may act differently in the vets due to stress.


Ileus in rabbits can be fatal, take time to understand your rabbit, if they are feeling under the weather or there seems to be a problem with them eating – please contact your vet as a matter of urgency. The quicker gut stasis is started to be treated, the better the prognosis for the bunny.

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