Rabbits are very clean animals and groom themselves and their companions constantly which means the stomach contents always contain hair. This hair is normally passed through the digestive system and excreted with the faecal pellets.
Why do rabbits get hairballs?
True hairballs are very rare in rabbits since it is a normal finding for a rabbit to have some hair within their stomach and digestive system. Problems occur when excessive amounts of hair are ingested or the hair already within the stomach dehydrates. True hairballs are called trichobezoars.
Normal grooming should not cause a problem, but excessive grooming or hair chewing can occur as a result of a low fibre diet. These problems can also be a bad habit (vice) which is usually associated with boredom or stress.
Long-haired rabbits, such as angoras or cashmeres may suffer from true hairballs as they will consume more and longer strands of hair than shorter furred breeds of rabbit.
How will I know if my rabbit has a hairball?
Problems normally creep up slowly and you will notice over several days or weeks that your rabbit will eat less, produce fewer and smaller, harder droppings, move around less, produce droppings which are strung together with hair and possibly tooth grind in pain.
If you notice any unusual behaviour regarding your rabbits eating habits you should contact your vet immediately, as rabbits who stop eating for any length of time are often very sick rabbits. Since a rabbit's digestive system is designed to have a constant supply of food going through it, any disruption to this will quickly send the rabbit into gastrointestinal stasis (GI stasis), where the digestive system stops or slows down completely. This is serious and life-threatening and requires immediate veterinary attention in order to have any chance of saving the rabbit.
Hairballs can also cause blockages within the digestive system. These normally occur rapidly, rather than having a slow onset like with GI stasis. Rabbits with blockages often deteriorate rapidly, produce no droppings at all, are anorexic, may be collapsed and in a lot of pain. These are emergencies and you must take your rabbit to a rabbit savvy vet for immediate treatment.
How can I prevent my rabbit from getting hairballs?
Feeding hay ad lib, thus ensuring that the rabbit has a high-fibre diet and a constant source of food to nibble on to reduce boredom is the single and best way to help prevent hairballs.
However, hairballs are often associated to a primary cause which has meant that the rabbit has reduced its food and water intake and the hair within the stomach has become dehydrated. Any form of pain (dental, spinal, abdominal, etc), stressful occurrence (new companion, loss of a companion, vet visits, predators within the garden, sudden changes in environmental temperatures, etc) can mean a rabbit will eat and drink less, resulting in a hairball forming. However, it must be remembered that the hairball is a secondary condition and the primary cause needs identifying and treating correctly.
To ensure that your rabbit doesn't ingest excess quantities of hair, you must groom them daily during a moult and regularly at other times. If you have long-haired rabbits, they will need grooming daily all year round and may also need clipping periodically. This should be done by someone experienced in clipping rabbits, as rabbit skin tears very easily.
Can my rabbit be treated for hairballs?
Since the hairball is a secondary finding and often not
Whilst this is being identified it is imperative that the rabbit receives adequate fluid therapy (often intravenous fluids are the best route) syringe feeding or nasoesophageal tube feeding if the rabbit is unwilling to accept syringe feeding, pain killers (analgesia), medication to keep and encourage the digestive system to start or keep moving (prokinetic medication) and encouragement to eat by offering lots of fresh hay, grass, greens, etc.
Investigations to identify the primary cause may include a thorough dental examination, often requiring sedation, x-rays of the spine and hips/pelvis to look for arthritic or spondylosis changes, skull x-rays to assess the tooth roots, blood tests and a thorough history from the owner to ascertain if any stressful occurrence has happened recently to explain the rabbits condition.
If a hairball that is causing a blockage is diagnosed, then medical management is generally futile and can cause further problems. Prokinetic medication is not advised when there is a blockage due to the risk of the stomach rupturing. Often these rabbits require stabilisation prior to surgery to remove the blockage. These are high risk surgeries but may be the rabbit's only option.
Mineral oil and laxatives are ineffective in treating hairballs. Pineapple juice which contains the digestive enzyme bromelain has been reported as helping to dissolve the hair, but no scientific evidence has ever been produced to prove this, and all pineapple juice will do is help to rehydrate the rabbit.
The most common way to try to treat hairballs is with fluids to hydrate the stomach contents, analgesia and syringe/nasoesophageal feeding. Roughage (hay or grass) should be fed during the treatment to help carry the hair fibres through the digestive system and out with the faeces.
Are there any other problems associated with moulting?
Some rabbits can seem to get ‘stuck in moult’, whereby they don’t seem to finish moulting and may even start again. This can be caused by a sudden change in the environmental temperature or if the rabbit becomes unwell or stressed. This is another reason why it is important to groom your rabbit daily when they are moulting, so all the dead coat is removed as quickly as possible.
Some rabbits may develop bald patches when moulting. This is generally nothing to worry about, as long as the skin doesn’t look red, sore or inflamed. The new fur will start to grow through normally within a few days. The skin can also sometimes look a little flaky when rabbits moult. This shouldn’t be confused with mites and should clear up when the new fur has grown through. If you are concerned, speak to your vet for advice.