Pet Factsheets

Impactions - what’s the blockage?

A normal x-ray of a rabbit's gastrointestinal tract
©Vetstream Ltd

An impaction occurs when something blocks a part in the rabbit’s gastrointestinal tract. This can occur in the entrance or exit of the stomach, along the intestines, or in the caecum or colon. Ingestion of non-food objects, or collections of big clumps of food or dried fur within caecotrophs in the stomach or intestines can block normal passage of food. Impaction can also occur from stomach or intestinal tumours. Regardless of the cause, impaction is a serious and potentially life-threatening condition and needs immediate veterinary treatment.

What signs may my rabbit show if it is impacted?

A rabbit that has an impaction will be unable to pass food through the digestive tract. As rabbits cannot vomit, food continues to build up in the stomach/intestines and with nowhere to exit the body this results in painful bloating as the food/faeces collects and builds up. The rabbit may quickly lose all interest in eating, cease passing droppings, show a bloated/distended abdomen, and show signs of abdominal pain (grinding the teeth, pressing their abdomen on the ground, sit hunch up with eyes half closed).
 
Some of the signs of impaction can appear like gastrointestinal stasis, however impaction comes on much quicker than stasis. 

What should I do if I see any of the signs of impaction?

If left untreated an impacted rabbit may collapse and die, especially if the obstruction leads to rupture of the intestines/stomach.
 
At the first sign of a problem, it is important to get your rabbit to your vet straight away – day or night. These situations are a true emergency and if your rabbit is left for just a couple of hours to see if there is any improvement, it may be too late to save them.
 
If your clinic does not have an after-hours emergency service, make sure you are always familiar with the closest after-hours service in your area. 

How will my vet diagnose impaction?

If an impaction or blockage is suspected, your vet will want to stabilise your rabbit first to give it the best chance for survival. In the first instance, the rabbit may be given analgesia (pain relief), as well as intravenous fluids to support blood volume and hydration.
 
Radiographs (x-rays) are often taken to look for a foreign body or to try and isolate the area of impaction. Not all impactions will show up on radiographs so other tests may also be used.
 
Your vet may also take a blood sample to check your rabbit’s blood glucose level. A rabbit’s blood glucose level will rapidly rise when under extreme stress. Levels can be used to assess if the rabbit is in gastrointestinal stasis or if an impaction/blockage is the cause.
 
If your vet finds that there is no blockage, it may be stasis so the vet will want to get the gastrointestinal tract moving. They will encourage syringe feeding and the use of prokinetic medication. It is important to have ruled out an impaction/blockage prior to commencing prokinetic medication and syringe feeding.

What will my vet do if my rabbit is impacted?

If an impaction is diagnosed, then depending upon your rabbit’s condition your vet may observe your rabbit initially to see what effect the pain relief and fluids have. Your vet may pass a stomach tube to increase hydration within the digestive tract. With supportive treatment some rabbits may be able to pass the impaction without surgery.
 
If the rabbit’s condition does not improve quickly, emergency surgery may be required to remove the blockage.  Surgery is serious and has many potential complications, but if the rabbit is unable to pass the impaction, without surgery they are highly likely to die or require euthanasia to prevent further suffering.

How can I help prevent these problems?

A good diet is a massive step in the right direction to preventing impactions. Rabbits need a high fibre diet. It is important that your rabbit has an ad-lib amount of good quality hay each day. This helps to ‘drive’ the gastrointestinal tract and keep teeth healthy.
 
Always ensure that your rabbit has access to fresh and clean water, and in a method that they are used to drinking from.

Don’t use clumping cat litter. Litter in trays is often eaten and will swell in a rabbit’s stomach, potentially causing a blockage – always use litter that is safe even if eaten by the rabbit.
 
Try not to let house rabbits eat carpet and wallpaper – these can both slow down the GI tract or cause a blockage.
 
Peanuts have also been known to cause a blockage so it is advised that you don’t feed these to your rabbit and also don’t allow your rabbit access in the garden where you feed birds, as they are likely to find dropped peanuts on the ground.
 
Rabbits do not suffer from true ‘hairballs’ but if the gastrointestinal tract slows down or becomes dehydrated and the hair dries out, it can get entangled in caecotrophs which are then eaten and the fur builds up in the stomach. These are the most common cause of impactions and blockages in rabbits.
 
Groom your rabbit regularly and increase the grooming when they are moulting to decrease the amount of hair. Ensure that your rabbit is eating copious amounts of hay and grass and consuming an adequate amount of fluid during this time.

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