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Diarrhoea vs caecotrophs

It is important to differentiate true diarrhoea from uneaten caecotrophs. Caecotrophs are the soft, sticky, nutrient-rich droppings passed by rabbits which are then re-ingested directly from their bottom as a normal part of their digestive process. This means that caecotrophs are not often seen in the enclosure of healthy rabbits, however rabbits which struggle to eat their caecotrophs such as those with obesity, spinal or hindlimb pain or dental problems may leave these droppings uneaten on the floor of the enclosure or stuck to the fur around the bottom.

In contrast, true diarrhoea appears watery or paste-like in consistency without the usual round form of the droppings. It may also contain blood or mucus. True diarrhoea is a serious concern in rabbits and has several possible causes.

What causes diarrhoea?

Diarrhoea is a symptom rather than a specific disease, meaning that it can be seen as a result of multiple conditions. The most common causes of diarrhoea in rabbits include:

  • Diet-related diarrhoea
  • Coccidiosis
  • Viral or bacterial gut infections
  • Antibiotic medications
  • Systemic illnesses such as liver disease

How does my rabbit get diarrhoea?

Diet-related diarrhoea can occur due to a low-fibre diet, sudden changes in diet, feeding of inappropriate greens such as iceberg lettuce or feeding of excessive quantities of rabbit-safe greens. Causes of poor appetite or appetite changes such as dental disease, stress or other sources of pain can also result in reduced fibre intake which can lead to diarrhoea.

Coccidiosis, bacterial and viral gut infections are most common in young rabbits around the time of weaning, especially in cases of overcrowding or poor hygiene, or where groups of rabbits are being mixed together.

Treatment with certain types of antibiotics such as those in the penicillin group can cause diarrhoea as a side effect, especially when administered by mouth. This is because of the damaging effect these antibiotics can have on the normal gut bacteria which are essential for healthy digestion in rabbits.

How can I find out the cause?

A veterinary examination is the first step in diagnosis of the cause of diarrhoea. Checking for dental disease, respiratory problems or other sources of pain, illness or stress can give clues as to the underlying reason. Clinical history may also raise suspicion as to the likely cause, for example a known sudden diet change or recent antibiotic treatment.

If systemic disease is suspected, blood tests and other investigations such as x-rays or scans may be advised to look for the source of the problem. A sample of the faeces may be collected to assess for gut infections or parasites.

Can it be treated?

Treatment success depends on the underlying cause of the diarrhoea. Acute diet-related diarrhoea such as overfeeding of greens can be addressed by correcting the diet, maintaining hydration and ensuring that the rabbit continues to eat during the recovery period. Other causes of diarrhoea may require more intensive treatment in addition to these measures, such as specific medications to target infections or treatment of an underlying problem.

Cases of chronic diarrhoea can be more difficult to treat as it takes time to normalise gut health and digestion and severely affected individuals may not respond successfully to treatment regardless of the cause.

How can I prevent it?

Providing an appropriate diet consisting of 80-90% good-quality hay, 5-10% grass-based rabbit nuggets and 5-10% fresh rabbit-safe greens is an essential factor in preventing diarrhoea in otherwise healthy adult rabbits. The risk of gut infections or parasites can be reduced by quarantine of new rabbits before introducing them to your group, rehoming or purchasing rabbits from reputable sources and maintaining good environmental cleanliness and hygiene.