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How do you treat hairballs in rabbits?

A hairball is a solid mass of hair in the stomach.  Because rabbits groom themselves frequently, they can accumulate large amounts of hair in this way.  Most of the hair will pass through the intestinal tract harmlessly especially if the rabbit is eating a good diet composed of mainly hay and other high fiber foods.  If a solid hairball forms and lodges in the intestinal tract, however, a life-threatening obstruction can occur.  The signs of such an obstruction include refusal to eat, lack of fecal pellets, abdominal pain, and lethargy.  Any rabbit exhibiting these signs should be seen by a veterinarian right away.  If an obstruction is present, surgery may be required to relieve it.

            Most rabbits that show these signs however, are not truly obstructed by a hairball, but are suffering from a similar condition called gastric stasis.  This is a common syndrome in which the gastrointestinal tract loses its normal motility resulting in dehydration of the gastrointestinal contents and firm ingested material accumulating in the stomach and cecum (a part of the intestine).  Although hair can be found in the stomach of rabbits with gastric stasis, it is usually not the cause of the problem.  Common causes include an inappropriate diet, lack of hay, excessive carbohydrates, and stress from environmental factors or illness. Therapy for gastric stasis involves rehydration, nutritional support, and drugs to increase gastric motility and reduce pain.  Unlike a true obstruction, this condition is managed medically rather than surgically and usually has a better outcome, although it is still a medical emergency.

            Fortunately, we can prevent most cases of gastric stasis and hairball obstruction in rabbits by feeding a high fiber diet composed mainly of hay and green leafy vegetables.  Give limited amounts of pellets and few if any high sugar treats.  Home remedies for hairballs such as laxatives and papaya tablets can actually be counterproductive if the rabbit has gastric stasis, as these products can be loaded with sugars.  Finally, brushing rabbits, especially long-haired breeds such as the Angora or Jersey Wooly is an important way to help prevent hairballs.

[doctor name = “Frank Boren”]