Back in February I posted a video of my rabbit, Barnaby, begging for then eating his morning 'cookie'. I had planned on eventually writing a bit more about why I started this ritual with Barnaby. Here's a hint, it's not just because Barnaby loves cookies!
Barnaby's 'cookies' are actually Oxbow supplement tabs. I mainly give him the joint support and senior support supplements, although he's also tried (and enjoyed) the digestive support tabs.
By now you probably think I give Barnaby treats because they are actually supplements. While I like the idea of giving him treats that are also good for him, I can't say for sure whether the supplements have actually helped him at all or not. I give him treats every morning for one simple reason - to make sure he's eating.
Rabbits have VERY sensitive GI tracts. It may sound strange to people used to feeding animals like dogs and cats, but rabbits can actually die if they go longer than 12 hours or so without eating. GI stasis is a very common cause of death in pet rabbits.
In very simplistic terms, GI stasis is when the natural movement of the gut, which normally keeps food flowing through a rabbit's system, slows down or stops completely. This can quickly lead to dehydration, and cause your rabbit to feel bloated, gassy, and very uncomfortable. Rabbits with untreated GI stasis commonly die from hepatic lipidosis, or fatty liver disease, caused by toxins building up in their bodies from the lack of movement within the digestive tract.
When it comes to something as serious as GI stasis in rabbits, prevention is the best medicine. The best way to prevent GI stasis is to keep your rabbit as healthy as possible. A proper diet that consists mainly of grass hays is key. It's also important to make sure your rabbit has constant access to fresh water, that he/she gets regular exercise, and that teeth do not become overgrown. Anything that could cause your rabbit to stop eating can lead to GI stasis, even something as simple as an upset stomach due to an unhealthy meal or treat.
Even the most knowledgeable, well intentioned rabbit owner will probably have to deal with GI stasis eventually. Barnaby has had it a couple of times in his 10 years of life. Poppet, one of my past rabbits, had quite a few health issues and was very prone to bouts of stasis. Dealing with stasis in a beloved rabbit is a scary experience, but with early detection and prompt treatment most rabbits pull through just fine. It's when stasis is not detected quickly that it becomes dangerous, even deadly.
So how do you detect stasis early so that you can offer your rabbit the best chance of survival? You make sure they are eating and using the bathroom normally at regular intervals. This is where that 12 hours comes in again. If your rabbit goes 12 hours or more without eating it should be considered a medical emergency.
This is why I start every morning by offering Barnaby a treat. Because if he accepts and eats it eagerly then I know he's feeling ok and not suffering from the beginnings of GI stasis.
I also make sure Barnaby is eating normally in the evenings, but because I feed Barnaby his dinner in the evenings treats aren't necessary. Another way to keep a look out for the beginnings of stasis is to monitor your rabbit's output. But, because this post is already getting long, I think that's a topic for another day.
If you're going to use the 'treat test' for your rabbit make sure to use a treat that won't itself lead to an upset stomach! Barnaby is used to eating his Oxbow treats and handles them well, but a different treat might work better for your rabbit.
Most people seem to think of rabbits as low maintenance pets. I hate to think of how many pet rabbits die from stasis because their owners aren't aware that not eating can lead to death so quickly. It's definitely one aspect of their care that takes more attention to detail then feeding most other types of pets. I know if one of my dogs skipped a meal or two, and had no other symptoms of being sick, I wouldn't worry too much. But if Barnaby goes too long without eating I have a whole protocol of things to do to figure out what's wrong and to get him eating again ASAP.
Comment below! If you have a rabbit do you also do the treat test to make sure he/she is eating regularly? If you haven't had a rabbit before did you know that not eating can be so dangerous for them?