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by Dana Krempels, Ph.D.

Unlike most other mammals, rabbits produce two types of droppings, fecal pellets (the round, dry ones you usually see in the litterbox) and cecotropes. The latter are produced in a portion of the rabbit's digestive tract called the cecum. The cecum contains a wild brew of bacteria and fungi that are normal and beneficial for the rabbit; in fact, the rabbit cannot live without them, since the cecal flora produces essential nutrients (fatty acids and vitamins) that the rabbit cannot produce on her own.

How does the rabbit get those vitamins? She eats the cecotropes as they exit the anus. Sounds disgusting, but the rabbit will tell you it's delightful with that blissful bunny grin she gets on her face when she's twitching her hind end and munching her cecotropes. Because most rabbits produce cecotropes only at night or early morning when you're not watching, cecotropes are sometimes called "night droppings."

A normal cecotrope resembles a dark, brown mulberry. It is composed of smaller pellets, shiny because of a coating of protective mucous, stuck together in an elongate mass. The cecotrope is rather pungent, as it contains a population of normal cecal bacteria. When the bunny ingests the cecotrope, the protein mucous coat protects the bacteria as they pass through the stomach, then re-establish in the cecum.

The cecum is a delicately balanced ecosystem. If the intestine is moving too slowly, if the bunny is stressed, ill, injured or is getting an improper diet, the complex flora in the cecum can become "unbalanced," often because the normal peristaltic movement which helps keep the cecal flora normal is slowed down or stopped. When this happens, the beneficial bacteria (Bacteroides spp.) are outcompeted and outnumbered by less desirable inhabitants such as yeast (a fungus, usually Saccharomycopsis sp.) or even very harmful bacteria such as Clostridium spp.

True diarrhea is rare in adult rabbits, though it can occur due to parasitic infection. Your rabbit-experienced veterinarian will be able to examine a fecal sample (and you should probably provide the vet with a bit of each type of sample mentioned above) to check for parasites such as coccidia, roundworm or tapeworm.

However, runny "diarrhea" in an adult rabbit usually is NOT true diarrhea (runny fecal pellets). Rather, it is most often loose cecotropes, indicating an imbalance in the cecal flora. Although the symptom can be addressed, it is wise to seek the underlying cause of the intestinal trouble to ensure a permanent relief from runny cecotropes and messy bottom.

 

Consider the following possibilities in a rabbit with runny stool:

1. If this is a baby rabbit, how old is he? If he is younger than eight weeks, and is not with his mother, his runny stool problem is most likely due to his being weaned too young. This introduces a whole set of problems that you should address with your rabbit-experienced veterinarian. Of critical importance is keeping the baby hydrated, even with subcutaneous fluids, while you try to help him balance his cecal flora (Lactobacillus acidophilus powder--not yogurt!--is helpful for this purpose) and get past this serious problem stage. It is illegal to sell a mammal younger than eight weeks of age in Florida. And for good reason!

2. If this is an adult rabbit, is she obese? If so, her cecotropes could be normal, but since she can't reach them as they are produced, she smears them all over the floor and her bottom as she tries to engage in her normal cecotrophy (eating cecotropes).

3. Do you feed the bunny starchy treats such as oatmeal, crackers, bread or sweets? These are terrible for rabbits, since rabbits are strict herbivores, designed to eat grass as the main dietary staple. Too much commercial pellet feed can also cause runny cecotropes in some sensitive individuals.

4. Do you feed your bunny unlimited grass hay (such as timothy, brome, wheat or oat)? If not, the bunny may have insufficient fiber in her diet. This alone can cause the intestine to slow down its muscular contractions and cause cecal imbalance. Unlimited fresh grass hay keeps the intestinal muscles in good tone and moving quickly and strongly.

5. Is the bunny ill? Often, the rabbit's first organ system to respond to illness/injury/stress is the intestine. The problem could be something as simple (and common) as molar spurs or as complex and unwelcome as a urinary tract problem, infection or painful abscess or even stress from a new situation. Sometimes the first sign that a bunny is not feeling well is anorexia (unwillingness to eat) and/or runny/mushy stool. This is a sign of intestinal slowdown, which can progress to a very dangerous condition (ileus) if left untreated.

Bottom (ha ha!) line: runny stool is a sign that there is something wrong in the system. It may be something as simple as an improper diet, or it could be more serious. With some good diagnostic work, your veterinarian can work through all the possibilities and determine what's causing the intestinal slowdown.

If improving the diet doesn't clear up the problem, further diagnostics to detect more cryptic health problems are in order. Even a rabbit with perfectly normal incisors can suffer from mild molar malocclusion, which results in sharp spurs growing on the molars. These can abrade the cheek and gum, causing pain and stress enough to shut down the gut. Molar spurs should be filed down, just as they are in horses. Stay on top of this very common problem by having your vet check your rabbit's molars at least once per year. Problem molars need to be checked more often--sometimes as often as every two months or more, depending on the individual rabbit and the condition of the teeth and jaw bones.

If the teeth are normal, your vet may wish to examine a fecal sample for parasites, draw blood for a complete panel and blood count, or even take radiographs or do ultrasound to find hidden problems. Veterinarians who see only dogs and cats in their practices are sometimes not familiar with the unique medical needs of a rabbit.

Together, you and your veterinarian can keep your whole bunny healthy, and that means good intestinal health! It's one of the main ingredients for a long life filled with happy, nose-wiggling love.


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