Did you ever wake up one morning and accidentally step into your cat’s regurgitated hair ball? Well I have good news for you about rabbits! You will never have to worry about cleaning up a gross mess after they’ve thrown up their food.
Rabbits are not biologically capable of throwing up. Once a rabbit eats something, it has to make its way through the entire digestive system. This is why stomach blockages and poisons can be so dangerous to pet rabbits.
A rabbit’s inability to regurgitate anything can be convenient for rabbit owners because you will never have to clean up vomit. But it also means you have to be very careful about what you feed your rabbit. You’ll also need to keep an eye out for any signs of digestive health problems. Despite this physiological danger, most rabbits are able to live long and happy lives if they are given a healthy diet and plenty of exercise.
Why rabbits can’t throw up
Unlike rodents, who have a true one way digestive system because of the weak muscular structure in their stomach and diaphragm, rabbits cannot vomit because of a thick and strong sphincter.
The sphincter (found in most mammals) blocks the passage between the esophagus and the stomach so that stomach juice doesn’t splash up the esophagus. The difference in rabbits is that this muscle is particularly strong, and it is surrounded by a fold of mucous membrane. It effectively creates a one-way plug between the rabbit’s stomach and throat. It lets food and liquid in, but then acts like a cork on a bottle, not let anything back up the esophagus and preventing the rabbit from vomiting.
While rabbit anatomy has been studied for decades and it is a widely held belief that rabbits are completely incapable of vomiting, there have been a number of instances where a rabbit has been observed throwing up. In most cases this occurred shortly before death, and the autopsies confirmed that food was somehow passing from the stomach to the esophagus, causing the rabbit to vomit.
These are very rare exceptions to the rule, however, and likely occurred because the muscles in the rabbit’s stomach and throat were not working as they should. In general, it’s important to remember that rabbit anatomy should prevent them from being able to vomit. If you happen to have one of these very rare rabbits, you should make an emergency appointment with your rabbit-savvy vet to check for any underlying conditions.
The dangers of a one way digestive system
A one-way digestive system can be quite dangerous to rabbits because everything that they eat, has to make its way all the way through the digestive tract. This means it is all too easy for a rabbit to be poisoned by eating something they shouldn’t. Rabbits also commonly suffer when their digestive tract slows down, or when there are blockages in their stomach or intestines. Rabbits can also, unfortunately, suffer from gas that gets trapped in their stomach, unable to burp it out like many other mammals.
Eating poisonous foods
Because rabbits cannot vomit to clear out poisons they have ingested, it’s very important to pay close attention to your rabbit’s diet and keep any poisonous foods or substances away from them. This could be anything from poisonous household plants, to old wall paint that contains lead. As you rabbit-proof your house, you should make sure to cover or remove anything potentially dangerous away from your rabbit’s reach.
Some specific things you should look out for include:
- Poisonous plants, both indoor and outdoor
- Lead poisoning from chewing on baseboards
- Rat poison (apartment complexes sometimes place these around do deal with rodent problems)
- Some antibiotics and pain medications that are safe for other pets (this is why you should find a rabbit-savvy veterinarian)
- Insecticides/pesticides (including many topical flea treatments)
Rabbits can’t vomit, which means if they swallow too much fur when grooming themselves they can potentially get a hairball that blocks part of their digestive tract. Normally a rabbit who is otherwise healthy will not suffer from hairballs, even if they are ingesting a lot of fur. But if their digestion slows down a little, it will cause the fur to get backed up and start to clog the system.
Symptoms for hairballs in rabbits will include not eating or pooping, as the digestive tract gets clogged. Earlier on, before it becomes a serious health problem, you might notice some of the rabbit’s poops are strung together with fur. If you see this occasionally, that’s perfectly normal, especially during shedding seasons. But if you find most of your rabbit’s poops are like this, it could be a sign of trouble brewing.
The best prevention is to make sure your rabbit has a healthy diet and drinks plenty of water, to keep their digestion moving along with no problems. You’ll also want to make sure you groom your rabbit. This is especially important if you are noticing a significant amount of fur-linked poop in their litter box. For long haired rabbits, and during shedding season, this is an essential part of rabbit care.
Eating an unhealthy diet can cause a rabbit’s digestive tract to slow down or stop completely. Rabbits cannot vomit, and therefore depend on their digestive tract continuing to move. Gastrointestinal Stasis (GI Stasis), is the name of the condition that occurs when this is not working as it should be, and it can be fatal to rabbits if the signs are not caught on time.
GI stasis is pretty common. It’s best to learn the symptoms so you can take action if you ever need to get your rabbit to the emergency vet. The main symptoms include:
- Not eating.
- No poops or small malformed poops.
- Diarrhea or mushy poops.
- Loud stomach gurgles, or no sound coming from the stomach at all.
- Hunched posture.
- Lack of energy.
A little bit of prevention can go a long way for conditions like this. Making sure your rabbit has a healthy diet and a lot of exercise are the best thing you can do to keep your rabbit happy and healthy. Other things we can do to prevent this condition include:
- Feed your rabbit lots of hay.
- Encourage your rabbit to stay hydrated.
- Make sure their enclosure is large enough and allow your rabbit to have lots of exercise.
- Regular, annual vet visits.
- Reduce stress.
Bloat is a very scary condition for rabbits, especially because it is not fully understood. It happens when gas gets trapped in a rabbit’s stomach. Because the sphincter is such a tight plug between the rabbit’s esophagus and stomach, rabbits are unable to burp to release the buildup of gas.
Bloat is usually caused by overeating or other digestive problems, and can come one very quickly. A rabbit with bloat will look rounded on the sides of the abdomen, and the stomach will feel hard when it’s touched. Other symptoms include:
- Breathing rapidly
- Not being able to find a comfortable position to rest in
- Not eating
- Not pooping
- Lack of energy
- Sitting in a hunched position
Like other gastrointestinal conditions, the best way to avoid bloat is to make sure your rabbit has a healthy diet:
- Provide your rabbit with a healthy diet consisting of mostly timothy hay.
- Avoid quick dietary changes
- Stick to a regular feeding schedule
- Reduce stress for your rabbit
Sometimes what looks like a rabbits vomiting is actually a rabbit choking. Choking in rabbits is also rare, since they do not often breathe through their mouths, but it is possible. Anecdotally, people will share stories about when their rabbits suddenly stopped eating and began making retching motions with their heads and mouths. This is often followed by partially chewed up pellets or greens being “thrown up.” It appears as if the rabbit vomited, but usually this is actually a rabbit choking.
How to know if a rabbit is choking
Most of the time when this occurs, the rabbit will manage to “cough up” the food on their own. It’s much like when we humans have to cough to make sure we don’t choke, even though we don’t have a fully blocked air passage. But it is possible for a rabbit to be choking completely.
Signs to look out for include:
- Lifting their head in the air
- Gurgling or whistling sound
- Eyes popping
- Gums turning blue
In an extreme emergency, when your rabbit is not breathing and you only have a few minutes to save their life, there is the bunny Heimlich maneuver. This is an extremely dangerous technique, and while it may save your rabbit’s life it can also cause the rabbit’s spine to be injured. DO NOT USE THIS TECHNIQUE UNLESS THERE IS NO OTHER OPTION!
What to do if you believe your rabbit is choking (the bunny Heimlich maneuver):
- Do NOT place your rabbit on their back
- Drape your rabbit over your forearm, supporting their chest in your hand. Make sure head is below the chest and lung.
- With your other arm, cover the back of the rabbit and support their head and neck with your hand.
- Keeping your arms straight, bring your arms up and then quickly swing them down to create a force that will push the food out of the rabbit’s airway.
Rabbit Heimlich maneuver example on a stuffed rabbit:
Rabbits do fart. In fact, rabbits fart a lot. It is an essential part of their digestive health. But while it might sound fun to have a little tooting bunny running around, you probably won’t hear your rabbit’s farts very often, if at all.
There are two types of mushy rabbit stool. Cecal dysbiosis, which is unformed cecotropes, is less dangerous, but it is a clear sign of health issues or an unhealthy diet. True diarrhea, which is actual runny poops, is much more dangerous and is usually caused by a parasite or an ingested poison.
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- BOTHA, G S M. “Histological observations on the gastro-esophageal junction in the rabbit.” Journal of anatomy vol. 92,3 (1958): 441-6. Accessed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1245014/?page=5.
- Deeb, Barbara DVM MS. “Regurgitating Rabbits.” Allpet Veterinary Clinic, Rabbit Meadows. http://www.rabbitmeadows.org/shelter/faq.asp?id=27.
- Horn, Charles C et al. “Why can’t rodents vomit? A comparative behavioral, anatomical, and physiological study.” PloS one vol. 8,4 e60537. 10 Apr. 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0060537. Accessed: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3622671.
- House Rabbit Society “Emergency Care.” Lecture by Dana Krempels PhD, October 31, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-Cio257IjM.
- “Poisoning in Rabbits.” PetMD. https://www.petmd.com/rabbit/conditions/digestive/c_rb_poisoning.