The Terrifying Lesson I Learned About Hairballs in Rabbits

About a month ago I went through the scariest experience with my bunny, Ellie. She started having symptoms of what I thought was GI Stasis, so I brought her to the vet. Ellie has had stasis a couple times in the past, so I thought she would just need some fluids and medication like she did the last couple of times. 

But this time it was worse. Instead of GI stasis, Ellie had a GI obstruction. This means there was something more-or-less plugging her digestive tract and preventing it from moving. In this case, my vet believed it was caused by excessive fur clumping together and forming a hairball.

Since rabbits cannot vomit, an obstruction like this causes the rabbit’s stomach to become distended as it fills with fluid. If it’s not treated as soon as possible, the stomach can rupture from the pressure. I’m certain that if I didn’t get Ellie to the vet as soon as I did, that she would not have survived the night.

Even as it was, Ellie needed the fluid, gas, and hair removed from her stomach using a tube, and she needed to be hospitalized for three days. The whole time, I was crossing my fingers and holding my breath, because I know this is a very serious and deadly condition for rabbits.

In this article, I’ll go over the experience I had with Ellie’s stomach obstruction, including the symptoms to look for, what to expect in terms of recovery, and rabbit care changes to make going forward.

Coming out of this, I’m just so thankful that Ellie is alive and managed a full recovery. I also know that I need to do a better job at grooming Ellie (whether she likes it or not). In my next post, I’ll go over some ideas I have about grooming rabbits who absolutely hate it.

Important: This post contains affiliate links. As an associate to Amazon, Small Pet Select, and, I earn a small commission from qualifying purchases.

Sometimes the fur is the problem (what is a hairball?)

In the past, I’ve read articles and even written on this blog that hairballs are generally not a big problem for rabbits unless there is something else that stresses them out first. Based on what my vet told me, that information is probably a little outdated and excess fur can be a big problem for rabbits.

She said that it’s very common to see rabbits for both GI Stasis and hairball obstructions when rabbits are molting because of how much fur they are ingesting. It’s especially common in the first few weeks of warm weather, since rabbits are shedding their long winter coats. So you want to be extra vigilant during these times to have a good grooming routine with your rabbit.

Your rabbit’s risk goes up if they have a long or dense coat since there’s more fur to ingest while grooming. Not all rabbits are the same; some just have good genes and can pass fur through their system better than others. 

But even for these rabbits, if they’re not taking in enough water or if their digestion slows for any reason, the fur can dry out inside, mat together, and form a hard lump or fur pellet in their gut that causes an obstruction.

While my vet suspected it was fur causing the blockage in this case, other objects can cause intestinal blockage when they are ingested too. Rabbits who chew on plastic, carpet, coated cardboard, rubber (such as the buttons from a remote), fake straw, and so on can end up swallowing a piece large enough to cause an obstruction. Always keep an eye on what your rabbit has access to and what they’re chewing on to prevent these risky situations.

Never take the wait-and-see approach

Never wait and see if your rabbit feels better tomorrow. If I didn’t get Ellie to the vet as soon as I did, I’m certain that she would not have made it through the night.

If you notice your rabbit isn’t eating suddenly or there’s a lack of poop, it’s essential not to dismiss it. Whether your rabbit has typical GI stasis or a GI tract obstruction, these are alarming signs. Getting your rabbit help early can be the most important factor for their chances of recovery. 

The symptoms of GI obstruction are very similar to GI Stasis. The biggest differences are that obstructions tend to come on more quickly and the rabbit will have a distended, fluid-filled stomach since nothing can pass through. GI Stasis is, of course, serious and needs immediate medical attention, but obstructions are even more dangerous and life threatening (learn more about GI Stasis).

If you notice these symptoms of hairballs or obstructions (especially refusing to eat), treat it as an emergency and get your rabbit to a small animal veterinarian:

  • Not eating (usually happens suddenly)
  • Not pooping
  • A low temperature
  • Distended stomach
  • Loud or completely silent stomach grumbles
  • Frequently changing sitting positions (as if they can’t get comfortable) or hunched posture
  • Teeth grinding (a grating or popping sound instead than the normal tooth purring sound)
  • Lethargic or lack of energy
  • Shock or not responding to any external stimuli
hunched rabbit sitting position
A rabbit in a hunched position will use their front paws to keep from pressing their belly against the ground (learn more).

In Ellie’s case, the obstruction happened in the stomach, which meant these symptoms started suddenly and severely. One minute she was perfectly fine, and the next she was refusing food and her temperature was beginning to drop. However, GI obstructions can also occur further down the intestinal tract which may cause the symptoms to come on more slowly. 

The sooner the obstruction can get diagnosed and treated, the better the chances that the rabbit will survive. If you wait too long to bring your rabbit to the vet, the stomach or intestines could rupture. The longer you wait, there is also a greater chance that the vet will need to resort to surgery to remove the obstruction, which is incredibly risky for rabbits.

If you’re having trouble finding a rabbit vet, try this vet listing from the rabbit foundation. There is also this list from the Rabbit Welfare Organization for those of you in the UK. also has some links to international vets (scroll to the bottom of the article)

Rabbit recovery from a GI obstruction

Recovering from a gastrointestinal (GI) obstruction is a gradual process for rabbits. It’s important to understand that most rabbits will not recover overnight. Your rabbit may require several days of hospital care before they are ready to go home and recover. 

Ellie needed to be hospitalized for three days before her condition was stable enough for me to bring her home. Once home, it still took Ellie about a week and a half to completely recover and return to her usual self. 

Ellie also had some weird eating habits that you might notice too if your rabbit is in a similar situation. 

  1. The first few days, Ellie did not eat nearly as much as usual. As per the vet’s instructions, I supplemented her normal food with critical care to make sure she was getting enough calories and her digestion was moving.
  2. Ellie mostly refused to eat her normal Timothy hay. I ran out to the store to get her some of Oxbow’s orchard hay blend, and that’s when her appetite started returning to normal. So if your rabbit seems to be pickier than usual, try a different brand or type of hay.
  3. Ellie kept trying to eat pieces of cardboard (rather than just chew on it or dig it up). I had to remove all her cardboard toys until her eating habits returned to normal (which took about a week).
  4. I switched out her cardboard toys for apple sticks and willow sticks since they are okay for rabbits to eat, and she would not stop chewing on these all week.

As it was, I’m lucky that Ellie survived and did not require surgery, but it was a really scary experience and I came so close to losing my best friend.

Going forward, there are also some changes I’m making so that hopefully this never happens again. Unfortunately, having a GI tract obstruction once can cause scar tissue and make it more likely the same rabbit will get an obstruction in the future. 

The main change is going to be in our grooming routine. Since Ellie hates being brushed, this is an area I’ve always slacked on, but regular grooming will be the most important factor in preventing this in the future (especially during shedding seasons). 

Always have a pet emergency fund (or pet insurance)

Rabbits can sometimes face health issues, like gastrointestinal obstructions, that can come on suddenly and be both scary and daunting. Emergency vet visits can be quite costly, and without a financial plan in place, you could find yourself in a difficult spot, forced to make hard choices about your rabbit’s health and your budget.

This vet emergency cost me around $3500. Fortunately, I’ve known pet emergencies (especially those that require hospitalization) can cost a lot, and have been putting money into a pet emergency fund every month. This situation has only solidified how important that habit has been because it meant I did not have to choose between my rabbit’s health and going into debt.

I don’t normally give money advice on this blog, but given how expensive this bill was I felt I needed to mention it. Even just transferring $50 to $100 a month into a separate savings account for your pet can be enough.

Alternatively, you can consider pet insurance for your rabbit. Unfortunately, most places only offer pet insurance for cats and dogs, so your options are limited. The only two insurance companies that I’ve found (in the US) are Nationwide, and Pet Assure (note: these are not affiliate links and I cannot vouch for the quality of their services since I have not used them). 

If you find yourself in an emergency situation and you don’t have money available, there are still options, such as payment plans and Care credit. Read more about your options for emergency vet bills.


  1. Barbara L. Oglesbee, DVM, Diplomate ABVP (Avian) and Brigitte Lord, BVetMed (Hons), CertZooMed, MRCVS. “Gastrointestinal Diseases of Rabbits.” Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents. 2020, pgs. 174–187. Accessed:
  2. Cayla Iske, Ph.D and Dianne Cook, LVT. “HAIRBALLS IN RABBITS & GUINEA PIGS (SIGNS, TREATMENT, PREVENTION).” Oxbow Animal Health. May 25, 2022.
  3. Harvey, Carolynn. “Grooming.” Foundation. 
  4. “Matted Hair and Hairballs in the Stomach in Rabbits.” PetMD. May 2010.

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Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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