What is a Hairball?
Rabbits constantly groom themselves, and just like cats, can create hairballs or trichobezoars (the medical term for a hairball). These hairballs can get lodged inside your rabbit's stomach and intestinal tract and potentially cause an obstruction. Since rabbits cannot vomit like cats can, these hairballs usually get stuck and cause ileus.
How Can You Prevent Your Rabbit From Getting a Hairball?
Hairballs in rabbits are a potentially serious problem and prevention is definitely easier than treating them once they have developed.
When rabbits groom, they can ingest a lot of hair which can accumulate in the stomach. As stated earlier, unlike cats, rabbits cannot vomit so if the hair doesn't move out of the stomach and safely through the intestines, it will cause an issue. This condition is also sometimes called wool block. A similar mass of mostly undigested food can form if a rabbit is kept on an inappropriate diet. So sometimes, a large amount of hair isn't the whole or only problem. In either case, the ability of the rabbit to digest their food is affected and the rabbit can become very ill, and possibly even die. Here are some tips to prevent this serious scenario from happening:
- Feed a high fiber and low carbohydrate diet. A diet high in fiber, which includes lots of fresh hay and vegetables, stimulates normal motility of the gastrointestinal tract, and keeps food (and accidentally ingested hair) moving through the stomach. See "Feeding Rabbits" for more information on the proper diet for house rabbits.
- Provide lots of exercise and enrichment. Activity, like a proper diet, also aids gastrointestinal motility and digestion. This means playtime outside of the cage along with toys to encourage activity should be encouraged daily for several hours. "Rabbits for Toys" discusses good toys and activities for pet rabbits.
- Groom your rabbit. Regular brushing, especially during a heavy shedding period, will help reduce the amount of hair that can be swallowed by your pet rabbit.
- Provide a low-stress environment. Rabbits kept in stressful environments (crowded, unclean, noisy, have the presence of possible predators such as dogs and cats, etc.) are more susceptible to having problems with hairballs.
- Provide large amounts of water. Rabbits will drink more water when it is offered in a bowl and a water bottle and a properly hydrated rabbit is less likely to have gastrointestinal issues.
Rabbits affected by hairballs (or any other materials getting stuck in the stomach or intestinal tract) will often show a decrease in appetite, activity level, and fecal output (they will have smaller and less frequent stools). Your rabbit may act depressed, but remember, he cannot vomit or tell you he isn't feeling well. If your rabbit is showing any of these signs you should see your exotics vet immediately. Also, remember that if your rabbit stops eating numerous other digestive problems often result and your rabbit's health can deteriorate very quickly. If hairballs are diagnosed, a number of treatments can be attempted to treat the problem medically but if things progress to the point when surgery is required the chances of recovery are reduced.
Therefore providing the appropriate high fiber diet, an opportunity for exercise, and other key preventative techniques are critical to you rabbit's health.
What if You Think Your Rabbit Ate Some Hair?
Some people have recommended feeding specific foods to help break down the hair your rabbit may have ingested. Enzymes in some foods help break down hair and are also safe to give rabbits. Human Papaya or papaya/pineapple enzyme tablets are both tasty to your rabbit and also helpful in preventing hairballs. One human tablet per five pounds of rabbit is the daily dose. You can also offer fresh (never canned) papaya or pineapple chunks if your rabbit will eat them a few times a week instead of the enzyme tablets. One tablespoon pf fresh fruit per five pounds of rabbit should be given at least twice a week.
An alternative to the fruit is a product called Prozyme, which is an enzyme product for cats and dogs, and is also recommended for rabbits by some exotics vets.
If your rabbit is showing any of the aforementioned symptoms of being obstructed by a hairball you should have your rabbit seen by their veterinarian immediately.
Edited by Adrienne Kruzer, RVT