Bacterial enteritis and diarrhea in

weaned and adult rabbits

 

Esther van Praag, Ph.D.

 

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Warning: this file contains pictures that may be distressing to some persons

In rabbits, health of the digestive system is considered as the basis of the general health of the animal. There is no specific and unique cause that leads to a disruption of digestive transit, but a combination of factors: stress, the shift from a milk diet to an herbivore diet in weaning rabbits, hygiene, parasites, molting and trichobezoar (mass of fur hair in the stomach) and dental problems. In response, rabbits respond with intestinal disturbances characterized by the onset of diarrhea. Newborns are not much concerned because they are protected by milk produced by the doe, which has antibacterial properties that prevent the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Newly weaned 4- to 7-week-olds suffer mainly from enterotoxemia with the almost complete destruction of the intestinal flora. After this age, young rabbits and adults suffer from mucoid enteritis, with partial destruction of the bacterial flora.

Diarrhea

Intestinal diarrhea in rabbits is favored by the following facts:

1.     The rabbit is a very nervous animal which is unable to adjust well its alarm response (adrenaline discharge) to the gravity of the situation.

2.     The rabbit has a particular intestinal physiology, characterized by coprophagy (cecotrophy - reingestion of feces produced in the cecum). During a period of stress, the hormone adrenalin is released in the blood, which affects the nervous system and will slow down the activity of the intestine. Passage of food is slowed down and coprophagie is stopped.

3.     After a stressful event, the cecum becomes more alkaline. This will affect the intestinal environment, the intestinal bacterial flora and will allow the growth of pathogen bacteria such as Escherichia coli or Clostridium sp. may become dominant.

4.     The appearance of a disease in rabbits is generally delayed after a stress period, and diarrhea appears only 1 to 7 days after.

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Adar and Flora caring for their sick friend Stampi, suffering from watery diarrhea (arrows)

 

The clinical signs of digestive problems or enteritis in rabbits are fairly constant. The first signs, which last 1 to 3 days, remain generally unnoticed: decreased food intake by the rabbit and constipation. The watery cecal feces are generally not eaten. After the 5th day, moderate diarrhea, accompanied by skin dehydration appears. Diarrhea consists of small quantities of liquid feces which soil the anal region and hindquarter of the rabbit. Death can occur at this phase, sometimes even before the diarrhea appears.

Two or three days later, the acute form of the illness develops. The rabbit stops eating drinking and suffer from extensive diarrhea. Teeth grinding can be heard, as a result of severe intestinal pain and discomfort and the rabbit may suffer an agitated comatose state. At this stage prognosis is poor and the rate of mortality is high. Animals that remained comatose during a full day can, however, survive when given appropriate care, and recover within a few days.

A post mortem examination of the intestine show atypical lesions. During the acute phase of the disease, the intestinal wall appears bruised or congested. The content is watery. The cecum looks congested, marked with red brushstrokes, and is filled with gas and little food.

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Tal Saarony

Dirty bottom of a rabbit suffering from a bout of soft fecal of cecal material (arrow). When the production of soft fecal excrements becomes chronic, alopecia can develop. The skin will become inflamed and painful.

Causes

There are specific and non-specific causes for diarrhea.

Young rabbits respond badly to stress (especially during the post-weaning period), transport, to unidentified noises, to a new environment and to new persons or animals. Modifications of the diet or a diet low in fibers can, furthermore, lead to digestive disorders. Usually, food alone is not the main trigger of diarrhea, but rather its composition, such as a low percentage of crude fiber, too rich in carbohydrates or proteins, too finely ground food or improper watering, or the introduction of a new sort of vegetable or fruit.

Viruses and pathogen bacterial overgrowth of e.g. Corynebacteria sp., Clostridia sp., Pasteurella sp. and Escherichia coli cause enteritis. The occurrence of Salmonella sp. is, however, rare in rabbits. The presence of intestinal parasites such as trematodes (flukes), cestodes (tapeworms), nematodes (Parasitic intestinal worms), and protozoa (coccidiosis) can also lead to digestive disorders in rabbits, with onset of stasis and diarrhea.

Further causes of diarrhea include the administration of drugs or antibiotics (see: “Antibiotics dangerous for use in rabbits”), or the presence of nitrate in the drinking water.

Bacterial and Mucoid enteritis

Mucoid diarrhea is sometimes observed in growing rabbits and nursing does. The watery feces are mixed with mucus, a translucent and gelatinous substance. This particular type of enteritis has various causes, including bacterial overgrowth or nutritional deficiencies (lack of water and food low in fiber).

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Kim Chilson

Mucus threads (left) or “plugs” (right) excreted among fecal material. The presence of mucus is often observed after the diarrhea is gone.

Bacterial enteritis develops very rapidly, within 3 to 4 days and leads to death before the appearance of diarrhea. Bacteria such as Clostridium perfringens and Escherichia coli cause intestinal enteritis. In healthy rabbits the number of Escherichia coli bacteria present in the fecal droppings is low (102-103/g drops), but in cases of diarrhea, they are systematically present in high number. The bacterium produces toxins, but it has been shown that these alone do not lead to the onset of diarrhea. It needs a supplemental source of stress to induce diarrhea, such as a non-balanced diet or a thermal choc (sudden change of weather, drop of temperature or atmospheric pressure).

Prof. Richard Hoop

Prof. Richard Hoop

Prof. Richard Hoop

Microscopic view of Clostridium perfringens and Clostridium spiriforme (top) and bacterial culture of C. perfringens.

Clostridium perfringens exists in 5 forms and is classified according to the production of toxins. These toxins induce local lesions in the intestine, but their action may also affect distant organs such as the liver and the kidney.

Escherichia coli possess five general mechanisms to invade the intestine and cause the disease. Sometimes there is production of toxins. The bacterium invades the intestine by adhering on the villi of enterocytes and begins to proliferate. The presence of toxins stimulates the secretion of water and electrolytes by the intestinal mucosa. Proliferation of bacteria and production of toxin together can lead to diarrhea.

Both above bacteria are often associated to the presence of coccidia.

Prof. Richard Hoop

Prof. Richard Hoop

Microscopic view of Escherichia coli in a tissue sample and a pure culture of this bacterium on a Petri dish.

Treatment

As the disease develops very rapidly, treatment of bacterial enteritis often comes too late because the evolution of the disease is fast and the rabbit is severally dehydrated. Antibiotics, including sulfonamide drugs, may help prevent the growth of pathogen bacteria. Anti-diarrhea product can help stop the diarrhea, e.g. Hylak, a concentrate of lactic ferments. Cholestyramine will bind toxins released by pathogen bacteria such as the alpha toxins produced by Clostridium perfringens. Probiotic powders or paste, although controversial, will support the growth of the endemic healthy bacterial flora.

If the rabbit is dehydrates, it should be given oral fluids with a syringe or subcutaneous fluids. If the rabbit refuses to eat, intake of food must be forced using a syringe. Various veterinary products are available to feed a sick rabbit. Homemade food can also be prepared, using the usual pelleted food, finely grinded in a coffee grinder, a few drops of olive oil and plant-based baby food (pumpkin, carrot, apple, etc.) diluted in lukewarm water in order to obtain a smooth paste that can be easily taken up in a syringe.

Even if controversial, virgin cold-pressed olive oil has several properties that help against constipation or diarrhea. Its presence in the intestine stimulates the secretion of digestive fluids such bile, lightly stimulates peristaltic movement of the intestine and lubricates the intestinal wall. It does, furthermore, promote the growth of healthy intestinal bacteria.

In the case of yeast overgrowth, food rich in carbohydrates should be reduced. The lack of sugars will lead to a decrease of the yeast population in the intestine. If this is not helping, an antifungal drug like nystatin can be given to the rabbit.

Plants with medicinal or other properties can help stop the diarrhea or help recovery of the rabbit after the disease. They are presented in the bellow tables.

Medicinal herbs

Applications

Plant parts

Remarks

Dill (Anethum graveolens)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Leaves and stem, fresh, or seeds mixed to the food

 

Lavender (Lavandula officinalis)

Calming and acting against intestinal gases

Leaves, stems, flowers, fresh

Small quantities, once a week.

Marjoram (Origanum marjoricum)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Helps against bacterial infections in the intestine

Leaves

One stalk each day.

Melissa (Melissa officinalis)

Calming

Decreases the presence of gas in the intestine

Leaves, stems, flowers

Oregano (Origanum vulgare)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Helps against bacterial infections in the intestine

Leaves

One stalk each day.

Parsley (Petroselinum crispum)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Decreases the presence of gas in the intestine

Leaves, stems, flowers

 

Rosmarinus (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Leaves, fresh or dried

 

Thyme (Thymus vulgaris)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Helps against bacterial infections and the presence of gas in the intestine

 

 

 

Plants

Applications

Parts of the plant

Remarks

Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Leaves, fresh or dried

 

Apple (Malus domestica)

Against stomach, intestine, liver and spleen troubles

Fruit

Small quantities.

The amphoteric properties of apple help against diarrhea.

Apple vinegar

Stimulates the appetite.

 

Liquid, a tea spoon in one liter

The change of taste of drink water can lead to a refusal to drink it by the rabbit.

Bamboo (Bambusa sp., Fargesia sp., Phyllostachys, sp.)

Rich in minerals and vitamins

Leaves and older twigs (young twigs may be toxic)

Small quantities every day to entertain young rabbits

Banana (Musa acuminata)

Minerals and trace elements

Stimulates the appetite and weight uptake

Fresh or dried

Blue berry (Vaccinium myrtillus)

Tannins and pectin

Helps against diarrhea.

Fruit, fresh

 

Carrot wild (Daucus carota)

Calming

Decreases the presence of gas in the intestine

Fresh or cooked

Cooked carrot clams the intestine and decreases diarrhea

Chicory wild (Cichorium intybus)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Leaves

 

Dandelion (Taraxicum officinale)

Stimulates the liver

Leaves, fresh or dried, or decoction

 

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare)

Calming

Against the presence of gas in the intestine, colic and fever

Part of the bulb, leaves, stems

 

Maple (Acer sp.)

 

Leaves

A few leaves per day

Melilot, sweet clover (Melilotus officinalis)

Against stomach and intestinal trouble

Leaves, fresh or dried

Small quantities only

NEVER withered leaves or stems

Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Minerals, trace elements

Leaves, dried

Some leaves at regular intervals.

Stimulates the immune system and bone building.

Warning: also possesses diuretic properties.

Oak (Quercus sp.)

Helps against diarrhea and intestinal parasites

Leaves fresh

A few leaves per day (not all rabbits like the taste of oak leaves).

Plantain, broad leaves (Plantago major)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Leaves, fresh or dried, or decoction

 

Plantain, long leaves (Plantago lanceolata)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Leaves, fresh or dried, or decoction

 

Rose (Rosa sp.)

Against constipation

Leaves, stalks, flowers, fresh or in form of tea

 

Strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa)

Stimulates the health of the digestive tract

Leaves, fresh or dried

 

Willow (Salix alba)

Helps against bacterial infections

Leaves and fresh twigs, fresh

 

Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)

Stimulates the appetite and the health of the digestive tract

Decreases the presence of gas in the intestine

Leaves, fresh

 

Acknowledgements

All my gratitude to Prof. Richard Hoop (Institut für Veterinärbakteriologie, University of Zurich, Switzerland), to Kim Chilson (USA), and to Tal Saarony for the permission to use their pictures. Thank you also to Adar, Flora, and Stampi for their help in illustrating this article.

Further Information

Bryskier A, Doll J, Labro MT, Andrieu J. Role of Clostridium and its toxin in pseudo-membranous colitis. Ann Biol Clin (Paris). 1981;39(1):1-8.

Jones JR, Duff JP. Rabbit epizootic enterocolitis. Vet Rec. 2001 Oct 27;149(17):532.

Hoop RK, Ehrsam H, Keller B. 10 years of rabbit autopsy--a review of frequent disease and mortality causes. Schweiz Arch Tierheilkd. 1993; 135(6-7):212-6.

Humphrey CD, Condon CW, Cantey JR, Pittman FE. Partial purification of a toxin found in hamsters with antibiotic-associated colitis. Reversible binding of the toxin by cholestyramine. Gastroenterology. 1979 Mar;76(3):468-76.

Licois D. Tyzzer's disease. Ann Rech Vet. 1986; 17(4):363-86.

Sinkovics G. Rabbit dysentery: 3. Diagnostic differentiation. Vet Rec. 1978 Oct 7; 103(15):331-2.

Patton NM, Holmes HT, Riggs RJ, Cheeke PR. Enterotoxemia in rabbits. Lab Anim Sci. 1978; 28(5):536-40.

Patton NM, Holmes HT, Riggs RJ, Cheeke PR. Enterotoxemia in rabbits. Lab Anim Sci. 1978; 28(5):536-40.

Tribe GW, Whitbread TJ, Watson GL. Fatal enteritis in rabbits associated with a spirochaete. Vet Rec. 1989; 124(22):595.

 

 

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