Weaning diarrhea in young rabbits
Esther van Praag, Ph.D.
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Some stages in the life of a rabbit are stressful. The fears or anxieties they cause can affect the behavior of the rabbit and make it more susceptible to diseases or infections of bacterial or parasitic origin. The digestive tract is particularly affected and the consequence is diarrhea and abdominal pain.
Weaning is a delicate phase that determines the development of the digestive system in young rabbits. The intestine and cecum are gradually invaded by a healthy bacterial flora. in young weak rabbits, it is often the pathogenic bacteria that invade the digestive system rather than healthy bacteria. The age of weaning is also important, as the natural process of colonization by bacteria takes place between 6 and 8 weeks.
Important causes of stress
Parturition. It usually lasts less than 15 minutes. This moment is accompanied by tremendous stress for the doe, especially when parturition lasts a long time. Newborn that are too weak will have difficulty to reach rapidly the warm nest prepared by the doe and may, therefore, not drink enough colostrum milk in sufficient quantity.
Harlequin doe licking her newborn after parturition
Weaning. This is a difficult step for the young rabbit. Physiological weaning begins at 4 weeks of age. Young rabbits drink less milk and are more and more interested in solid food. Physical weaning takes place between 6 and 8 weeks of age, while the doe produces less milk. Physical weaning is stimulated by the doe, as she is absent from her litter for longer periods of time and feeds less milk to her offspring. The stress caused by weaning, the new feeding rhythm and the transition from the doe’s milk to a solid food diet of plant origin are all reasons to destabilize the digestive system and affect the growth of young rabbits. An imbalance of intestinal and caecal bacterial flora (dysbiosis) is accompanied by a depression of the immune system and a decrease of the resistance to infectious or parasitic diseases. If this is accompanied by the transport of the young rabbits or a mix of different litters, the risk of weaning diarrhea increases rapidly. In the case that young rabbits must be moved, it is best to take the example of the wild doe rabbit that leaves her young in the nest and moves to a new place in the burrow. This way, the young rabbits remain in their familiar environment, while the doe will be brought to her new pen or hutch, or other living environment. The weaker kits can stay a few more days with the mother-doe to drink the remaining milk. This also avoids a painful accumulation of milk in the nipples of the doe.
21 days old rabbits are already interested in solid food
Change of food. A modification of the food affects young rabbits as well as adults. In order to reduce the stress associated with this change, it is recommended to proceed slowly, mixing the old food with the new one. Quality of the food is also important, to avoid any contamination by toxins produced by fungi. The hay must be of good quality and be provided at will.
Transportation. Transportation. Transport is stressful for rabbits, especially during the weaning period. If, moreover, the members of different litters are mixed at the time of weaning, the stress imposed on the rabbits is enormous.
Mixed litter of young rabbits
Development of the digestive system in young rabbits
The digestive system of the rabbits is unique in the animal world. The doe feeds her offspring once a day only, for 3 to 5 minutes. Her milk has a relatively high pH (between 5.0 to 6.5) and contains short and medium chain fatty acids. These fatty acids have antibacterial properties, particularly against Clostridium perfringens and Escherichia coli. While this should contribute to a healthy bacterial flora in the gut, this is not the case in rabbits. One enzymatic component of the doe’s milk will bind with an enzyme found in the stomach of young rabbits. The result is a fatty acid (oily milk) that prevents bacterial growth in the digestive system of young people during the first 21 days of their life.
While this 21 days old rabbit kit starts to nibble on hay, it continues to drink the doe’s milk at the age of 4 weeks.
Between week 3 and week 6, the young rabbit begins to nibble on solid food (pellets, hay, fresh greenery) as well as the fecal and ceacal droppings that the doe leaves around the nest. The digestive system of the young rabbit is, however, not enough developed at this stage to ensure a transition from milk to a solid food diet. Indeed, as long as it drinks breast milk, the presence of this oily milk will prevent bacterial growth and colonization of the intestine and the cecum.
Once the youngster drinks less milk, the pH of the stomach will drop to 1-2. During this phase, the bacteria can multiply and colonize the digestive system. These are essentially Bacteroides sp., Streptococcus fecalis and other strict anaerobic bacteria. These bacteria will be regenerated in these organs through coprophagy.
A sensitive caecum
Factors such as stress, a higher than normal acidity, diets too rich in protein or too low in fiber, or too much solid food available during the weaning period play an important role. The immune system of rabbits is, furthermore, poorly developed at this age, not protecting the rabbit against pathogenic bacteria such as Clostridium sp. or Escherichia coli, against clostridia or other internal parasites.
Finally, the administration of some antibiotics can also lead to fatal diarrhea in rabbits.
The cecum is an anaerobic and slightly acidic medium because of the fermentation process that takes place there. The bacteria contained in this organ are very sensitive to any change: pH, osmotic concentration (osmolarity), starch concentrations in the diet, but also to stress, e.g., due to an illness or fear. This particularly affects young rabbits at the age of 4 to 12 weeks, but also elderly rabbits.
Stress causes an increase of the adrenaline (epinephrine) stress hormone in the blood. Adrenaline acts on the rabbit's alarm center and adrenaline sensitive receptors in the intestine. Consequently, the peristaltic movement is affected, sometimes even stopped. The cecum remains partially or completely empty and the pH increases, modifying the conditions of fermentation. The living conditions of the bacterium Bacteroides sp. degrade and it starts to produce gas in the caecum and in the intestine.
Barium studies of affected rabbits show a completed impacted caecum (arrows)
Young rabbits or adult stressed or sick rabbits often ignore their caecotrophes. Their poor quality is due to disturbances in the cecum, or their smell is abnormal because of the drugs (antibiotics) administered. In such a case, the rabbit can receive special probiotic supplements for rabbits.
Weaning diarrhea is a major concern for rabbit breeders. This pathology of the digestive system is widespread and up to 40 to 100% of a litter can be affected and die.
The transition to a vegetable diet is not obvious and smooth in young rabbits. They must understand that only solid food is left to eat and they must get used to the new tastes. The youngster eats less and loses weight. At the level of the intestine and the cecum, the bacterial flora must adapt and reorganize in order to digest food of vegetal origin. Rarely, the bacterial reorganization can lead to abnormal growth of pathogenic bacteria such as streptococci, Clostridium perfringens or Escherichia coli, accompanied by the production of bacterial enterotoxins or other toxic molecules. The latter affect intestinal transit, bacterial flora and food digestion/absorption. Toxins also circulate in the blood to vital organs, where they cause more tissue damage.
Stress leads to a decrease of the blood circulation in the digestive system. Lack of oxygen (ischemia) causes local damage to tissues.
Fully liquid content in the digestive system of this 24 days old young rabbit
Some young rabbits eat little to no food for the next 24 hours after weaning. There is little information on the consequences of such fasting on health. Decreased appetite may cause changes in the lining of the intestine. Studies have shown that young rabbits that have eaten little for a week show changes in the structure of the intestine: the intestinal villi (folds of the mucosa and underlying connective tissue) are shorter and the intestinal crypts are shallower. The surface of the intestine is smaller and, as a result, the ability to absorb nutrients contained in the diet is diminished. The growth of the rabbits is slower than those normally feeds.
The combination of a new food, decreased or stopped appetite and stress can lead to weaning diarrhea.
During an autopsy, the contents of the intestine and cecum are liquid.
It is very important to keep young rabbits well hydrated, especially in case of severe diarrhea. In this case, a sterile physiological solution with electrolytes must be administered. The solution should be lukewarm, so as not to cause hypothermia.
The administration of physiological fluids must be accompanied by a food rich in fiber and hay of good quality.
Activated charcoal is very effective in case of diarrhea. The very fine powder binds the toxins produced by the pathogenic bacteria. This natural product should not be given over a long period because it also binds nutrients, vitamins and other nutrients. Kaolin has a similar effect, absorbing bacteria, toxins, water and nutrients. As a result, it should only be given to young rabbits over a short period of time.
Pectin, e.g., contained in apple peels, helps stop diarrhea.
Blueberry or blackcurrant juice or fresh blueberries help fight mild diarrhea and have a mild disinfecting action. Carob seed powder, pomegranate or green tea all have strong anti-oxidant properties (polyphenols) that help restore the intestinal flora and stimulate the immune system.
Aromatic herbs such as oregano (Origanum vulgare), marjoram (Origanum majorana), thyme or lavender also have light disinfecting properties, including against Escherichia coli.
Finally, hygiene is essential, especially in case of diarrhea of bacterial origin.
Plants or natural products can help prevent or stop diarrhea. These are effective aids, which act differently than veterinary drugs. Warning, they do not replace a veterinary treatment when it is necessary.
Huge thanks to Michel Gruaz (Switzerland) for the interesting discussions about digestive issues and feeding in young rabbits.
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