Read the following article to understand more about how hairball prevention and treatment can impact your rabbit's health.
Part of a rabbit’s normal behavior is regular grooming. Regardless of whether rabbits are allowed to mutually groom each other or themselves, their stomachs will usually contain hair. Normally, ingested hair is passed when a rabbit defecates. However, certain rabbits have difficulty passing hair through the digestive system. In the event that a rabbit is unable to pass ingested hair, a hairball forms that has the potential to be fatal.
There are a variety of causes that lead to the production of a hairball. In general, all of the factors result in an increased presence of hair in the rabbit's digestive system. Perhaps the most common cause is a diet that is too low in fiber. Rabbits that do not get their required amount of fiber will tend to chew on their or another rabbit’s, fur. Rabbits may also exhibit hair chewing, also known as barbering, when they are bored. Part of a rabbit’s natural behavior is to chew on objects. Rabbit’s that are not provided with proper toys will begin to chew on fur to alleviate the boredom. A final cause of hairballs is a lack of regular grooming by a human handler. Rabbit owners should practice regular grooming so that they can help prevent loose fur from being ingested by their rabbits.
Rabbits that develop hairballs may exhibit at least one of the following symptoms: lack of stool production, large amounts of hair visible in the stool, decreased appetite, weight loss, and even death. The severity of the symptoms depends on how long the hairball has been forming in the digestive system of the rabbit. As with any health problem, early detection is key.
Hairballs can be relatively difficult to diagnose. A vet may choose to do a physical examination and/or take X-rays, but these practices may not be totally effective in reaching a diagnosis.
The first step in treating a rabbit with a hairball is to remove the obstruction. Although owners should check with their veterinarian, there are a few treatment options that may be recommended.
• Provide fresh pineapple juice: Fresh pineapple juice contains the enzyme bromelain that can aid in breaking down the hair fibers. Owners should keep in mind that canned pineapple juice will not aid in breaking down hair fibers, as the bromelain is destroyed during the canning process. Bromelain supplements can be found in many pet and human health food stores.
• Provide papaya: Fresh papaya contains the enzyme papain (papayazyme) which helps break down the mucous that holds a hairball together. Papayazyme supplements can also be purchased from pet and human health food stores.
• Add roughage to the diet: During treatment, it is important to provide ample amounts of roughage for your rabbit. Roughage helps carry the hair fibers out of the digestive system. Roughage also helps to activate a digestive system that has been stalled by the presence of a hairball.
• Surgery: Hairballs may be removed by a veterinarian using surgical methods. However, this process carries many risks.
Owners should be aware that common treatments such as mineral oil, cat hairball treatments, and laxatives do not provide successful treatment of hairballs in rabbits. Owners should follow their veterinarian's instructions in choosing the most effective treatment option for their rabbit.
For rabbits, preventing hairballs is far easier than treating them. Prevention measures are simple, yet quite effective.
• Provide your rabbit a diet that is properly balanced and high in fiber. It is important to prevent obesity in your rabbit. Feeding your rabbit a diet that is properly portioned will help decrease the chance of your rabbit becoming overweight. Overweight rabbits can have difficulty with normal digestive function. Fiber, which can be found in many grass and legume hays, also helps promote healthy digestive function and will aid in the regular removal of hair fibers.
• Offer your rabbit toys that promote acceptable chewing. Rabbits that are allowed to play and/or chew on toys will be less likely to display boredom and develop a habit of hair chewing. Regular chewing also helps prevent rabbits from developing dental disease.
• Groom your rabbit on a regular basis. Regular grooming helps remove loose hair that has the potential to be ingested. Grooming should be more frequent in long-haired rabbits because they may ingest more hair during grooming than shorter haired rabbits. Owners should increase grooming when a rabbit is undergoing extreme seasonal molting.
• Regularly observe the appetite and behavior of your rabbit. When caring for your rabbit, watch to see if he/she shows an appetite at feeding time. Also, regularly monitor the weight of your rabbit. A sudden increase or decrease in your rabbit’s weight may indicate a severe health issue.
Lisa Karr-Lilienthal, Ph.D., and Amanda Young - University of Nebraska-Lincoln