All About Gastrointestinal Stasis in Small Herbivores

Written by Oxbow

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September 22, 2020🞄

Gastrointestinal (GI) Stasis is a topic we have referenced numerous times in previous articles, from its common occurrence in chinchillas to how it can affect your animal’s stools to how to tell if it’s affecting your rabbit. In this article, we will take a deeper dive into this very serious, potentially fatal health concern that all small herbivore parents should be aware of and educated about.

What is GI Stasis and Why Does It Occur?

In a healthy small herbivore, the stomach and intestines should always be moving, and this normal, healthy movement is known as peristalsis. Gastrointestinal stasis occurs when muscular contractions (peristalsis) and movement within the stomach and intestines slow down or even stop (ileus) and normal beneficial bacteria and microorganisms (i.e. the microbiome) become imbalanced.  This imbalance is also known as “dysbiosis.” The lack of GI movement can also result in dehydration of food material in the stomach, causing a partial or completed obstruction as the dry mass of GI contents cannot move from the stomach to the small intestines.

There are many potential causes of GI stasis in rabbits and other small pets, including inflammation, infection, and physical obstruction (such as a hairball). However, the most common (and preventable) contributor to GI stasis is inadequate fiber in the diet. Small herbivores such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas were designed to ingest high quantities of fiber. The insoluble fiber (fiber which moves through the digestive tract, largely unfermented, to promote motility), such as hay, which makes up a majority of their diet is not calorically dense and not highly digestible. In fact, the very definition of fiber revolves around its resistance to digestive enzymes. Because most of the food small herbivores eat is so low in calories, in order to meet their energy requirements, food moves through their GI tracts relatively quickly to make room for more food. Fiber pushes everything through their system to keep the system constantly moving. To really understand GI stasis, it may be helpful to brush up on your fiber knowledge before reading on.

Beyond what we know about fiber and what our animals are eating, it helps to visualize what it all looks like as it moves through your animal’s hindgut. Luckily, we have some great animations that do just that for rabbits as well as guinea pigs and chinchillas. From these animations you can see your fur baby not only gets nutrients and energy from the fiber they consume, but you can see how essential fiber is in maintaining efficient GI motility and a healthy microbiome.

We’ve previously discussed the importance of the microbiome and it cannot be overstated how critical these billions and billions of living microscopic organisms residing in your little one’s GI tract are to your pet’s overall health and well-being. The microbiome’s contribution to hundreds of physiological processes is closely tied with adequate dietary fiber and can be compromised if your furry friend is fed too many simple carbohydrates. So, the importance of fiber in a small herbivore diet is two-fold: the physical effect of efficient peristalsis and maintenance of the microbiome to keep digesting fiber and fight off bad bacteria (among other things). It is also vital to consider the environmental factors which can contribute to lower food/fiber intake. Things like stress or inappropriate husbandry can greatly affect these highly alert prey species and one of their first reactions may be to stop eating. Therefore, environmental factors/stressors can contribute to GI stasis.

How to Spot GI Stasis in Small Pets

The changes in eating patterns and lack of fiber intake associated with GI stasis typically first manifests in changes in feces (frequency, size, consistency, etc.). When stasis occurs and movement of the GI system slows or ceases, gas can build up and further impede intestinal movement, not to mention cause some significant pain for your little one. Because small herbivores cannot vomit or eructate (belch), any gas that builds up in the GI system must continue to move throughout the entire system to be alleviated at the rectum. This gas buildup can lead to some of the observable symptoms of GI stasis, including:

  • Reduced food and water intake
  • Decreased activity
  • Lethargy
  • Abdominal stretching
  • Hunched posture
  • Behavior changes
  • Changes in, or lack of, feces (size, amount, color, etc.).

Any of these changes, even if just for one day, can be detrimental so these signs should always be closely monitored. These clinical signs can manifest in many ways including quick development, low severity for several days, or even come and go over a prolonged time span. While some symptoms might not be unique or exclusive to GI stasis, they do indicate an abnormality and are cause for a visit to your exotic animal veterinarian.

How to Avoid GI Stasis

As you may have guessed, the best way to prevent GI stasis in your pet is to provide ample amounts of appropriate fiber in a balanced diet. A majority of this will come from the long-strand fiber in the unlimited grass hay your pet should have access to at all times. At a minimum, your small herbivore should consume a pile of hay the size of their body each day (and more is better!).

Offer Unlimited Amounts of Hay Each Day

As you may have guessed, the best way to prevent GI stasis in your pet is to provide ample amounts of appropriate fiber in a balanced diet. A majority of this will come from the long-strand fiber in the unlimited grass hay your pet should have access to at all times. At a minimum, your small herbivore should consume a pile of hay the size of their body each day (and more is better!).

Opt for a Uniform, Balanced Food

Additionally, a grass hay-based uniform pellet should make up about 20% of the diet. Muesli mixes that contain an assortment of different sizes, shapes, and colors nearly always lead to selective eating of bits that contain the highest concentrations of starches and sugars, thereby negatively impacting the GI tract and microbiome. Similarly, treats should be limited to about 2% of the diet and should also be hay-based to avoid excessive starches and sugars. To round out the diet and supply even more fiber, an appropriate and revolving selection of greens and veggies should be offered daily.

Offer a Variety of Hay and Greens

A balanced diet is key, but diversity is another big factor. Offering several different kinds of grass hay (timothy, orchard, oat, etc.) and rotating various kinds of species-appropriate greens and veggies not only provides enrichment by keeping mealtimes interesting but helps avoid picky eating tendencies. In those times your little one might not be feeling so great, offering a variety of their favorite foods can help spark their appetite. Offering a variety of water sources is also a good idea for many reasons. Providing both a crock and bottle of water has been shown to increase water consumption and hydration can help alleviate a myriad of health issues.

Even when following all of the suggestions above, it is crucial to monitor your pets’ diet and behavior frequently and consistently. No two animals are exactly alike, so having a baseline “normal” established for your fur baby is the easiest way to know if something is off. Monitoring your pet for illness and performing regular weight and body score condition checks, fecal examinations, and wellness exams at home, in addition to routine checkups with your veterinarian, are important aspects of being a small herbivore parent. Coming up with a documentation plan to keep track of these observations helps highlight changes in your pet that you might not notice day to day. If you do observe changes, contacting your veterinarian right away will set them up for the best possibility of a speedy recovery.

How to Treat GI Stasis in Small Pets

If you suspect GI stasis, get your animal to the vet immediately! Stasis is a life-threatening disease by itself but can also be a secondary problem resulting from other potentially worse underlying issues. Your veterinarian can perform a complete physical examination and diagnostics (x-rays, lab work, etc.) to accurately diagnose the disease and work to develop the correct treatment plan. Depending on the severity of disease this could include fluid therapy (oral, subcutaneous, or intravenous), antibiotics, gastric motility or pain medications, and/or other appropriate care plans.

A common and often extremely important supportive therapy your vet may prescribe is syringe or tube feeding with a liquid food such as Oxbow’s Critical Care. Syringe, or hand feeding, allows you to get fiber, nutrients, and hydration into your pet to stimulate GI motility as well as work to dehydrate the GI tract contents. This can be a tricky procedure to master and should always be initiated under the guidance of a trusted veterinarian. If you do find yourself in a syringe feeding situation, or just want to be prepared before the time comes, you may find these tips and tricks helpful.

As always, the best treatment is prevention and taking care to prevent GI stasis is critical with any small herbivore. Stasis is a serious issue but educating yourself about what it is, how it occurs, and how it could affect your little one is a great start to prevention. This knowledge will help you limit avoidable issues and be prepared if GI stasis ever does arise. An appropriate and balanced diet, proper husbandry and reduced environmental stressors, and routine monitoring of your little one both at home and by an exotics savvy veterinarian are essential to ensuring your furry friend lives a long, happy, healthy life.