Enteritis is the cause of death in approximately 15 percent of weaning rabbits, ages 30 to 72 days old. One of the most common diseases in rabbits, enteritis is also a leading factor of death in small rabbits less than 2 ounces and ill rabbits taking antibiotics. This killer is simply an infection of the intestines that occurs through a chain of events.
The most common cause of enteritis is incorrect feeding of young rabbits. Weanlings are not able to fully digest their food and when provided carbohydrates too early in life, the starches access the intestine before they are digested. Antibiotics are another source of enteritis particularly penicillin, ampicillin, and lincomycin which kill certain bacteria in the rabbit's stomach.
Other factors that contribute to enteritis include over-feeding, supplying incorrect food, stress, hypomotile (intestines that do not work correctly), or the rabbit's genes may predispose it for the disease. Whether it is the introduction of a new diet or medications, these factors contribute to unwanted bacterium that forms and multiplies in the rabbit's system.
As these bacteria begin to increase, they cause deadly side effects and symptoms like diarrhea or other abnormal stools. These symptoms can last for several months or the bacteria can kill a rabbit within hours. Common signs of enteritis include lack of appetite, bloat, weight loss, increased thirst, lethargy, rough coat, teeth grinding, changes in the appearance of stools, and/or diarrhea.
There are no full-proof treatments for enteritis. Once these symptoms are observed in a rabbit, veterinarian care should be sought immediately. A vet can introduce fluids and medications to help control the diarrhea. Some antibacterial medications such as neomycin and Chloramphenicol have had positive results in helping treat this disease. Increasing the rabbit's fiber intake is vital to aid in recovery.
Enteritis cannot be fully prevented but there are measures rabbit owners can take to help prevent this occurrence. Most importantly is proper feeding and nutrition of the rabbit. A proper diet includes fiber levels that average 18 to 23 percent. Good quality rabbit pellets will include the fiber content on the label. Weaning in young rabbits should be done gradually. Begin with a high-fiber diet and steadily over a two week period, change to a growth diet.
After a doe has kindled, her diet should be increased slowly back to her normal amounts. Rabbits that are being given antibiotics should be offered a diet that is higher in fiber than normal along with yogurt. If the introduction of antibiotics is known beforehand, the rabbit can begin the yogurt and high-fiber diet in advance.
When weaning kits, the new diet should be gradually introduced to avoid the buildup of starches in the intestines. Individuals acquiring a new rabbit should choose one from a clean environment and one known to be from healthy stock. After introducing a rabbit to its new environment, practice good sanitation and adhere to a strict and nutritious diet. By taking these precautions, rabbit owners stand a better chance at preventing enteritis.
THE RABBIT HANDBOOK, by Karen Gendron, copyright 2000.