Rabbit Care: Hairballs in the Stomach Explained

As rabbits self-groom, it's not uncommon for them to have hair in their digestive tract. This doesn't typically cause any issues, but when hair clumps into a mass or ball in their digestive tract it can cause and obstruction and can even be fatal without prompt treatment. Rabbits can't cough hairballs up like cats can so don't expect to find them in your rabbit's living environment. Instead, you should be aware of the symptoms of hairballs in the stomach to ensure you know when to seek veterinary care for your rabbit.

Here's an overview of the causes, symptoms, diagnosis and treatment approach for hairballs in the stomach:

1. Causes and Symptoms

Common causes of hairballs developing in the stomach of a rabbit include dehydration and poor nutrition, such as inadequate hay intake, which can slow down gastrointestinal motility and allow hair and food waste to clump together into a mass. Stress, poor appetite and the presence of an underlying illness that impacts on digestion can also lead to hairballs developing.

Symptoms of hairballs in the stomach include small faecal droppings, which may have a stringy appearance, and changes to your rabbit's eating habits. Your rabbit's abdomen may be distended and firm to the touch. Abdominal pain is also common, and this may present as your rabbit adopting a hunched posture, grinding their teeth, withdrawing from social contact or becoming irritable. When total obstruction of the digestive tract occurs, a perforation can develop, which can lead to blood poisoning and shock.

2. Diagnosis and Treatment Approach    

Your vet will diagnose hairballs in the stomach by taking details of your rabbit's symptoms and carrying out a thorough physical exam. Diagnostic imaging, such as an X-ray or ultrasound, will be required to confirm the presence of an obstruction and determine if gastric motility has slowed, which typically shows up during imaging as a build-up of air in the digestive tract. A faecal dropping sample may also be analysed for the presence of bacteria, as blockages caused by hairballs can cause an overgrowth of bacteria in the intestines.  

Getting the digestive tract moving is key when treating hairballs in the stomach, so your vet will administer fluid therapy in a bid to flush the hairballs through your rabbit's digestive tract. Stomach massage can also be used to improve intestinal motility, and your vet will guide you on feeding your rabbit a diet that supports their digestive health. In some cases, surgery will be required to remove the blockage and prevent intestinal rupturing. Your rabbit will require a clean, quiet place to recover and regain their strength, so it's best to keep them away from other pets and young children until you vet gives them the all-clear.

If your rabbit has any of the symptoms associated with hairballs in the stomach, or if you have any concerns about their digestive health, schedule an urgent appointment with your vet to prevent unnecessary suffering.