Assisted feeding of the rabbit, is undertaken when a rabbit has mild to severe anorexia due to many different circumstances including: pain following surgery/injury, gut stasis or from being very young and not fully weaned or; any age of rabbit suffering stress.
There are different methods of assisted feeding and by the end of this article, you will have an understanding of how to feed a convalescing / inappetent rabbit and know what equipment is required in order to do so.
- Hand feeding – where you would offer food by hand to the rabbit, and they eat it.
- Oral/syringe feeding - where soft food is placed directly into the mouth and the rabbit is encouraged to swallow, either by blowing on their nose or stroking the neck under the chin.
There are different types of syringes which can be used for “syringe feeding” …
- The 1ml syringe – can either be an oral syringe or a standard luer-tipped syringe – ideal for feeding more watery based foodstuffs e.g., Critical Care Formula (Vet Ark) or liquid feed such as Cimicat (Pet Life International Ltd.)
- The 15ml “Recovery” Syringe –
- The 60ml Feeding Syringe, Millpledge Veterinary
Both the 15ml and the 60ml feeding syringes have conical-shaped, (catheter), tips which allow for thicker foodstuffs to pass through, such as those commonly used in practice – Supreme Science Recovery, Supreme Science Recovery +, Oxbow Critical Care Herbivore and Oxbow Critical Care Herbivore Fine Grind. Other products such as fruit or vegetable puree may also be used, however, do consider the sugar content as rabbits can develop dental caries from ingesting too much sugar! Look for baby food products without sweeteners, as artificial sweeteners can be toxic. If unsure check with your vet.
Before attempting to syringe feed – always try to hand feed first. Offer smelly tempting foods such as parsley, dandelion leaf/plantain leaves both of which can be dried.
The age of the rabbit is not so important, but it is crucial to feed warm or room temperature food to avoid any risk of shock to the stomach/GI tract which may result in colic.
Once a suitable food has been selected for the rabbit to be fed:
Mix powdered feed as per the manufacturer’s instructions, using boiled but cooled water. Test on the inside of your wrist to ensure the temperature is not too hot. If it feels hot to you, then it is likely to burn the bunny’s mouth. Either add a small amount of cold water and re-test on the inside of your wrist or allow the food to cool and test again before feeding.
It is always better to offer freshly re-constituted food; however, food can be used for up to 12 hours, once made up. Refrigerate uneaten food and bring it to room temperature before feeding.
In circumstances where it is not possible to administer the above foodstuffs, if the rabbit’s normal diet is pelleted/extruded food, then you can grind this into a powder and mix with boiled water until a paste which has the consistency of toothpaste is achieved. Allow this to cool to a suitable temperature and always wrist test before feeding!
You should not use this method very often because “normal” rabbit food does not contain the extra ingredients and nutrients that are required for convalescing.
Ensure that you have the necessary supplies and equipment ready before you fetch the rabbit out of their accommodation. Always prepare the area where you intend to feed them before you start missing items or equipment from your needed list which could mean that you end up trying to juggle the rabbit whilst fetching the missing items!
Some rabbits may not have been exposed to regular handling; therefore, you need to be aware that they could bite, scratch, or kick you. Try to ascertain the demeanour of the rabbit prior to handling. Are they aggressive or are they subdued? Do you need to wrap them in a towel first? If you do need to wrap them up – try and wrap the front paws and then the body ensuring that the dewlap is fully covered. The dewlap can also be present in some males, albeit less prominent. Some females do not have a dewlap if they were neutered at a younger age.
Syringe feeding can be stressful and a bit messy for you, but you must remain calm as the rabbit will pick up on your emotions and will react accordingly, to protect themselves. A feeding session should usually take around 20 minutes. It is vital that you are patient and take time with them. The end goal is to enable them to eat on their own. Feeding should be done every 4-6 hours for a juvenile/adult and every 2-4 hours for a neonate.
- Foodstuffs to be fed via syringe – 3-4 pre-loaded feeding syringe(s) – it is better to have too many than too few.
- 2 Towels – one to protect the surface, (if at home you can use a rubberised bath mat instead of a towel to reduce slipping and give the rabbit something to grip), and one for the bunny; although this depends on their demeanour!
- 1 x Baby bib or extra small towel and clothes peg to wrap around the bunny and protect the dewlap
- Kitchen roll or tissue to wipe the end of the syringe as feeding
When offering the feeding syringe to the mouth, it is crucial that you pass the tip of the syringe behind the incisors, (into the diastema), and over the tongue.
REMEMBER:: A rabbit’s jaw opens like a pair of scissors, from side to side. They do not have a pivot point like human jaws. Try not to force the jaw open as this will cause the rabbit pain. Allow the bunny to accept the tip of the syringe. Use the rabbit’s name, talk to them in a soft voice and tell them what you are doing.
DO NOT force more than 1/2cm of the tip of the feeding syringe into the mouth. The tissues of the mouth are delicate and can damage easily. Squeezing the plunger gently, offer between 1/2ml and 1ml per mouthful, removing the syringe between each attempt. Ensure that the rabbit has stopped chewing/swallowing before you put the syringe back into its mouth. Continue this process until the rabbit’s body language tells you that they do not want any more food. Often, they will turn their head away from the syringe, try to jump/wriggle or knock the syringe away with their paws. Usually after a few feeding sessions, the rabbit will understand what it is that you are trying to achieve and will be more amenable.
Stress plays a huge part in gut stasis and will naturally affect the size, shape, and form of normal faecal pellets. Normal pellets are well-formed, hard, round and dark in colour. Abnormal pellets may well be misshapen, softer and smelly, and possibly covered in mucus. They could be normal at first then become very small and then possibly become non-existent.
It is very important to measure body weight, defecation, and urine output daily, whilst feeding the rabbit through this tricky time. Is the rabbit showing signs of dehydration (sunken eyes, skin tenting?) Do they have faecal output, if so, what is it like? Do they have loose stools or diarrhoea? Have they lost body weight? Do they look unkempt/poorly?
Whilst monitoring the above, it may be possible to reverse dehydration/gut stasis by using a more liquid feed alongside prescribed medication. If unsure seek veterinary advice.
A bit about me…..
My name is Kate, I have been working in practice since 2002 – firstly as an auxiliary nurse.
I went on to study at Rodbaston College and studied for the ANA (Animal Nursing Assistant) qualification,(previously known as Pre-Vet Nursing) as a day release.
Upon qualifying from Rodbaston, I went to Harper Adams University College and studied for a Foundation Degree of Science (FdSC) in Veterinary Health Studies and later topped up to a Bachelor of Science Degree in Veterinary Nursing and Practice Management. I qualified as a Registered Veterinary Nurse in 2007. In 2009 I left Harper with both FdSC and BSc and worked as a locum until 2012.
I sadly injured my right knee in 2011 but the extent of the damage meant I required knee surgery. I repeated the injury in my left knee and by 2016 I had received total knee arthroplasty for both knees!!
Forced to retire from practice, I have kept my knowledge up to date and just love writing about rabbits and birds.