Checklist for Troubleshooting Digestive Problems (Start at the Top and Work Your Way Through)
For more information about the digestive system of small herbivores (rabbits, guinea pigs, chinchillas) see diagram below the checklist.
1. Feed hay.
2. Feed more hay.
3. Reduce the amount of other food items and encourage them to eat more hay.
4. Encourage them to dream about eating more hay (provide sounds and smells reminiscent of fresh hay).
5. Provide social encouragement… Post pictures of other pets happily eating more hay.
6. Remove sources of grain and soy from the diet… this includes most popular brands of pellets and treats (even if hay is the first ingredient they are typically 2/3 grain and soy). Just a friendly reminder to read your labels.
7. Feed lots more hay.
8. Have you measured how much hay they are eating over a 24 hour period? Here is a tip on how to do it.
9. If they aren’t eating enough hay try Sherwood’s low dust hay… bunnies like it better.
10. Eliminate sweets.
11. Cut out fruits and veggies.
12. Feed even more hay.
13. Reduce greens.
14. Feed tons more hay. Place it everywhere. Make more hay racks. Place it in, on, and around the litter box. Spread it around on the floor. Make hay tunnels and even try making a hay castle. Fluff it up regularly. Post more pictures of pets happily eating and playing in hay.
15. Try Sherwood’s hay based pellets (grain/soy free).
16. Feed more hay again.
18. Feed more hay… just in case they missed the first 6 piles of hay.
19. Take them on a daily walk and try tummy massages.
20. Are they eating enough? Sometimes if the total volume of food is low it can cause problems even if you are feeding the right things. Keep the food flowing through the digestive tract to support the growth of healthy bacterial species.
21. Take them to the vet for x-rays (look for tumors or other mechanical problems with the digestive tract). Have the vet take stool samples and check for pathogenic species… and consider using a probiotic… in some rare cases they actually work (sometimes). Also consider temporary antibiotic support as directed by your vet. There are cases where this is needed and it works.
22. Pray (maybe try this one sooner).
23. Ask Dr. Google. You might find some rare and unusual trick on some forum somewhere.
A hay-based diet that is grain and soy-free ensures a healthy digestive system. This is because small herbivores are dependent on the good bacteria that live in their digestive tract. These bacteria ferment and break down the undigested fiber contained in the food the bunny eats. They actually live in a “chamber” near the end of the digestive tract called the caecum (see picture below). This means that small herbivores are able to digest and extract nutrients out of their food before the bacteria have a chance to ferment (digest) it. Consequently they are very sensitive to foods they cannot digest because they cause problems with fermentation in the caecum (starch and other items).
This is where most of the magic happens… Normally undigested hay that is rich in cellulose provides food for healthy bacteria that slowly break it down and produce energy, vitamins, and other nutrients for the small herbivore.
However this special symbiotic arrangement can spell trouble for the small herbivore if it eats too much starch (from grain) grain or too much undigested protein ends up here (from soy) or if there is too much pectins or hemicelluloses (from fruits, veggies and even greens). These items are like candy for bad bacteria and can quickly change the pH and other conditions in the caecum leading to digestive upset, bloat, and possibly even diarrhea.
This is the end of the small intestine where most of the nutrients should have already been absorbed. After passing through this part the micro-villi of the intestinal wall separates particles according to their size.
Large particles (or long-stem fiber that is greater than 1.7mm in size – primarily comes from lignified or woody stems that resist being broken down during chewing) are directed to the large intestine while the small particles (smaller than 1.5mm) are directed into the caecum and fuel bacterial fermentation.
All of the nutrients that have been released through digestive processes that occur in the stomach and in the small intestine are absorbed as they pass through here. The small intestine is a long and narrow tube that is small in diameter to aid in the absorption of nutrients.
However starch (from grain sources like wheat middlings and grain by-products) are not fully broken down and therefore cannot be absorbed.
At the end of the small intestine (the ileum) all food particles that have not already been absorbed are sorted according to size. Large particles (this is where the term “long-stem fiber” comes from) are directed to the large intestine while small particles are directed into the caecum to be fermented (digested by bacteria).
HEALTHY FERMENTATION: The special arrangement of the small herbivores digestive system means that only indigestible material (mostly fiber) provides the foundation for the slow growth of healthy bacteria. This process has the potential to provide additional nutrients such as B-vitamins, essential amino-acids (high quality protein) and volatile fatty-acids (a natural source of energy) for your pet.
STARCH AND SOY CAUSE PROBLEMS: Take note that small herbivores don’t digest starch (from grain and grain by-products) or soy very well.
Small herbivores also cannot directly digest even the soft simple fibers like pectin (found in fruit) and tender fibers found in vegetables, leafy greens, and fresh grass. Too much of any of these things will lead to the rapid growth of bad bacteria and lead to bloat, mushy poops, uneaten caecotrophs or other digestive problems. It is ok to feed greens as long as they are eating enough hay which provides bulk to slow down bacterial fermentation.
Guinea pigs are smaller and have a higher metabolic rate than rabbits do. For this reason the nutrients guinea pig food is more concentrated than in rabbit food. The protein:energy ratio is also adjusted for their differences in metabolic rate.
The balance of the essential amino acids are different and this is important to minimize protein waste, litter box odor, and urinary sludge. For more information see question about urinary health.
Guinea pigs require vitamin C that they have to eat in their diet.
Many people assume that their pets teeth grow at a constant rate and therefore must be worn down before they overgrow. THIS ASSUMPTION IS FALSE.
When teeth are properly aligned their growth rate responds to and matches their rate of wear. This means that each tooth will grow at a different rate according to the rate of wear. For example, if a tooth is filed down so that it doesn’t touch the tooth opposite of itself (when biting down – which is called ‘occlusion’) then the rate of growth will greatly increase until it is long enough to reach full occlusion when biting down such as when chewing. At this point the rate of growth will slow down again. Wear is caused by either dental abrasion (worn down by food) or dental attrition (worn down by grinding with other teeth).
Problems occur when the teeth become miss-aligned because then there is no ‘feedback inhibition’ to regulate the growth of the tooth. As a result its rate of growth will increase and it will not stop.
Miss-alignment can be caused by mechanical disturbances such as when rabbits chew on wire cages (don’t put them in a wire cage!!!). However it is more commonly caused by metabolic bone disease.
Simply put this is often caused by low calcium diets usually made with grain/soy (with high rates of wasted protein and possible calcium leaching). This causes the alveolar bone (bone surrounding each tooth in the jawbone) to become soft from the lack of calcium and other minerals. The soft bone cannot support the pressure of normal chewing processes and this causes the tooth roots to elongate (the early stages of acquired dental disease). This eventually leads to the teeth shifting within their sockets causing them to become miss-aligned. Again, miss-aligned teeth do not receive the feedback-inhibition needed to regulate the growth of the tooth and so they begin to grow unimpeded. In cheek teeth this leads to tooth spurs and eventual abscesses. Sadly once the teeth are miss-aligned they cannot be fixed (at least not with current dental technology available to pets).
For more details click here.
It is also possible that the alveolar bone begins to degrade (as described above) due to lack of pressure and use. This is a really good reason for the need to give your pets hay to chew on. The question that needs to be addressed is how long do rabbits normally grind their teeth (during sleep and other times) and how much time do they spend eating hay (if it was their only source of food). Answering this question will identify how significant different sources of stress can be attributed to strengthening the bone.
Calcium carbonate sludge or stones are a very common problem among pet rabbits and guinea pigs (and other small herbivores). Many assume that caclium is to blame and as a result most pets are on a low-calcium diet. This is dangerous and can lead to metabolic bone disease and may be the primary cause of aquired dental disease. Read more here.
The fact that the sludge/stones are comprised of calcium carbonate is very diagnostic of what is actually happening. Increased levels of renal (urinary) carbonate is a clear sign of renal ammoniagenesis (it can also be caused by low potassium levels but this is very unlikely with pets).
Pets on a diet containing soy and grain suffer from renal ammoniagenesis because of the elimination of excess wasted protein. This is protein that is digested and absorbed but not used (because it is not balanced) and therefore has to be urinated out. If the diet isn’t properly balanced (including mineral balance) then bicarbonate is often excreted into the urine stream (as an anion) and chelates with calcium making calcium carbonate sludge (60% carbonate by weight).
Dietary protein is broken down into individual amino acids. In our example they are colored beads.
Our pets then string these amino acids together in unique combinations (like beads on a string) to build new proteins found in places such as the immune system, fur, muscles, and organs. There are literally many 10,000’s of unique proteins. A lack of protein compromises health!
Each color represents an individual type of amino acid. There are 20 dierent amino acids to choose from. 12 of them can be interchanged or converted from one ‘color’ into another. However the other 8 are labeled as ‘essential’ because they cannot be converted and have to be obtained in the diet. If you run out of a particular color then you’ll have to eat more to supply an additional “pile of beads” and look for the color you need OR skip making the needed protein and compromise the health of your pet. In either case, what do you do with the rest of the beads you don’t use? Unused protein has to be processed and eliminated. Normally this produces urea excreted in urine but excessive levels of wasted protein triggers renal ammoniagenesis leading to excess litterbox odor and urinary sludge.
A sure sign of wasted protein (and therefore increasing amounts of renal ammoniagenesis) is a strong urinary ammonia odor (the majority of litter box odor). When you switch your pet to Sherwood’s hay based diet (alfalfa and timothy) you’ll notice a major reduction in litter box odor. This is a common theme found in reviews from pets that have switched. Here are a few reviews from customers that have switched:
The biggest difference that I have personally found between this food and others is the smell of the urine. It does not have a strong odor.
We conducted an experiment. We had several bunnies in the rescue that had smelly litter boxes. So, we decided to try switching their pellets to all natural, soy-free, SHERWOOD. The results were clear… No more smelly boxes!!! So, if your bun’s got stinky poo, get some Sherwood food. Not to mention, bun will be much healthier too!
I’ve kept rabbits for the past 5 years and usually fed foods from feed stores or pet stores. Since there wasn’t much variety I just supplemented with timothy hay and fresh fruits or veggies. Upon seeing Sherwood Forest on the drs website and researching about it I figured it was worth a try. Firstly, I immediately noticed a HUGE difference in the quality of pellet. Secondly, Bunny Holly noticed it immediately after she smelled it. I have never seen that bunny enjoy her pellets as much. Now whenever she runs out she bangs her bowl…lol. Lastly, I noticed a BIG decrease in the potty smell department. Rabbits are notorious for pungent urine but people can’t even tell I have a rabbit. Thank you guys for such a great quality product! Bunny Holly thanks you all with a Binky!
My baby angora had a hard start with the food…He wouldn’t touch it! But I stuck it out with him for a few weeks and when he decided to actually ‘try’ it, he ate it like a pig! I am pleased with the food. It smells very fresh and I do like the ingredients. Good customer service too! One thing that I noticed right away was the smell of his litter box greatly reduced… even when he was already on a no corn, no soy pellet before, the Sherwood forest still reduced the odor greatly. I love this food! Thanks for a great product and God bless!
Vegetables are foundational to human health in much the same way hay is foundational to a rabbits health. It is natural to think that rabbits should also eat platefuls of vegetables and that is what I remember from my childhood storybooks! However, this is not the case. If you feed too many veggies to a rabbit they are very likely to have serious digestive upset (see digestive health). Rabbits did not evolve eating garden vegetables. They evolved on consuming a variety of seasonally available grasses and legumes and as such will be healthiest when eating this more natural diet.
How do I ensure my pet bunny is receiving all of the vitamins and minerals they need to be healthy? Trust the experts (and ask if you have questions!). Meeting a checklist of daily minimum requirements doesn’t guarantee optimal health. Balance is so important and upsetting this balance can have serious consequences even if the ‘dietary minimums’ are met. PLEASE, if you are feeding fruits or veggies, provide them as ‘treats’ rather than a meal.
I have often been asked to make an all timothy rabbit or guinea pig food (no alfalfa). This question is usually in reference to lowering the calcium content of the pellets (calcium is miss-understood: read more here).
Timothy hay is great because it is high in fiber. However it is a very poor source of nutrients. I have devoted an entire page to answering this question here: /why-alfalfa/.
Switching to Sherwood’s hay-based formula is easier on your pet. The reason why it is popular to slowly switch the diet of a rabbit, guinea pig, or chinchilla over a period of days to weeks is to prevent the rapid growth of bad bacteria as they adjust to a new diet. This is most likely to occur when the switch is introducing more carbohydrates (or a different source of carbohydrates) and/or soy into the diet. Adding more hay to the diet will not cause digestive problems. That is why Sherwood’s hay-based formulas make transitioning easy.
When switching to Sherwood it is still best to mix it with your pets old food. Don’t be surprised if your pet picks out and eats only the healthier Sherwood food. It’s ok. They can make the switch in a single day because it’s like adding more hay to their diet but continue to offer the mixture every day for up to a week or more to ensure they continue to eat.
Some pets resist switching because they prefer the grain and molasses in their old food. In these cases it is even more important to offer a mixture of both brands in a single bowl to make sure your pet is still eating. If you forced the switch and your pet refused to eat then their digestive system will slow down and they would be at risk for developing digestive problems (ranging from stasis and gas/bloating to diarrhea).
You can encourage them to make the switch by thoroughly mixing both brands together to transfer the smell/flavor. Don’t feed so much that they can just pick out their old brand and ignore the healthier food. Give them just enough to fully satisfy their appetite while encouraging them to try the new food. Day by day give them less of the old food and increase the amount of the healthier Sherwood food until they fully switch over. Be a strong pet. They will appreciate being healthier and hoppier!
For those pets that eat enough hay by themselves we have formulated our PROFESSIONAL line of foods. This requires you to carefully measure out the amount of pellets you give and you’ll need to closely monitor the body weight to adjust the amount of pellets you give them. As always the more pellets you feed the less grass hay they will eat so be careful.
For the many pets that don’t eat enough hay by themselves we have formulated our COMPLETE line of foods. Most pets will self regulate these pellets. Of course it is best to offer and encourage them to eat hay but don’t stress if they can’t or won’t because of some reason. The ‘hay’ is in the pellet and they will have a healthy digestive system.
A word on treats… don’t feed too many or you’ll upset the dietary balance and cause a multitude of problems!
Simply weigh the hay before you give it to them… then 24 hours later weigh the remaining uneaten hay. Subtract this amount from the original amount. The difference is the assumed amount of hay eaten (unless they are storing it in a secret hiding place).
Rabbits actually start slowing down their growth rate (they will still continue to grow) and transition to storing body fat around 10 to 12 weeks of age (the teenage ‘years’). If they continued to eat a ‘baby rabbit food’ beyond this stage then they would begin to store unhealthy amounts of fat and have other health issues too. That is why we have designed our formulas accordingly.
The best time to transition your baby rabbit to an adult food is during the teen-age time at around 10 to 12 weeks of age. It also teaches them to eat a healthier higher fiber food.
We worked hard to make the tablets effective and there was a tradeoff with flavor/palatability. These are not sugary yogurt drops. It may be hard to get your pet to try them especially when they haven’t seen anything like it before. About 1 in 4 pets are afraid of new food items such as these tablets. It is helpful to break it into smaller pieces the first time you feed it and even try mixing it with a favorite treat or leaving it in their nighttime home to explore it on their own overnight. It is also very concentrated and may take a few times for pets to get use to the strong flavor of the medicinal herbs in the tablet. Over 95% of pets learn to love and beg for these tablets!