TECHNIQUE

Oral Medication and Syringe Feeding of Rabbits (Disease Investigation & Management - Treatment and Care)

Feeding a rabbit using a syringe. Click here for full page view with caption Feeding a rabbit using a syringe. Click here for full page view with caption

Summary Information
Type of technique Health & Management / Disease Investigation & Management / Techniques:
Synonyms and Keywords --
Description Oral medications are best administered in suspension form. (B602.14.w14)
Liquid medications

Liquids can easily be administered to rabbits by syringing them into the mouth or, if appropriate, they can be added to the drinking water. (B606.17.w17)

  • Adding medication to the drinking water:
    • This is not an ideal method of administering drugs because:
      • Many preparations will flavour the water making it unpalatable (note: adding sucrose to the water may help to improve the taste). (B600.3.w3)
      • It is difficult to ensure that the animal is receiving the correct dosage of medication. Experimental evidence reportedly shows that antibiotics are ineffective when administered by this route. (B600.3.w3)
  • Via syringe:
    • Rabbits may be encouraged to drink from a small syringe (1 to 3 mL) by moistening the end of the syringe and dipping it into granulated sugar. (B615.6.w6)
    • Many rabbits will enjoy sweet compounds and will accept paediatric syrups or medication that has been mixed with honey or fruit juice. (B600.3.w3)
    • If the rabbit will not drink readily from the syringe then see Syringe Feeding below
  • Via a metal avian gavage cannula:
    • Introduce via the diastema. (P113.2005.w2)
    • Slide the end backward to deliver the medication into the caudal part of the oral cannula. (P113.2005.w2)
    • Give a small amount of liquid at a time. (P113.2005.w2)
  • Via food: Liquid medication can be added to a piece of bread and offered to the rabbit. (B600.3.w3)
  • Via nasogastric tube: If a rabbit has a nasogastric tube in place then liquid medication can be administered through this route. (B606.17.w17)
  • Via orogastric tube: This is useful for a single administration of food or e.g. for giving activated charcoal when the rabbit is known or thought to have ingested something toxic, but is not suitable for repeated administration of medication or repeated feeding. 
Tablets
  • Tablets are difficult to administer to rabbits; rabbits will rarely swallow tablets whole. (B601.2.w2, B602.14.w14)
  • "Many drugs that are available only in tablet form can be made into suspensions for use in rabbits by compounding pharmacists". (B602.14.w14)
  • Occasionally a rabbit will eat tablets voluntarily. (B600.3.w3)
  • Some medications that are relatively palatable (e.g. enrofloxacin) may be chewed and swallowed by the rabbit. (B602.14.w14)
  • Placed directly into the mouth:
    • The tablet can be inserted into the mouth via the diastema [the large gap between the incisors and cheek teeth]. (B600.3.w3, B602.14.w14, J29.15.w2)
      • Place the medication as far back in the oral cavity as possible to prevent the animal from spitting it out. (B602.14.w14, J213.9.w1)
    • Alternatively, a pill giver can be used to administer a tablet. (B600.3.w3)
  • Mixed with food:
    • If administration is difficult, crush the tablet and mix with:
      • a favourite food, e.g. banana (B606.17.w17, J213.9.w1)
      • strawberry jam. (B602.14.w14, B606.17.w17, J213.9.w1)
      • a paste nutritional supplement (B602.14.w14)
      • honey or breakfast cereal (B600.3.w3)
  • Crushed and administered as a liquid:
    • Tablets may be compounded into flavoured suspensions if necessary. (J213.9.w1)
Powders
  • Vitamin and mineral supplements may be given mixed in with food. (B600.3.w3)
  • Sprinkle powders onto a piece of bread. (B600.3.w3)
Syringe Feeding
  • Make up formula.
  • Draw up the formula into a large syringe and use this to load 1 mL syringes from the back by removing the plungers; 
    • Have several small syringes ready.
    • For a rabbit which tolerates syringe feeding well, larger syringes can be used.
  • Restrain the animal in a suitable manner; for fractious animals, a towel can be used to wrap the rabbit in a "burrito fashion". (B601.2.w2, B602.14.w14, J213.9.w1)
  • Keep one forearm securely either side of the wrapped rabbit, and have the rabbit's rump up against your body. (J529.37.w1)
  • Keep the rabbit securely contained, but not under excessive restraint; some rabbits will struggle more if they feel too confined. (J529.37.w1)
  • Gently introduce the syringe into the mouth behind the incisor teeth (i.e. in the diasterma between the incisors and the cheek teeth) directing the nozzle towards the back of the mouth. (B601.2.w2, B615.6.w6, J529.37.w1)
  • The rabbit will start to "gum" the syringe once it is in the mouth. (J529.37.w1)
  • Turn the syringe a little so it is more in line with the tongue. (J529.37.w1)
  • Push the syringe into the mouth a little way - to the 0.2-0.3 mL mark for small rabbits, 0.4 mL mark for larger rabbits (1 mL syringe). (J529.37.w1)
  • Keep the rabbit's head parallel with the ground to reduce the risk of the rabbit aspirating the liquid into the respiratory tract (this is more likely to occur if the rabbit's head is elevated) (B601.2.w2, B615.6.w6)
  • Initially push the plunger to deliver a small amount (about 0.2 mL) of food into the mouth; if the rabbit chews and swallows, give more. (J529.37.w1)
  • Only administer small amounts of liquid at a time (0.5 to 3 mL depending on the size of the rabbit; 3 mL may be used in a rabbit that is 4 kg or larger) and then wait until the animal swallows before administering any more. (B601.2.w2, B615.6.w6)
  • Keep assessing the rabbit's chewing and respiratory rate/effort to ensure it is swallowing, not aspirating. (J529.37.w1)
  • If the rabbit doesn't chew, move the syringe back and forward in the mouth quickly to stimulate gumming and chewing.
  • Note: do not rush this procedure. If the rabbit will not swallow the liquid then an alternative method of administration must be considered. (B601.2.w2)
Appropriate Use (?)
  • For administration of oral medications. (B606.17.w17)
  • Suspensions are preferable to tablets for oral administration of medications to rabbits. (J213.9.w1)
  • Syringe feeding is appropriate for administration of food to an anorectic rabbit.
Notes
  • A metal avian gavage cannula is useful because it allows liquid medication to be delivered into the caudal part of the rabbit's mouth and, because it is metal, the end cannot be chewed off by the rabbit. (P113.2005.w2)
Complications/ Limitations / Risk
  • Adding medication to the drinking water:
    • This is not an ideal method of administering drugs because:
      • Many preparations will flavour the water making it unpalatable (adding sucrose to the water may help to improve the taste). (B600.3.w3)
      • It is difficult to ensure that the animal is receiving the correct dosage of medication. Experimental evidence reportedly shows that antibiotics are ineffective when administered by this route. (B600.3.w3)
  • Administering liquid medications:
    • The rabbit is at risk of aspirating the medication if it is administered too rapidly (allow the rabbit time to swallow the medication) or too much is given at once (only 0.5 to 3 ml should be given at a time depending on the size of the rabbit) or if the rabbit's head is elevated too high (it should be kept parallel with the ground). (B601.2.w2, B615.6.w6, P113.2005.w2)
  • Administering tablets:
    • Tablets are difficult to administer to rabbits; rabbits will rarely swallow tablets whole. (B601.2.w2, B602.14.w14)
    • Place the medication as far back in the oral cavity as possible to prevent the animal from spitting it out. (B602.14.w14, J213.9.w1)
    • Tablets may have to be crushed and mixed with something tasty (see examples listed above).
  • Syringe feeding:
    • Not all rabbits will tolerate syringe feeding.
    • If a large amount of food is aspirated, it can cause fatal acute obstruction of the airway; a small amount can result in aspiration pneumonia. (J529.37.w1)
    • The syringe nozzle limits the size of particles which can be given; long indigestible fibre particles are needed for optimum gut motility. (B600.3.w3)
Contraindicated medications for oral use in rabbits
  • Oral antibiotics that select against the Gram-positive bacteria should not be used in rabbits because they may cause a fatal enteric dysbiosis and enterotoxaemia:
    • Penicillins, macrolides, lincosamides and cephalosporins. (B609.2.w2)
Equipment / Chemicals required and Suppliers
  • Syringe for liquid medications.
  • Pill popper for tablets.
  • Appropriate medication or diet.
Expertise level / Ease of Use Procedure should only be undertaken by an individual with appropriate practical experience.
Cost / Availability Inexpensive, unless expensive drugs are being given.
Legal and Ethical Considerations In some countries there may be legislation restricting the diagnosis and treatment of disease in animals to licensed veterinarians. For example in the UK: "The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (Section 19) provides, subject to a number of exceptions, that only registered members of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons may practice veterinary surgery."(see: LCofC1 - RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct 2000 - Treatment of Animals by Non-Veterinary Surgeons).

Use of Drugs (Medication):

  • Many drugs are not licensed for use in lagomorph species and care should be taken in their use, with proper regard for possible toxic effects. Consideration should be give to relevant legislation regarding the use of drugs.
  • In the UK, guidelines regarding the use of drugs are set out in the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons Guide to Professional Conduct 2000: (see: LCofC1 - RCVS Guide to Professional Conduct 2000 - Choice of Medicinal Products).
Author Nikki Fox BVSc MRCVS (V.w103)
Referee Tiffany Blackett BVetMed MRCVS (V.w44)
References B600.3.w3, B601.2.w2, B602.14.w14, B606.17.w17, B615.6.w6, J29.15.w2, J213.9.w1, J529.37.w1, P113.2005.w2

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