Tips on hand feeding rabbits and guinea pigs

Posted in Husbandry How-to, Medical at 3:00 am by ACR&S

Guinea pigs and rabbits share a basic design flaw: a sensitive digestive system that reacts to stress and illness by shutting down (stasis), and which, once shut down, will kill the animal unless restarted.

It is critical that GP and rabbit owners know how to hand feed their animals. Hand feeding (also called syringe feeding or force-feeding) can be the life-or-death difference for an animal who is in stasis. It can also be a useful way to prevent stasis when you have an animal who is unwilling to eat for other reasons (pain, surgical recovery, etc).

Hand feeding can be VERY confusing, scary, and troublesome when you first do it. Later, it’s not so scary, and you find yourself making this huge production to prepare for it, but the feeding itself seems over in seconds.

You might find yourself more comfortable approaching hand feeding if you have specific tips to rely on. Guinea Lynx offers some excellent suggestions, especially with regards to amounts and transitioning back to regular food. But I wanted to offer some slightly more practical tips on the actual act of feeding itself:

Choose your product.
The two best options are Oxbow’s Critical Care (CC), or ground-up pellets (whatever your pet normally eats). I prefer the CC, only because it is MUCH easier to push through the syringe than pellets. The pellets don’t mix perfectly with the water, so the water gets pushed out and you end up with a syringe full of compressed pellet dust. However, on the negative side, some people report that an animal on long term assisted CC feeding will refuse to eat anything else once they’ve gotten addicted to CC. So for practical reasons, I use CC when I just have just one or two feedings to do (like nursing an animal post-surgery), but I do use a mix of CC and pellets, or alternate between them on different feedings, if I’ve got someone whose being fed 4x-daily for a week or more.

If you do choose to grind pellets, a cheap coffee grinder works wonders.

Preparing the slurry.
You’ll probably need to feed about 20 mL per feeding per kg of body weight, repeated between 2 and 4 times per day. Your vet will give you explicit instructions based on your pet’s weight. An animal who is eating a little on her own and is just getting a supplement to jump start her gut, probably only needs 1-2 feeds per day. So I prepare about 20 mL at a time, and throw away what I don’t use. A heaping 1/2 tablespoon of CC makes about 30 mL depending how much water you add.

You’ll need a spoon (for stirring and putting the slurry into the syringe), a small bowl (a shallow teacup works well because of the handle), and a 10 mL syringe.

Prepare the slurry by adding first the powder, then a warmed liquid – not hot, but slightly warm. You can use water, or Pedialyte, or cranberry or orange or apple juice. I typically use water for occasional feedings, Pedialyte for severely ill animals.

The directions on the CC aren’t very helpful. I think it recommends a 1:3 mix of powder to liquid, but this is usually pretty chunky, still. Too thick, and it’s hard to control when you push it through the syringe. Too wet, and the animal is getting more liquid than nutrition. I like my CC mix to be wet enough to be runny, but still form lumps when I drip a spoonful back into the bowl. Think thinish pancake batter. Brownie batter would be too thick.

When you’ve mixed your slurry, pull the plunger completely out of the syringe and hold the other part upright with your finger covering the pointy hole. Then use the spoon to drip slurry into the butt of the syringe till it’s full, then add the plunger. You’ll get some overflow at both top and bottom, but if you did it right, the syringe will be totally full and ready to go. If you get air bubbles, tapping the side of the syringe will move them upwards and you can expel them.

Set up the feeding station.
I find that I can do this best when the animal is about level with my shoulders, so I typically place the animal on the edge of a bed or table, and I sit on a low stool next to it. Sitting on the floor with the animal on the coffee table or couch might work too. The point is, you want to be able to curl your arm around the animal to help control her movements.

Be SURE you put a towel on the surface under the animal. Possibly several towels. She’s going to bitch and fight and slobber and shake her head and everything will be covered in flying CC. I also like to make a little wall of pillows around the towel (covered with more towels) so she can’t get away too easily. And you probably also want a spare towel for wiping up accidents or wiping the syringe on. And don’t wear nice clothing.

If you’re right handed, place the animal facing towards the right and sit facing towards her, turned slightly right yourself. Curl your left arm around her butt so that your left hand can have control of her shoulders and head, but if she backs up she is stopped by your arm and elbow. I typically keep my left hand on her head or back, patting her, unless I need to hold her still – then I keep my hand turned upright – thumb on top of the head, fingers curled around the cheek and under the jaw (hovering but not touching except to exert control if she tries to move). Keep her close to the edge so that she is close to your body, to prevent her from jumping off or turning around that way.

Take the syringe in your right hand and “start” it – get a small bubble of slurry ready on the tip. Approach her mouth from underneath – you want to touch the right corner of the bottom lip, rather than the nose or upper lip, so that the syringe slides behind her incisors – but keep the syringe mostly horizontal and aimed at her left cheek (if she’s facing 3 o’clock, you’re entering at 5 o’clock and aiming at 11 o’clock). Do NOT aim straight down the throat, animals have been known to aspirate on slurry.

Now the unpredictable part starts. She may grab the syringe and start sucking like a crack addict, or she may growl and whine and back up and box you, or she may duck her head and avoid the syringe, or she may bite it and not let go. To avoid all the negative things, you want to try to get in the mouth, push the plunger very gently and just a little, and get out quickly. Don’t try to give too much slurry at once – I give between .5 and 2 mL per jab (a line about 1-2 cm long), depending on the size of the animal, the plunger barely moves. Yes, it takes forever this way, but I once had an animal aspirate and I am not freaking risking it again. If you do it right, you should see her chewing – give her a moment to chew and swallow before you jab her again.

Another reason for the small mouthfuls is that if she gets too much, she’ll just spit it out and then you have an animal covered in brown drool. You can practice making small movements with the plunger to be sure you are able to jab in just the right amount and not too much. If she loves it, you may find she will just slurp it up in huge 5 mL mouthfuls, or even eats it from a spoon. If so, fantastic!

If she’s ducking her head or turning or backing away, you can use your left hand and arm to aim her at 3 o’clock again, but try to do it very gently. It’s hard to explain – you need to not be afraid of forcing her into position, but also don’t want to ACTUALLY force her if you can help it. Two fingers resting lightly on the jaw should be the maximum amount of force you actually need to exert. In between jabs, be sure to pet her head and nose and let her settle down if she’s very agitated.

Let the animal’s manner guide you on when it’s time to stop feeding. If she willingly takes a whole syringe, go ahead and make another one and start that. If she gets 5 mL or so and she starts to slow down and it gets harder and harder to get in there, push her as far as you can, but don’t do another 10 mL. You don’t want to make her hate the feedings, and you can always try again in a few hours.

If she’s eating willingly, it’s important to take advantage of her interest in food to offer her the opportunity to eat on her own. I often take a break between syringes and offer melon, wheatgrass, hay, etc; anything that might tempt her into eating on her own.

One last tip: get a GOOD scale, and weigh your pet both before and after every feeding. A steady pattern of weight loss, despite frequent and successful assisted feeding, indicates that you’re losing the battle. And you cannot see this without actually tracking the weights.

1 Comment

  1. elle robins said,

    September 2, 2009 at 4:56 am


    we have a guinea pig called Alfie who is now 6 and half years and he has been our little boy since 6 months old (the eldest at our little rescue retreat in sussex) after 3/4 vets I eventually found a lump in his throat which was the cause of him not being able to graze and eat solids. Pathology has confirmed thyroid adenoma but no tumour or abcess and surgery not recommended because of its sighting. Alfie wants to eat and is not ‘ill’ he eats the slurry freely from a bowl (mixture pellets/Oxbow/vit C water) but he continues to lose weight (we even caught him at his dry mix bowl bless him but he cant swallow it)
    Can you recommend anything which packs calories to allow him to gain WEIGHT thank you warm wishes elle