Syringe Feeding Small Herbivores

Author: Drs. Natalie Antinoff, Scott Echols, and Christal Pollock.
December 11, 2010

Mild to moderately ill herbivores are often syringe fed, and proper syringe-feeding technique is an essential skill in the care of the rabbit, chinchilla, and guinea pig. Gastrointestinal stasis is one of the most common medical problems seen in small herbivores. A cornerstone of treatment is delivery of food containing high dietary fiber. Aggressive fluid therapy, often in the form of oral and subcutaneous fluids, is also crucial for successful management. Always address dehydration before beginning nutritional support.

Equipment needed:

  • High fiber diet such as EmerAid Herbivore
  • Towel
  • Hard, flat surface like an exam table
  • Syringes of appropriate size

Some prefer to use 1-ml syringes while others prefer 10-ml oral syringes or 60-ml catheter tip syringes. When using a catheter-tip syringe, attach a short, cut segment of red rubber catheter so that administration of food is gentle and controlled.

Potential complication:

The most important potential complication associated with assist feeding is aspiration of formula. Depending on the volume inhaled, aspiration can result in acute airway obstruction and death, or aspiration pneumonia, which will complicate recovery and can also result in death.

Step-by-step instructions:

  1. Prepare formula fresh for each feeding. Follow label directions since formula that is too watery will increase the risk of aspiration.
  2. Place a towel on a hard, flat surface, then place your patient in the center of the towel. Create a rabbit or rodent “burrito” by first covering the rump, then fold toweling over each side. Tuck any remaining material under the chin and over the forefeet.
  3. Tuck the pet against your side using your forearm. Gently grasp the head with that hand, placing an index finger directly under the chin, and a thumb at the base of the skull. Place remaining fingers on the chest to prevent the animal from moving forward.
  4. Although the animal’s head may be gently elevated, it is less stressful for your patient if you lower your head in order to visualize the mouth and to monitor chewing.
  5. Gently insert the syringe into the diastema, or the gap between the incisors and cheek teeth.
  6. The first mouthful fed should be no more than 0.2 to 0.5 ml of formula to make sure the animal actively chews. Never feed more than 1 ml of formula at a time, and never dispense food while the animal is vocalizing since these practices increase he risk of aspiration.
  7. Go slowly. Syringe feeding is typically a time-consuming process that requires patience.
  8. Follow the meal by syringing at least 5-10 ml of water. If the gut is moving slowly, this will minimize the risk of the food bolus drying out as it sits within the stomach. Alternatively, subcutaneous fluids can be administered to ensure hydration.

Small herbivores need more roughage or “scratch factor” in their diet long-term, therefore Emeraid Herbivore should not be fed for more than 7 to 10 days.