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What Is Rabbit Starvation?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 24 November 2016
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Rabbit starvation, also known as protein poisoning, is a dangerous health condition caused by the over-consumption of protein coupled with fat, carbohydrate, and micronutrient deprivation. The common name refers to the fact that this condition can be caused by a near-total subsistence on lean, wild game, such as rabbit. Unchecked, the disease can cause severe symptoms of malnutrition, and can lead to a fatal buildup of toxins in the bloodstream.

The discovery of rabbit starvation is linked to early health studies and observations of Native Americans. Tribes in Alaska and the polar region subsisted largely on game with a high amount of fat and carbohydrates, such as seals and whales, and rarely suffered from this form of malnutrition. By contrast, Native Americans stricken with this condition tended to come from forested areas where harsh winters resulted in a diet of primarily lean game. Rabbit starvation was first described by Arctic explorer Vilhjamur Stefansson in the late 19th century, but was also remarked upon by Charles Darwin in his journals.

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The mechanics behind rabbit starvation are fairly simple. Protein in the body is converted into glucose by the liver, and can be burned as energy. The liver, however, can only safely process a limited amount of protein at a time. If the body receives more protein than it can safely turn into glucose, the resulting strain on the liver and kidneys can cause an increasing buildup of ammonia and amino acids. The liver then flushes these excess byproducts into the bloodstream, causing dangerous and even fatal consequences.

In addition to straining the liver, protein over-consumption also causes various symptoms of malnutrition, including fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, and constant hunger. These symptoms occur because the body is being deprived of necessary nutrition provided only by fat, carbohydrates, and micronutrients such as vitamins. Symptoms will occur regardless of how many calories a person experiencing rabbit starvation eats, since the body is limited in its ability to process energy and nutrition from protein. Thus, a person can be eating an enormous amount of food, yet still experiencing weakness, hunger, and other malnourishment symptoms.

The possibility of rabbit starvation leads many health experts to counsel against some protein-heavy diet regimes. Although the exact upper limit for safe protein consumption is not widely agreed upon, some authorities suggest that protein poisoning becomes a concern if protein comprises more than 35% of daily calorie intake. Some suggest that high-protein diets should be monitored by a doctor or dietician to prevent rabbit starvation from taking hold.

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stoneMason
Post 3

@anamur-- I don't know about the percentage but yea, rabbit meat is the leanest meat available.

I don't think rabbit starvation can happen to animals that are carnivores like dogs and cats. As far as I know, they're meant to rely on protein completely. And their digestion system and metabolism is wired differently. You might want to ask your vet to confirm this. But I don't think your pets are at risk for it.

I also find it funny that at a time when we have all food sources easily available to us, some people can on purpose starve themselves on various diets. Native Americans used to suffer from rabbit starvation because they had no other choice. They had to rely on game meat to survive the winters. They would never do it knowingly.

serenesurface
Post 2

This is interesting. Just out of curiosity, how lean is rabbit meat? There is no fat in it at all?

I'm actually glad this article has indirectly clarified that fat is actually good for us and that it's required for our body to function well.

I am confused and a little worried about one thing though-- is rabbit starvation also possible with pets? I have two cats and a dog and I feed all three lean meats. I don't give them grains at all but the meats do have a little bit of fat content from time to time. Are they at risk for protein poisoning?

fify
Post 1

I can't believe this! I had no idea that a diet mainly relying on protein could be so dangerous! I also can't believe that there are fad diets that promote this kind of eating!

One of my coworkers is on a similar diet right now. She doesn't eat any grains as far as I know. She mainly relies on protein in the form of lean meats and protein shakes. The only thing that's probably saving her from rabbit starvation is that she does eat vegetables. So at least she's getting some carbohydrate and nutrients that way.

But I'm going to tell her about rabbit starvation tomorrow at work. Hopefully I can convince her to follow a more balanced diet before she gets sick.

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