Feeding Rabbits and Getting It Right
Feeding the correct diet is probably the single most important means of having a healthy and long-lived rabbit.
As a rough guide, about 70% of the diet should be hay/grass, 28% vegetables and only 2% pellets or nuggets, which is about 1-2 tablespoons a day for an average rabbit.
Feeding rabbits is actually simple and straightforward. The best diet for rabbits is one that mimics their natural grass-based diet in the wild as closely as possible. This means they should be fed unlimited good quality hay or grass, and some leafy green vegetables and herbs, which can be supplemented with a small measured amount of nuggeted or pelleted feed in an amount recommended by the manufacturer.
Treats should be kept to a minimum, but if they are fed they should be healthy and natural. Fresh drinking water must always be available.
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We know from scientific studies that feeding an incorrect diet, one that is low in fibre and high in carbohydrate, is directly linked to the development of dental disease, gastrointestinal disease, obesity and behavioural problems. In recent years pet food manufacturers have responded to the need for better diets for pet rabbits, but in fact the vast majority of a rabbit’s diet should not come out of a packet.
Fibre is vital for healthy teeth. To cope with an abrasive tough diet, rabbit teeth grow continuously throughout life, and eating a high fibre diet with the right mineral balance helps keep them at the correct length and shape. If they don’t eat enough fibrous food or have a diet with an imbalance of calcium and phosphorus the teeth get too long, change shape and develop painful spikes and spurs. Periodontal infection can also develop which can lead to large abscesses. These conditions develop on the back or cheek teeth, used for chewing and grinding food, and are impossible to check without the use of special dental equipment as a veterinary procedure. Any rabbit that is not eating well or stops altogether must be checked by a vet for dental disease.
In summary, feeding the correct diet to rabbits not only provides the right nutrition, but fulfills their behavioural needs to spend a large part of their time eating, and maximises health and welfare by helping to prevent a wide variety of commonly seen diseases.
Feeding takes place mainly in the early morning, evening and at night – this is because in the wild this is when the rabbit is safest from predators, and many owners notice this pattern in their pet rabbits. Rabbits will spend about 6-8 hours a day eating and the rest of the time they will be safe from predators underground digesting the food.
While feeding, a rabbit is potentially always alert and on the look out for predators, so along with its acute hearing it uses its large eyes on the side of its head to get a wide field of vision. It can’t actually see what it’s eating under its nose and instead relies on smell and feel to detect its food. The characteristic long powerful hind legs and lightweight skeleton mean it can make a sudden rapid sprint to the safety of the burrow to escape a predator if needed.
Rabbits do not need lots of variety from day to day and sudden changes in diet must be avoided, as this can upset the delicate balance of bacteria in the hindgut and lead to diarrhoea due to the overgrowth of harmful bacteria. Any change in diet should be made gradually over several days or weeks, starting with small amounts of the new item and gradually increasing them, at the same time making a corresponding decrease in the unwanted item if necessary.
When purchasing a rabbit it is important that the rabbit’s past diet is known so that any changes can be introduced gradually. A sudden change in diet and a lack of fibre, combined with the stress of movement, is a significant cause of disease and death in young rabbits over the period of weaning; for example, when moving to a pet shop or a new owner.
Rabbits have a very specialised digestive tract. In order to get all the nutrients, they need from a diet which is grass/hay based, the digestive tract is long and complicated, and some food even goes through twice!
Inside the gut, fibre is sorted into digestible and indigestible fibre. Indigestible fibre is really important for gut and dental health, but doesn’t provide a lot of nutrition. This indigestible fibre is sorted from the food very quickly, and passed out as hard, dry droppings.
Digestible fibre, which does provide nutrition, is kept in a special part of the digestive tract called the caecum. Here, the digestible fibre is fermented by good bacteria, and this provides energy and nutrients for your rabbit!
Despite the best efforts of the caecum, some of the nutrition found in fibrous food is well protected by thick cell walls. These get partly broken down the first time they pass through your rabbit’s digestive system. To save these nutrients, partly-digested food, as well as good bacteria and vitamins that come from the caecum, is packaged into specialist droppings called ‘caecotrophs’. These droppings are then eaten as they emerge, and this is completely normal.
Keep an eye on your rabbit’s droppings as they are a good indicator of health. If your rabbit produces fewer droppings than normal, and these seem either drier or abnormally shaped, it’s time to get in touch with your vet. Diarrhoea, or a build-up of sticky caecotrophs around your rabbit’s back end, are both also abnormal and your rabbit should be checked over by your local Companion Care.
The bulk of the diet of the pet rabbit should consist of grass (fresh or freeze-dried) and / or good quality meadow / timothy hay which is available at all times.
Green plants are a useful way to provide variety, some nutrients, water and some dental wear, but as they are generally 90-95% water and often relatively low in fibre excessively large amounts would need to be consumed to fulfill daily needs.
When rabbits are fed mixed feeds, many only eat certain components meaning they get an unbalanced diet, with an insufficient intake of fibre, protein, calcium and phosphorous.
High fat or starchy treats should be avoided as they can lead to obesity and digestive upsets. If the correct treats are chosen, they provide your rabbits with an extra source of fibre.