Feeding your rabbit
Feeding your rabbit
The wrong diet can be the cause of many health problems in rabbits. Rabbits are strict herbivores that eat a variety of plants in the wild. Although they prefer grass and leaves, they can digest more fibrous foods and are able to survive on sparse vegetation. They do NOT need a high calorie diet, as their digestive system has evolved to break down fibre and form nutrients.
Their teeth are continually growing and being worn down, to cut and grind food before it enters the stomach.
Rabbits pass two types of droppings, hard and soft. Rabbits eat the soft pellets, called ceacotropes, and are a rich source of nutrients. If this cycle is broken, it disrupts the healthy bacteria that live in the rabbits digestive tract. In very young rabbits, this can cause death because it can take a while for a rabbit to achieve a healthy level of gut bacteria.
So, what should you feed your rabbit?
The best foods for rabbits are hay, grass and leafy greens as they are palatable, low in calories, high in fibre and wear the teeth down. Leafy green vegetables are very good, such as romaine lettuce, kale and carrot tops. Remember that when a new food is introduced, it can cause the production of many of the soft droppings, and this must not be confused with diarrhoea. On the contrary, it is perfectly normal and healthy!
Hay and fibre
Rabbits have digestive tracts that are specially adapted to break down fibrous vegetation. Hay provides the fibre necessary to keep their digestive systems healthy and motile. Hay helps prevent many serious health problems that rabbits can get with their intestines. It also helps keep teeth healthy.
What Kind of Hay?
For baby bunnies, alfalfa provides the high caloric content necessary for their development. Once rabbits reach seven months of age, gradually switch them over to timothy grass or oat hay.
Low calorie but high fibre foods are GOOD, high calorie but low fibre foods are BAD! Rabbits on a low fibre diet tend to produce softer caecotropes which can stick to the fur around the anus, especially if the fur is fluffy. If this same diet is high in calories, as many of the commercial ones often are, then the rabbit is more likely to be fat and unable to reach their anus to eat the caecotropes. The end result is that a foul smelling clump of droppings under the tail which is unpleasant for both the rabbit and the owner. Also, the skin here becomes sore and smelly, and can attract flies.
Are teeth problems related to diet?
Dental problems are possibly the most common reason why vets see rabbits. Vets agree that mixed muesli-type diets are at least partly responsible for these teeth problems. Although these types of rabbit food are cheap, tasty and convenient, they are totally unsuitable for rabbits. They are high in calories and low in fibre, and even if the manufacturer claims to have a balanced mixture of ingredients, many rabbits will pick certain bits from the bowl. The continual growth of the rabbits teeth relies on proper nutrition. So when a rabbit's diet is not perfect, this disrupts the tooth structure and can lead to many teeth and other health problems. In addition, rabbits with poor teeth cannot groom themselves properly and so can get mite infestations, leading to scaling and itchy skin. Poor teeth also make the rabbit unable to eat hay, so the proportion of fibre in the diet decreases and causes digestive problems, as discussed earlier. Therefore, if a rabbit is eating large amounts of hay it is an indicator that it has healthy teeth.
Rabbits of course also need free access to a supply of fresh water. This should be provided in a bowl or bottle.