Feeding an appropriate diet to a rabbit is probably the single most important factor in maintaining its health. Rabbits are now the third most popular mammalian domestic pet in the UK. Many of the diseases commonly seen in pet rabbits can be directly attributed to, or associated with, the feeding of an inappropriate diet and could be largely preventable.
When considering the diet of a pet rabbit it is important to be aware of the dietary habits of the wild rabbit. Rabbits are adapted in terms of their teeth and digestive system to eat a herbaceous diet that is high in ﬁbre, low in fat, and low in starchy carbohydrates. Wild rabbits in a natural setting select the most tender succulent plant parts that are most nutrient dense. They are referred to as concentrate selectors, allowing them to meet their dietary requirements in the minimum time above ground when they are prone to predation. However, the natural diet is not “concentrated” to the same degree as commercial diets and is still naturally high in fibre.
Pet rabbits will generally eat a Wide variety of foods but generally show a preference for fibre and often eat hay or straw in preference to a Concentrate ration. However, it can be difﬁcult to persuade a rabbit to eat a new food item once it has become accustomed to a particular diet. In the wild, rabbits eat at dusk and dawn, and this is reflected in pet rabbits, that are most likely to eat in the early evening or overnight, and may not appear hungry during the day.
The other source of nutrients is the caecotrophs, which are packets of partially digested food and bacterial products, including vitamins, eaten directly from the anus.
Sweet foods are generally palatable and molasses is used in some commercial foods to improve palatability. Bitter tastes are also well tolerated, such as alfalfa.
- Feeding the correct diet to rabbits is fundamental to maintaining health, particularly of the dental and digestive systems.
- The best diet for rabbits is one that mimics as closely as possible their natural grass-based diet in the wild. The bulk of the diet of the pet rabbit should consist of grass (fresh or freeze-dried) and/or good quality meadow/Timothy hay, and this should be available at all times. Hay can be fed from racks or net: to minimise contamination and increase the time spent feeding.
- Green foods are also important and a variety should be fed daily to rabbits of all ages. They should be introduced gradually to weanling rabbits. Examples are broccoli, cabbage, chicory, chard, parsley, watercress, celery leaves, endive, raddichio, bok choy, dock, basil, kale, carrot and beet tops. Wild plants can be given if available, e.g bramble, groundsel, chickweed, dandelion. All green foods should be washed before feeding.
- Commercial concentrate rabbit diets are not essential in adult rabbits if ad lib hay, grass, and greens are available. Commercial rabbit diets can be too low in ﬁbre and too high in protein, fat and carbohydrate However, many owners like to feed these diets for convenience. They should not be fed exclusively or ad lib, and it must be emphasised that hay or grass should always be available and make up the bulk of the diet. A good general rule is to feed a maximum of 1 tablespoon food for rabbits under 2kg and 2 tablespoon for rabbits over 2 kg daily Overfeeding of concentrated diets is a significant factor in gut disease and dental disease, and also leads to obesity and boredom. However, concentrate diets have a role in the feeding of growing, pregnant and lactating and diseased rabbis, and can be used to ensure nutrient requirements are fulﬁlled in rabbis that are unwilling to consume significant amounts of hay or green vegetables.
- Obesity can predispose to serious health problems including arthritis, osteoporosis, faecal retention around the perineum, urine scalding, ﬂystrike and metabolic disease.
- High fat or high carbohydrate/starchy treats should be avoided completely. These include commercial “treas” such as honey sticks, beans, peas, corn, bread, breakfast cereal, biscuits, nus, seeds, crisps and chocolate.
- The best treats to feed are hay treas, which are commercially available, or some favourite herbs or greens. Be very careful with feeding other treats as they can lead to obesity and digestive upsets. For some tooth wear and mental stimulation you may provide your rabbit with twigs or tree branches. They will enjoy gnawing and stripping the bark. A general rule is that you can offer branches from any tree that we eat the fruit from. Examples are apple, pear, plum, hawthorn, whitethorn and wild rose. Make sure the tree has not been sprayed with chemicals.
- Fruit should be regarded as a treat item and fed in very limited quantities only as it is high in simple sugars and can lead to gastrointestinal disturbance and dental caries.
- Sudden changes in diet must be avoided. Any change in diet should be made gradually over several days to weeks, starting with small amounts of the new item and gradually increasing them, whilst making a corresponding decrease in the unwanted item if necessary. Ad lib hay should always be available, and it is especially important to ensure that weanling rabbits eat plenty of hay. A sudden change in diet and lack of fibre combined with the stress of movement is a signiﬁcant cause of morbidity and mortality in young rabbits over the period of weaing and moving to a pet shop or new owner. When purchasing a rabbit It Is important for a new owner to be informed of the rabbit’s diet so that any changes can be introduced gradually.
- Frosted or mouldy food, and lawnmower clippings should not be fed as these an lead to severe digestive disturbances.
- Dietary supplements consisting of vitamins and minerals are not generally necessary if the correct diet is fed. They should be used only under direction of a veterinary surgeon.
- Fresh drinking water must be available at all times. Drinking bottles are easier to keep clean than water bowls, and avoid we mg the dewlap, which can lead to a moist dermatitis.