Written by Hazel King, Animal Behaviourist
Are you familiar with the saying “you are what you eat”? It applies just as much to rabbits as to people, which means that, to keep them healthy, you need to feed your rabbits on a diet that’s healthy for rabbits.
Rabbits have evolved to live on a low-protein, high-fibre diet. This makes feeding them quite different to feeding the other main companion animals, dogs and cats, which need much more protein and less fibre.
I’d like you to picture a wild rabbit in its natural environment.
What do you think it would be eating? Because what that wild rabbit chooses to eat is the best food for your pet rabbits. It would be eating mostly grass, with some leaves and other oddments.
So, your pet rabbits’ diet should be about 90% grass or good-quality hay (not straw). That means a pile of hay about the size of the rabbit, per day. Teff grass is good and oat hay is also suitable. The best is if the rabbits can graze in your garden, as this is the most natural way for them to eat. You could let them out in a mobile run, which you can move to different parts of the garden.
If you give your rabbits free range of your garden, it’s essential that you first make sure that your garden is escape proof and safe – other pets are quite likely to see the rabbits as food, and they could soon be killed.
Garden plants may be dangerous for the rabbits to eat, even if you don’t mind the garden being destroyed! If you’re quite certain that your rabbits will be safe loose in the garden, you still need to keep an eagle eye on them as they may dig under your fence and disappear.
Speaking of eagle eyes, rabbits are natural prey for the real eagles, buzzards, owls, etc., so they’re safer in some sort of enclosure.
Many gardens only have one kind of grass, and the soil will contain much the same minerals over your entire garden, so, even if your rabbits can graze, it’s not a bad idea to go out and pick grass for them, but be careful: don’t pick near to roads (where the grass will be contaminated with exhaust fumes), or in popular dog-walking fields, where the grass will also be contaminated. Be careful that you don’t pick plants that may be poisonous, or are endangered.
Rabbits graze for food, and grass or hay, as well as water, should be available at all times. In addition to the grass or hay, your rabbits can have a small amount of herbs and very little vegetables.
Commercial rabbit foods come in two types: pelleted and muesli. Either will provide any minerals or vitamins that may be missing. You should only feed about one tablespoon per kilo of rabbit per day. For example, if your rabbit weighs two kilos, you’d feed about two tablespoons of pellets per day.
Look for a pelleted food that’s low in protein and high in fibre. Pellets are often preferable to muesli-type food, where the rabbit may pick out the bits it likes and leave the rest.
Some vegetables, such as carrots and most fruit, contain far too much sugar and should therefore be kept for very occasional treats. It should go without saying that feeding your rabbit sweets, chocolates and other junk food is an absolute no-no.
What are the consequences of not feeding rabbits correctly?
A host of conditions are linked to incorrect feeding of rabbits – none of which you want to happen to your beloved bunnies. These include obesity, fatty liver, pododermatitis, heart disease and more.
Rabbits fed mostly on pellets or muesli rabbit foods are in danger of becoming obese.
Aside from the obesity-related conditions faced by humans, cats and dogs (e.g. heart problems and joint pain), this has an additional danger in rabbits related to their very special eating and digestive process.
Caecotrophs, malnutrition… and fly strike
Rabbits are the ultimate prey animal – everything eats them – so they’ve learned to eat very quickly, but digestion is slower and specialised.
Having eaten, they will go to a safe place and eat their caecotrophs – partially digested food which passes though the rabbit and is eaten again so that it can be properly digested. It’s a bit like cows chewing the cud.
But a fat rabbit won’t be able to reach to catch the caecotrophs, so won’t get much of the value of its food. It will also be at risk of getting a mucky bum. This will attract flies and lead to a horrific and potentially fatal condition called fly strike, where flies lay eggs in the dirt on the rabbit’s bum and, when the eggs hatch, the maggots literally eat the rabbit alive.
Another problem faced by rabbits that aren’t fed on a natural diet is that their teeth are designed to cope with long, rough pieces of grass. The teeth grow all the time to make up for the way chewing grass wears them down.
If the rabbit only eats things like pellets and soft lettuce leaves, the teeth will quickly grow too long. The cheek teeth will rub painfully on the cheeks and gums. Eventually, the rabbit will be unable to eat. Much better to feed grass or hay from the start!
Fibre-rich foods, such as grass and hay, take longer to pass through the digestive system than concentrated foods such as pellets. This is essential in rabbits, whose digestive systems are designed to keep moving all the time. They are “trickle feeders”, like horses, rather than being able to eat one large meal per day.
If a rabbit’s digestive system stops moving – a condition called gut stasis – it’s a sign of a serious problem and is a veterinary emergency. It can happen for various reasons – illnesses as well as incorrect feeding.
Any rabbit owner should take the time to educate themselves about all the conditions that can arise in their pets, whether due to dietary issues or otherwise.
A constant supply of hay is also important to keep your rabbit busy.
If your rabbit is confined to a hutch, as well as suffering from the lack of exercise, it will be very bored if it doesn’t have hay to munch on all the time. This can lead to other problems, such as chewing on the bars of the cage (bad for the teeth), or bad temper.
Speaking of the problems of boredom, the Cape Rabbit Club has recently introduced a fun way to give your rabbits exercise: they’ve started a rabbit jumping club. For more information, email Renate Jacobs at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Renate can also assist you with further advice about feeding your rabbits.