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Feeding rabbits the natural way

Spike's World

Rabbits LOVE to eat, this is a fact; however as pet parents, we must ensure what we feed is the best for them. A rabbit is designed to eat grass first and foremost and this should be the basis of their diet in the form of hay or specially prepared dried grass, straw doesn’t have the nutritional value of hay.

Should I feed rabbit pellets or mix?

There is a baffling variety of dried foods available on the market for your rabbit, but some are certainly better than others. They can be separated into three groups, mixes, pellets and extruded foods. Many people are familiar with rabbit mix but not so familiar with its risks and downfalls. Rabbit mixes contain just that, a mix of different ingredients for the rabbit to choose. Although every rabbit is different, most will have a favourite ingredient and one they dislike; this can cause the problem of selective feeding.

Rabbit mix is only ‘complete’ (that is containing all of the required protein, carbohydrate, vitamin and mineral levels) if all the ingredients are eaten at once. When a rabbit has the choice it will often pick and choose the bits it likes best whilst leaving bits it finds less tasty. We as rational human beings can understand we need to eat a balanced diet with some foods we prefer to eat more than others; a rabbit however simply does not understand this concept. Imagine giving a child a plate of chocolate and a plate of boiled cabbage and allowing it to choose which they would like for dinner; I’m sure you can imagine the outcome! Rabbits with their continually growing teeth, need to have the correct levels of calcium and phosphorous to prevent dental problems which makes the issue of diet even more important.

The high cereal content of these mixes can cause digestive upset in rabbits due to their high carbohydrate content. This carbohydrate can not only contribute to obesity but can upset the delicate level of bacteria in the rabbit’s gut, causing it a host of troubles, as can having too much protein. Remember, rabbits were designed to eat grass which is generally low in nutrients.

Rabbit mixes also sometimes contain whole seeds such as grain or locust beans which, when swallowed whole, have caused death in some rabbits. The exit of the stomach is smaller than the entrance, these seeds can therefore be swallowed whole with ease but then get stuck resulting in a blockage and eventual death as the hard seed is unable to be digested or leave the stomach via the intestines.

Pellets were originally designed for laboratory and meat rabbits and do provide a more balanced diet than the mixes. However unless they are specifically for pet rabbits, they often contain far too much protein and fat and can act rather like rocket fuel for rabbits! Rabbits fed entirely on an unbalanced pellet risk being obese with all its associated health problems. Obese rabbits are unable to clean themselves properly and can quickly become caked in droppings. This is especially dangerous in hot weather as flies will lay their eggs on the soiled fur. Within hours these eggs can hatch and the resulting maggots will start eating your pet alive!

Extruded foods are a relatively new arrival on the rabbit food market and in my opinion, are the best option to supplement your rabbit’s diet. They are extruded, meaning they are rather like a rabbit biscuit. Being designed for pet rabbits means they have been made with your pet’s longevity in mind, having a suitable ratio of nutrients. Don’t be put off by the fact that they appear boring. Rabbits are grazing animals by nature and do not have the same need for a variety of different ingredients as do other small pets. Extruded foods are as a rule, loved by most rabbits.

Whichever food you choose to use it is important to remember to give your pet free access to hay at all times, I really cannot stress this point enough. Hay provides fibre, both of a digestible and indigestible form, this in turn helps to keep the gut running smoothly, preventing hair balls, feeding the ‘good’ bacteria in the ceacum (the rabbit version of our appendix), preventing blockages and helping to keep the teeth in trim. I really believe that rabbits should have a diet containing 90-95% hay!

Extruded foods or pellets do make up an important part of the diet and should not be left out, as a rule of thumb, feed ¼ cup of food per 2 kilograms of your rabbit’s weight. As with all animals, metabolism can vary from one rabbit to another, if your rabbit appears to be losing or gaining weight, vary the ration of this food accordingly, and NEVER ration hay.

Lastly, hay provides mental stimulation. Much of a wild rabbit’s waking hours would be spent grazing, to obtain sufficient nutrients. An average pet rabbit will eat its daily ration of commercial food in a few minutes. A hay based diet gives your rabbit something to keep it occupied as nature intended, grazing, helping to prevent boredom and its associated behavioural problems.

Feeding young rabbits

Young rabbits, up to 7 months of age, need free access to your chosen pellet or extruded food AS WELL as hay as they require the extra nutrients to fuel their growth.

Feeding adolescent rabbits (from 7 months to 1 year old)

From 7 months onward, it is now time to reduce the number of pellets or extruded food you feed your rabbit, whilst continuing to give unlimited access to good quality hay. The amount you feed will depend on your rabbit’s size and breed, ideally feed twice a day. As a guide give around ¼ cup of food per kilogram in weight divided between two meals.

Feeding adult rabbits (1 year onwards)

Adult rabbits must be fed a primarily hay and grass based diet with a small amount of extruded food or pellets daily. Feed ¼ cup of food per 2 kilograms of your rabbit’s weight. As with all animals, metabolism can vary from one rabbit to another, if your rabbit appears to be losing or gaining weight, vary the ration of this food accordingly, and NEVER ration hay.

 Old rabbits (6 years onwards)

Some older rabbits may need to be fed a larger amount of extruded food or pellet than they were when they were younger. If necessary, give free access to as much as they would like, just like when they were babies. If your rabbit is losing weight then it must be checked by a vet.

Vegetables and other tasty treats

We love to spoil our pets, rabbits with their doleful eyes have an ability to melt our hearts, and you can’t help but want to make them happy! On visiting any pet shop you are bombarded with a huge variety of different treats for your rabbit with bright packaging telling you how good they are for your pet. Sadly as a rule, they are far from healthy, being more like junk food than a healthy snack, with some being potentially dangerous!

The brightly coloured processed cereal treats or the fruit, nut or popcorn sticks (often held together with sugar and honey) contain high levels of sugar, starch and fat and very little fibre.

As mentioned earlier, the rabbit’s delicate digestion relies on bacteria to digest food. Near the end of the intestines is an extra part known as the ceacum, this is similar to our appendix but much, much larger and full of bacteria. These bacteria help to break down the fibre in the grasses eaten. When a rabbit eats a food high in starch and sugar, these enter the caecum and cause chaos. The sugar and starch quickly ferment giving food to the bacteria at an extremely high level. The bacteria multiply and release gasses causing the rabbit to bloat and its intestines to stop moving. Once a rabbit’s intestines have stopped moving they can prove very difficult to get going again. Sadly, many rabbits die of this condition (known as gastrointestinal stasis)

Rabbits also appear to have difficulty in metabolising fat often suffering from a condition known as fatty liver disease, this is far more common in rabbits fed a diet rich in seeds.

As you may have guessed, I’m not a fan of processed rabbit treats and believe there’s nothing better than a piece of fruit or veg. Fruit should be rationed due to its high level of fructose (a type of sugar) but many types of veg can be given as a healthy treat. The occasional raisin will be welcomed and be extremely useful in training as a reward. I had a fantastic house rabbit that would almost do back flips for a raisin!

It is important to note that kale and spinach should be fed a maximum of once or twice a week as they contain high levels of oxalates, which can accumulate in your rabbit’s system.

Rabbits assimilate calcium in a different fashion to people. We tend to only absorb the calcium we need from our diet, whereas a rabbit will absorb most of the calcium it consumes and then excrete the excess in its urine. A diet too high in calcium can cause kidney and bladder stones. Cabbage, kale, broccoli, watercress, chard and endive are all high in calcium and therefore should be fed in moderation.

Grass may also be given or your rabbit and they will enjoy some time in a secure run so that they may graze. Be sure that any grass you provide is free from contamination, whether with chemicals or the urine or droppings of other animals. If grass is picked and given to your pet it must not be left to wilt as fermentation can quickly set in, partially fermented grass is very bad for your pet; for this reason, never give lawn mower cuttings.