Providing a healthy diet for rabbits is a very important part of successful rabbit raising. A healthy, balanced diet is based on providing commercial rabbit pellets and fresh water. In the past, rabbit owners had to mix different feeds in order to get the proper nutritional balance for their animals. Nowadays, stores carry feed that is already balanced. Commercial pellets are the best and easiest way to provide proper nutrition for your rabbits. However, commercial feeds do vary, and different feeds are available in different locations. Talk with other breeders and with your feed store clerk to learn about the brands available in your area.
You’ll also learn that even under the same brand name there are often several different types of feed. These types of feed are designed to meet the needs of different rabbits at different stages in their lives. The feed ingredient that varies is the protein content. Mature animals usually need a feed that provides 15 to 16 percent protein. Young growing animals and active breeding does are often fed a ration with a higher level of protein, 17 to 18 percent.
Understanding Feed Labels
The U.S. government requires that all rabbit feed contain at least a certain amount of protein and fat. A feed may contain more than these amounts, but not less. The amount of protein and fat is listed on the feed package. The package also lists the fiber content. A package label may say that the feed has no more than 18 or 20 percent fiber, but this tells you only the maximum amount of fiber. You also need to know the minimum amount it contains. It is very important that nutrition for rabbits containing at least 16 percent fiber. If they get less than that, they may have diarrhea.
No matter which type of feed you provide, your rabbits will not eat well unless you provide the most important nutrient of all — water! We often do not think of water as food, but it is essential to your rabbits’ health. Rabbits simply do not thrive without a constant supply of clean water.
Salt is another ingredient that is important to a balanced feed. It is not necessary to provide a salt spool for your rabbit (and they cause your cage to rust, as well). You may see advertisements for inexpensive salt spools that can be hung in each cage, but the commercial pellets you use as feed already include enough salt to meet your rabbit’s needs.
Many owners also feed hay to their rabbits. Feeding hay will add more time to your feeding and cleaning chores, but rabbits enjoy good-quality hay, and it adds extra fiber to their diet. If you feed hay, be sure it smells good, is not dusty, and is not moldy.
If you choose to feed hay on a regular basis, you will want hay mangers in each cage. Hay mangers are easy to construct from scraps of 1″ × 2″ (2.5 cm × 5 cm) wire. If you make your own cage, you can use the leftover wire. If your cages are indoors and are of all-wire construction, you can just place a handful of hay on the top and the rabbits will reach up and pull it through the wire. Avoid setting hay inside on the floor of the cage, because it will soon become soiled and droppings will collect on it. This can cause disease and parasite problems.
What about Special Feeds and Treats?
Some breeders give their rabbits a long list of other feeds. Experienced rabbit raisers, especially those trying to get their animals ready for a show, have special feeds that they feel give their animals an edge. Oats, sweet feeds, corn, and sunflower seeds are a few of the extras they provide along with pelleted feeds. However, any additions to the diet can cause upsets to a rabbit’s digestion. It is best to keep to the simple diet of pellets and water, and maybe some hay, and leave the additional feeds until you have experienced several years of successful rabbit raising.
Many new rabbit raisers think that they are being nice to their animals if they give them fresh greens and vegetables as treats. In fact, lots of these can actually be harmful to your rabbits. Young rabbits are especially sensitive to too many treats, so it is best not to give them any. As a rabbit matures, its digestive system can handle more things, but treats should never become a large part of your rabbit’s diet. Some common treats that are okay for mature rabbits are slices of apple and a piece of carrot. Lettuce and cabbage are not good treats for rabbits of any age, because they give the rabbits diarrhea.
When to Feed? Healthy Diet for Rabbits
If we study the feeding habits of wild rabbits, we can apply what we learn to feed our domestic rabbits. In nature, rabbits have learned to stay in a safe place during the day. In late afternoon, hungry wild rabbits come out of hiding. By this time, they are ready for their big meal of the day. Wild rabbits are nocturnal animals, active throughout the night and into the early-morning hours.
If our tame rabbits could pick a mealtime, they would probably agree with their wild relatives and choose late afternoon. Using this information, most rabbit breeders feed the largest portion of their rabbits’daily ration in the late afternoon or early evening.
How often should your rabbits be fed? Although different breeders develop a schedule that works for them, two feedings a day — one in the morning and one in the late afternoon — seem to be most common. If you choose to feed twice a day, serve a lesser portion in the morning than in the afternoon.
Feeding Time Is Checkup Time
If you have self-feeders and water bottles, you may feel comfortable feeding only once a day. Feeding time, however, is for more than just feeding. Time spent with your rabbits is an opportunity for discovering situations such as:
- Has a youngster fallen out of the nest box?
- Is an animal sick or not eating well?
- Does a cage need a simple repair before it becomes a major repair?
- Does your rabbit need extra water due to extreme heat or freezing conditions? Remember that the overall health of your rabbit will be better if clean, freshwater is available at all times.
Because a lot can happen to your rabbits in a 24-hour period, you should feed, water, and observe your animals at least twice a day. The serious rabbit breeder will see this as a worthwhile investment in time.
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Whatever feeding schedule you choose, remember that it is very important to follow the same schedule every day. Your rabbits depend upon you, and they will settle into the schedule that you set. Avoid variation in feeding times. If you regularly feed at 7 A.M, you should do so even if it’s Saturday and you want to stay in bed a little longer. Plan ahead for times when you cannot be there to feed your rabbits. Be sure other family members are familiar with your feeding program so that they can help out from time to time. If your family includes more than one rabbit raiser, you can take turns with feeding responsibilities.
How Much to Feed
There is no set amount of feed that is right for all rabbits, but the following chart gives you some average amounts.
AMOUNT OF PELLETS NEEDED EACH DAY*
In order to use this chart, you need a simple way to measure how much to feed each animal. You can make your own measuring container from empty cans. For example, a 6-ounce tuna fish can filled level to the top holds 4 ounces of pellets. The same can be filled so that the pellets form a small mound above the lid gives a 5-ounce serving. You may use a larger can and mark several different levels to indicate the amounts you most commonly feed.
Feed guidelines nutrition for rabbits is exactly what their name says, guidelines only. As you get to know your rabbits better, you will find that some need more feed and some need less. A simple way to judge who needs more or less is to feel your rabbits regularly. Just a few pats can give you an idea of their condition. If you stroke each rabbit from the base of its head and follow along the backbone, you will soon learn to tell who is too fat and who is too thin.
When you run your hand over the rabbit, you will feel the backbone below the fur and muscles. As you feel the bumps of the individual bones that make up the backbone, they should feel rounded. If the bumps feel sharp or pointed, your rabbit can use an increase in feed. (Note: Extreme thinness may also indicate health problems. If you don’t feel the individual bumps, it probably means there is too much fat covering them, so that rabbit will do better on less feed.
If you need to adjust the feed amount, make the change gradually, not all at once. Unless the rabbit is extremely thin or extremely fat, increase or decrease by about 1 ounce each day. A small plastic scoop that is used to measure ground coffee holds about 1 ounce of pellets. Use this scoop to add or subtract feed, 1 ounce at a time. It will take a while for the change to show on your rabbit, but you should see and feel a difference in 1 to 2 weeks. It’s good to get in the habit of giving each rabbit a weekly check. It takes only a few seconds to feel down the back of an animal. If you check regularly, you will be able to adjust feed before your rabbit becomes extremely fat or thin.
In general, overfeeding is a more common problem than underfeeding. For one thing, overfeeding means it costs you more to care for your rabbits. In addition, if you are breeding your rabbits, you’ll find that overweight rabbits are generally less productive than animals of the proper weight. In fact, fat rabbits often do not breed, and an overweight doe that does become pregnant can often develop problems.
Stroke your rabbit along its backbone regularly to judge whether it is getting the proper amount of
food. The bumps of the individual bones that make up the backbone should feel rounded.
In some special cases, a rabbit’s feed may need to be adjusted.
- A young, growing rabbit needs more feed than a mature rabbit of the same size.
- A healthy diet for rabbits needs more feed in cold weather than in hot.
- A doe that is producing milk for her litter needs more food than a doe without litter.