Domestic animals cared for by humans should be offered a diet as close as possible to their wild counterparts. In the case of rabbits, they have a digestive system that is specifically developed to make use of a nutrient-poor and fibrous plant diet. Their entire feeding strategy and behaviour is adapted towards nutrition based on grass, and the domesticated rabbit nutrition is dependent on nourishment derived from hay, various types of grass, forbs, herbs and leaves.
Since most people do not have fields and pastures where they can collect the necessary amount of diverse grasses on a daily basis, the rabbit’s needs will not be covered by just feeding hay. However, hay should always form the greatest proportion of the diet, with a limited amount of high-fibre pellets or nuggets for mineral and vitamin supplementation.
Most illnesses that affect domesticated rabbits are a direct or indirect result of suboptimal environment and nutrition. Incorrect diet, a lack of access to sufficient space to exercise, inappropriate substrate, predators and other environmental problems will inevitably predispose to a variety of disorders. It is therefore important to understand the rabbit’s nutritional needs and natural habitat in order to offer the rabbit a suitable life in a domestic setting.
Knowledge of rabbit nutrition and behaviour is also necessary to detect subtle symptoms of disease and digestive problems at early onset, which is vital in addressing these issues early enough to implement effective therapy.
At least 85–90% of the rabbit’s diet should consist of hay, grass and dried grass. A good guideline amount is a volume the same size as the rabbit. In addition, the rabbits need a limited amount of high-fibre pellets/nuggets for mineral and vitamin supplementation; 20–25 g pellets/ nuggets per kg ideal bodyweight is enough. This is normally only a couple of tablespoons a day. Green leafy salad should also be part of the daily diet. Fresh water should always be available.
The hay offered should be of high nutritional quality, and one can evaluate it by its feel, smell and appearance. The same holds for judging the hygienic quality, and the hay should never be mouldy or dusty.
Variety and selective feeding
Variety is the spice of rabbit life, and offering different hays will ensure both nutritional diversity and enrichment for herbivores. Rabbits, like many other herbivores, have evolved to differentiate and select high-energy items, to provide energy for growth, activity and reproduction. However, this food selective mechanism causes concerns when domesticated rabbits are offered high-energy diets or large amounts of vegetables and fruit, since the animal will consequently choose these high-energy foods above hay and grass. By providing herbivores with a diversity of hay, grass and herbs instead, one will experience a stimulated and curious rabbit that spends more time eating. Offering a variety of hay gives the rabbit the opportunity to feed selectively, which again will satisfy rabbits’ innate need to search for food.
Both grass and lucerne/alfalfa hays are available, but grass hays should always be the main diet for adult rabbits, and timothy hay is the best. Lucerne/ alfalfa hay contains more calcium and protein and is only suitable for growing rabbits or as a tasty treat. Due to the rabbit’s unusual calcium metabolism, a diet high in protein and calcium is not advisable for adult rabbits, as this may lead to urinary calcium sludge (see p. 87 and p. 127).
Knowing that the rabbit is a selective feeder, as described above, explains why it is necessary to rabbit diet nutrition as illustrated in the pyramid on p. 117. Photo courtesy of Katarina Vallbo, Sweden Rabbit Nutrition 119 replace hay on a daily basis. Uneaten old hay must be removed and replaced with a fresh supply. Hay can for example be offered in a hayrack or in the corner of the litter tray. Note that rabbits can urinate on the hay in the litter tray, and that whilst this might be an ideal and preferred substrate to encourage the use of the litter tray, one must always make sure to provide hay for eating in an alternative appropriate way.
How much pellets/nuggets?
Pellets/nuggets are only a supplementary food and should only be provided in a limited amount. A quantity of 20–25 g/kg ideal bodyweight is enough, and this is normally only a couple of tablespoons a day. This means that a rabbit weighing 2 kg only needs 40–50 g per day. Rabbits will not eat enough hay if offered excessive amounts of other foods, and it is therefore extremely important to follow these instructions. Eating enough hay is crucial for the correct chewing action and wearing down of the teeth.
Choosing supplementary food
There is a huge and varied range of food intended for rabbits, but historically there has mostly been a poor range of balanced diets on the market, which fortunately has improved recently. Muesli, mixes for rodents and grain-based diets have been marketed as proper rabbit food, while this is highly unsuitable for the species (see box on the following page). When marketing cannot be trusted, it can be difficult to know what to buy. We will therefore introduce some guidelines for how to choose your rabbits’ dried food.
A pelleted diet suitable for rabbits should always be based on grass and have a nutritional composition as below:
· Fibre: >20%
· Protein: 12–14%
· Fat: 1–4%
· Calcium: 0.6–1.0%
· Phosphorus: 0.4–0.8%
· Vitamin A: 10,000–18,000 IU/kg
· Vitamin D: 800–1,200 IU/kg
· Vitamin E: 40–70 mg/kg
· Magnesium: 0.3%
· Zinc: 0.5%
· Potassium: 0.6–0.7%
Examples of these include Burgess Excel, Oxbow Essentials, Supreme Science Selective and Beaphar Nature.
There is a distinction between compressed and extruded pellets. The old fashioned compressed pellets are produced by compressing material together. They are limited in the amount of fibre, and may therefore promote uneven dental wear and digestive diseases.
Extruded pellets/nuggets, on the other hand, are made by making a mixture and then forcing it through a small hole in a dye plate to produce the desired size and shape of a pellet/nugget. As a result of the manufacturing process, fibre length can be greater than that in the compressed pellets, and is thus better for the rabbit’s digestive system.
Extruded pellets may also be referred to as nuggets by some manufacturers in some geographical locations. However, if in doubt, it is important to read the packaging information, or refer to the manufacturer’s website for more details.
It is also worth mentioning specific veterinary formulations, such as the Supreme Vet Care Plus range, which are physically much larger pellets, with a higher fibre content (up to 34% crude fibre) and specific added ingredients for particular clinical conditions such as urinary tract disorders, obesity and digestive disorders.
Why offer pellets/nuggets in a bowl? Based on the rabbit’s natural behaviour and feeding strategy, it is more stimulating and entertaining to search for the food. It is possible to increase foraging behaviour by providing pellets/ nuggets in a treat ball or by spreading them on the floor, in a basket with hay or around the room.
People with companion rabbits often think it is sad to see an empty food bowl. However, everyone with rabbits needs to know that it is in the rabbit’s best interest to gain a restricted and limited amount of supplementary food such as pellets. Even though they seem to lose their head when finally served pellets, it does not mean they are starving. With constant access to fresh hay and water, they are provided with necessary nutrition. Most illnesses that affect domesticated rabbits are a direct or indirect result of incorrect nutrition, so think of wild rabbits when you give your companion rabbit food.
There is a trend to refer to rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas as Folivores, or Fibrevores, in order to stress their requirement for high fibre, low energy density foodstuffs, which require long periods of time spent eating.
It is unfortunately a widespread belief that rabbits and carrots are a perfect match. This is, however, based on comics and pictures from popular cartoons rather than an up-to-date knowledge of the rabbit’s digestive system. Rabbits nutrition is dependent on nourishment derived from hay, various types of grass, forbs, herbs and leaves, and the sugar content in non-leafy vegetables and fruit is much higher than in any food of their natural diet. The species’ digestive system is not designed for eating sugar and starch found in carrots, apples or grains, and many digestive disorders could be avoided if one provided the rabbit a natural diet. As nutritional variety and supplementation, one will often provide a higher level of diversity by offering different types of hay and grass than a couple of non-leafy vegetables.3 In addition, the rabbit’s foraging behaviour will be encouraged.
Most rabbit books have lists of suitable vegetables recommended for rabbits. However, easily digestible carbohydrates found in fruit and non-leafy vegetables are not beneficial for the species’ digestive system and should only be offered in a limited amount.
If providing non-leafy vegetables, make sure to offer vegetables with a low sugar content, such as celery or green peppers.
Green leafy vegetables and herbs are excellent as a supplementary diet. They are low in sugar and represent a varied and tasty addition to the main diet.
Twigs and branches
Rabbits love to have twigs and branches to enjoy. They can clean a twig of bark in seconds, and also gnaw a little now and then. This can also prevent destruction of other wood and furniture in the house.
Stay away from trees that have fruit with stones, such as cherry, dwarf cherry or plum, as these will be toxic for rabbits. Several decorative shrubs and flowers in the garden may also be toxic.
Common trees such as rowan, pine, aspen and birch are safe options. Twigs from apple and pear trees, and branches and leaves from currant, raspberry and blackcurrant are also tasty and safe to offer. Bilberry shrub is also extremely popular and a healthy treat.
Make sure the plants are not sprayed with insecticides, fungicides or other potentially toxic treatments.
Herbs are a popular and healthy treat that can be given in almost unlimited quantities. Tiny bites of vegetables are also popular. In addition, companies such as Oxbow and Burgess have tasty treats that are safe to offer rabbits.
Unfortunately, most of the sweets and treats sold and marketed for rabbits are unhealthy and dangerous and should be avoided. Yoghurt drops, different chew sticks and drops in all shapes and colours are usually very high in sugar and will potentially lead to digestive problems.
Next article we will see what type of food to avoid
Recognizing your rabbit nutrition needs can help give your pet rabbit a healthy life. The diet should be appropriate for your rabbit’s life stage. A controlled amount of high-quality grass hay pellets with vegetables, fresh grass hay, and fruits is an optimal diet for your rabbit nutrition. Most rabbits have always been fed free-choice timothy grass hay, a small amount of timothy grass hay pellets, various vegetables, and a small amount of fresh papaya daily. Clients who provide their rabbits with proper nutrition are usually rewarded with healthy rabbit companions for many years.