In the wild, rabbits spend a lot of time eating. Their diet consists mainly of grasses and a little bit of bark and roots. They need to eat large volumes of this high fibre diet. They have specialised teeth and a specialised gastrointestinal tract to get the most nutrition out of this food. Therefore, pet rabbits also need to eat similar foods. The commercial pellets and mixes are not suitable for pet rabbits. They were originally developed for farm and laboratory rabbits who need to grow fast but have a much shorter life span. In pet rabbits, pellets and mixes can cause obesity, as well as teeth and gastrointestinal problems.
Rabbits are hindgut fermenters, adapted to a diet of large quantities of high fibre food. The digestion takes place mainly in the large caecum. Microbes ferment the food, and they produce “volatile fatty acids” (VFA’s) that serve as an energy source for the rabbit. Most of the VFA’s are resorbed into the bloodstream via the gut, and some VFA’s are passed in caecotrophs.
Caecotrophs are softer smaller faecal pellets, covered in mucus, passed intermittently and eaten by the rabbit. Apart from the energy rich VFA’s, they contain some microbial proteins and vitamins.
Teeth and nails:
Rabbits’ teeth grow continuously throughout their lives. They grind against one another as the rabbit eats, keeping them at the right length.Some rabbits have teeth that don’t contact one another properly and therefore don’t wear down. These teeth need “trimming” regularly and sometimes a general anaesthetic is needed to perform a full dental. Signs of a problem include: reluctance to eat, weight loss, excess salivation, or dropping food out of the mouth while eating.
Rabbits don’t get “hairballs” like cats do, and should never be given laxatives.
Many domestic rabbits need their nails clipped on a regular basis. If the nails are white, the quick, which contains blood vessels and a nerve, should be visible. Cut about one quarter to half a centimeter in front of this with a pair of nail clippers, alternatively your vet can cut the nails for you.
Diet and Nutrition:
Hay – Rabbits need a high percentage of fibre in their diet to maintain a healthy gastrointestinal tract. Hay is a very good natural source.
Feed unlimited Mixed Grass Hay or Timothy Hay.
Unlimited fresh grass is very important too. Preferably not collected from roadsides, but from cleaner back yards and fields not too close to car’s exhaust fumes.
Lucerne and alfalfa hay is fine for young rabbits but has too much calcium for adults and can cause urinary tract problems if used as sole source of hay. A grass hay should be used instead. If difficult to find, please contact us.
Pellets – Feed no more than a quarter of a cup of pellets per 2 kg of body weight. Try to get pellets with the highest fibre content possible. Most pellets range from 16-18% fibre. 20-27% fibre is optimal in a non-breeding rabbit.
Pellets are high in fat and energy and sometimes high in sugars, so rabbits tend to like the taste of them. They may eat pellets and ignore their hay or vegetables, for this reason it’s important that only limited pellets are provided.
Vegetables – Rabbits should eat at least 1 cup of vegetables per 2 kg body weight each day. Select three types of dark green or dark yellow vegetables. Older rabbits may have trouble digesting veggies and may have to stick to primarily hay, grass and a few pellets. Suitable vegetables include:
Alfalfa sprouts, basil, beet greens, radishes, broccoli leaves (broccoli and cauliflower itself may produce too much gas), brussel sprouts, carrots, and carrot tops, dandelion leaves, green peppers, parsley, romaine lettuce, outer cabbage leaves, squash , pea pods (not the peas), and kale.
Fruit – A small amount of fruit can be fed each day. High fibre fruits are best and amounts shouldn’t exceed 2 level tablespoons per 2 kg each day.
Appropriate fruits include:
Apple, peach, plum, pear, raspberry, melon, papaya, blueberry, blackberry, strawberry, pineapple.
Too much of any of these can lead to diarrhoea and digestive imbalance. Avoid sugary fruits such as grapes and bananas.
When supplementing the hay and limited pellets with greens, try to be consistent and ideally offer the same foods daily so the bacterial flora in the gut stays balanced and healthy too.
Water – Fresh water is needed daily!
Internal parasite control (worming) is rarely routinely needed in pet rabbits.
External parasite control (fleas, mites, lice, ticks, flies and mosquitoes) is important in rabbits.
Rabbits can suffer from the common flea, and share them with pet dogs and cats. Safe products to use are: Advantage Spot On (Bayer, registered for use in rabbits), and Revolution (off label use, where the dose rate is calculated based on the rabbit’s weight).
Rabbits should be protected against flies, ticks and mosquitoes as well, for example, by using fly screen material on the hutches and keeping them indoors when insects are around. The biting insects can cause health problems, spread viral diseases (incl. Myxomatosis) and fly strike.
Read Rabbit Care Part 1 here.
Please contact Cronulla Vet Clinic for more information.