Nutrition plays an enormous part in rabbit health and at Castle Vets we find that a poor diet can be responsible for many problems in pet rabbits including bad teeth, weight gain, poor gut motility, tummy upsets and bad skin.
Rabbits have cleverly evolved over thousands of years to extract all the nourishment they need from the poor quality vegetation available to them in the wild. This means that our pet rabbits require a diet that is low in calories and very high in fibre. If a rabbit is fed on a diet that is high in calories and low in fibre it can lead to problems with obesity, soft stools or diarrhoea, bone and tooth problems.
In order to look after your rabbits nutritional health you will need to provide the following,
Fresh, clean water should be available at all times. Even if your rabbits eat a lot of greens and may appear not to drink much, water must always be available. It can be provided in gravity bottles or in bowls (although bowls tend to become soiled very quickly). Bowls and bottles should be cleaned regularly and bottles should be checked for leakage.
The following three foods are listed in order of importance:
- HAY – low in calories, high in fibre.
- FRESH FOOD – medium calories, medium fibre.
- DRIED FOOD – high in calories, low in fibre.
Hay is the staple diet of your rabbits and should be fed AD LIB (as much as your rabbits will eat). The fibre that is in hay is extremely important as it helps keep the food moving through the gut. It also contains other essential proteins and nutrients. Rabbits eat small amounts of food several times throughout the day and good quality grass hay must be available in unlimited amounts at all times. Alfalfa hay should be avoided, as this can contain excessive calcium.
You can use the good quality hay that is sold in bales to feed horses or you can buy dried grass and hay from pet shops which will come in a variety of different types and ‘flavours’. Nice long strands of hay and dried grass are preferable because rabbits have to spend more time chewing the long fibres and this is better for their teeth and digestion. If you do buy large quantities of hay, make sure you store it carefully to prevent it becoming damp or mouldy – we find it lasts longer and stays fresher when stored in a plastic bin or box rather than in plastic bags.
The best way to offer fresh hay to your rabbits is by using a hayrack. This keeps the hay clean and eliminates much of the waste through hay getting trampled or soiled. As a rule there should be a small amount of hay left over each morning, then you know that you have made enough available for your rabbits.
2. Fresh Foods
Vegetables – Vegetables should be given to your rabbits daily. The hay can lose some of its vitamins when the grass is dried, therefore it is important to supplement the hay diet with fresh greens. A minimum of 3 types of fresh vegetables should be given daily alongside the hay. Variety is the key so try and offer small amounts of several items. Young rabbits should be introduced to new foods gradually, a small piece at a time.
A carrot or other root vegetable can be suspended from the hutch roof; this helps to increase feeding time and also enriches the rabbit’s environment and creates an interesting feeder toy.
The following are some examples of vegetables that can be given, but care should be taken not to feed large quantities of leafy greens or calorific veggies such as carrots and sweet potato.
- Artichoke leaves
- Asparagus 1 or 2 spears
- Beetroot (small amounts)
- Brussel Sprouts 1 or 2
- Cabbage (Pak Choi / Spring Greens) 1 or 2 leaves
- Carrot (only give leaves occasionally)
- Celeriac (peeled)
- Celery (including leaves)
- Courgette & flowers
- Cucumber (few slices)
- Kale (small amounts ½ a leaf)
- Lettuce (small amounts only)
- Parsley (few sprigs)
- Pepper (bell) (Not seeds or stalks)
- Runner beans
- Spinach (1/2 leaf only)
- Squash (peeled)
- Sweet potato (small amounts peel 1st)
- Sweetcorn (baby) 1 or 2
- Turnip (peeled) small amount occasionally
Fruit – Fresh fruit should only be given in small quantities due to the increased sugar content. Too much can lead to tooth decay and obesity problems.
- Kiwi Fruit
- Tomatoes cherry or vine (NOT the leaves or stalks)
3. Dried Food (Pellets, Nuggets or Muesli)
If a dried food is to be offered then a nutritionally balanced food, presented in a nugget form, can be offered every day. We don’t recommend a muesli or mixed flake diet because rabbits fed on these diets can become picky about which bits they eat and therefore may not receive a balanced diet. A pellet or nugget diet prevents picky eating and will ensure your rabbits are getting the right amount of nutrients.
A maximum of 20g per day is enough to feed a pair of adult rabbits of approximately 2.5kg bodyweight and it is important to accurately weigh the amount of food to be fed. The aim is to keep adults at a constant weight so regular weighing of your rabbit is essential. Do not estimate the amount you should be feeding – overfeeding of dried food is one of the main causes of health problems in rabbits seen by veterinary surgeons. If your rabbit starts to put on too much weight, the amount of dried food he or she is receiving should be reduced. Vitamin supplements should not be necessary if your rabbits are getting a balanced diet and an indiscriminate usage of vitamins may lead to overdose and serious disease.
There are many food and boredom breaker toys available for rabbits. Some of these are made of tightly packed grass or hay and others are made from fruit wood. You can also by little ‘cages’ or containers to put fruit and vegetables in so that they hang from the top of the cage. Food toys will ensure your rabbit has lots of variety and provide mental stimulation.
Natural Food and Grazing Opportunities
A run or grazing ark is essential to provide exercise and grazing for a few hours each day, weather permitting. If a garden is enclosed and rabbit proofed then your rabbits can be allowed free run of the garden. However, it is important to ensure protection from predators, either wild animals or other domestic pets. Safe plants such as Clovers and vetches can be planted for your rabbits to nibble on and can help provide variety to the diet. Please also be aware that some plants can be poisonous to rabbits, so make sure they do not have access to these.
- Clover (leaves and flowers)
- Goose grass
- Lavender (not while pregnant)
- Mint (peppermint)
- Shepherd’s purse
- Sow Thistle
How To Change Your Rabbit’s Diet
It is extremely important never to change your rabbit’s diet suddenly. Gradual changes should be made over a period of at least 2 weeks. This is to allow the rabbit’s digestive system time to adjust to the changes being made. Give your rabbit a healthier diet by introducing hay, grass and greens and change the dried food to a high fibre one as discussed above. Grass and greens should be introduced gradually to reduce the likelihood of diarrhoea.
Mix the new dried food in the same feeding bowl with the original food in a ratio of 1 measure of the new food to 3 measures of the original food. Feed this for 3-4 days to ensure your rabbits are eating all of it. Watch carefully for signs of loss of appetite, abnormally runny droppings, bloating and any changes in behaviour and demeanour as these may indicate that your rabbits are not adapting well to the new diet. If everything is normal, increase the quantity of the new dried food and decrease the quantity of the original food to give a ratio of half of the new food and half of the original food, again feeding this for 3-4 days and watching for any problems as before. If all is ok then increase the ratio to 3 measures of the new food to 1 measure of the original food for another 3-4 days, and finally 100% of the new dried food.
Useful links for rabbit care
Free Rabbit Advice Clinics
The veterinary nursing team at Castle Vets offer FREE rabbit clinics for advice on rabbit care and welfare for any rabbits that need it all year (by appointment only).
We are also more than happy to chat to anyone who is thinking about getting some rabbits on how to look after them and the costs involved.
If you would like any information on rabbit health or have any questions, please contact us and we will be happy to help.