For years rabbits were commonly thought of as the ‘easy’ pet, one that was great as a ‘first’ or ‘child’s’ pet. However they’ve never been all that easy to care for at all, it’s just that many of their needs were being overlooked. Thankfully there’s good news! Rabbit owner awareness has come forward leaps and bounds in recent years.
There are a number of care requirements, now far better known to rabbit owners, serving the bunny population very well indeed. One of these is the requirement for an appropriate diet. As with people, dogs, cats, all animals in fact, a good diet underpins both physical and mental wellbeing. Gone are the days when a handful of rabbit muesli and a carrot will suffice, so here’s our guide to a rabbit-friendly healthy menu.
Top of the list is the foodstuff of which they need most, unlimited quantities in fact. By far and away the largest component to your rabbit’s diet should be hay or grass, and we’re talking up to 90%. Not just any old hay will suffice, pinching a slice from the farmer around the corner won’t necessarily do. Those with rabbits must be prepared to become hay experts as there are many on the market. An adult rabbit should be fed what is known as grass hay. Meadow hay and Timothy hay are good examples of this and they tend to contain a balance of fibre and calcium better suited to the mature bunny; the calcium levels are on the lower side and adult rabbits that are fed excess calcium risk kidney and bladder problems. In contrast, young, pregnant or lactating rabbits will do better with calcium-rich legume hay such as clover hay.
There is good reason that roughage should make such a prominent appearance in a rabbit’s diet; you may be surprised to know that a rabbit’s teeth will never stop growing. So in order to keep them in good, short shape and therefore prevent dental problems, the grinding action of chewing hay or grass helps grind their teeth down. The consequences of overgrown teeth can be dire. As the teeth become too long and misshapen, the rabbit struggles to eat, then weight loss and steady starvation can ensue. Roughage also plays a vital role in maintaining gastrointestinal health. A rabbit’s gut must keep gently moving and the fibre in their diet will help it do so.
Gut stasis (when the gut ceases to work properly) is a painful and life-threatening problem which must be treated as an emergency, signified by lethargy, anorexia, sometimes hiding, and a lack of faecal pellets. It’s important to phone for veterinary advice immediately if you notice these signs.
The next component of a rabbit’s diet should be a commercially prepared rabbit pellet. Mixed flakes or muesli type food should be avoided due to the ability for rabbits to selective feed. By this we mean they have a tendency to pick out the tasty bits and leave the rest, something we all know a bit about if we’re honest. It’s like giving a young child the choice between some broccoli and some sweeties, we shouldn’t be surprised that the broccoli remains untouched. As with all commercial diets, follow feeding directions for the individual brand, although one general rule of thumb for many diets is to feed one full egg cup of pellets per kilogram of body weight.
Fresh fruit and veg is next on the menu. Take care with fruit as the sugar content is high and can cause obesity. See fruit as more of a treat and concentrate on fibre-full leafy greens as a daily option instead. Why not mix it up to keep their interest? Vegetables that are suitable for bunnies include asparagus, broccoli, tomato, spinach, radish and cabbage, as well as herbs like basil, parsley and coriander amongst many others. Whilst treats are available to buy, keeping bunnies in healthy, lean condition is important, so don’t underestimate the worth of alternating fresh fruit and veg instead. A handful (adult-sized) of veg each day is plenty and it’s important to introduce new foods to their diet slowly to avoid stomach upset.
Getting a rabbit’s diet right will pay dividends to their health and wellbeing. Obesity in the rabbit population is sometimes overlooked, not least because it can be difficult to determine what the perfect bunny body should look like in the first place. Please ask us if you’re concerned about your rabbit’s weight (whether under or overweight) so that we can advise. Obesity should be avoided for a whole host of reasons many of which we humans can empathise with. From exercise intolerance to additional pressure on joints (especially in the aged bunny who might suffer with arthritis), obesity can also lead to diseases like diabetes.
There is one rather more sinister problem too – rabbits carrying extra weight can’t easily clean themselves, so they are less likely to keep their rear end in check. What’s more, the extra weight is also likely cause their behind to drag through faeces and urine. A dirty bottom will encourage flies (particularly during the summer months) to lay their eggs within your rabbits fur. These eggs develop into maggots which literally use your rabbit as a food source. A painful and sometimes heartbreaking condition, definitely one that’s best to be avoided.
So that’s our guide to get you started. We’d love the opportunity to tell you more about how best to care for your rabbits or answer any specific questions you may have.