FEEDING RABBITS JSPCA FACT SHEET  

Many common health problems in pet rabbits are often unknowingly caused by incorrect feeding.  A healthy diet for a pet rabbit should mimic the diet of his wild relative, the wild rabbit.

The rabbit is a herbivore.  Daily access to a large outdoor run on a grass lawn offers the rabbit the opportunity to graze, hence retaining the benefits of a grass-based diet.  However, with many rabbits now enjoying a house rabbit life style, it is important that all rabbit owners understand how to feed their pet properly. 

The rabbit’s diet should include dried food, meadow hay, fresh vegetables and water.  Feed only a small amount of rabbit mix or pellets, about a handful a day per medium sized rabbit.  Offer at least two cups of different vegetables a day and smaller amounts of carrot and fruit, as they are high in sugar.  Good quality hay should make up to 75% of a rabbit’s daily diet, as it is essential as a source of roughage, alongside plenty of fresh water; a good handful of hay and access to water should be available at all times. 

Hay is vital for healthy rabbits

Unlimited access to good quality hay (sweet smelling, with minimal dust) should be the basis of a healthy diet for all pet rabbits.  Hay not only meets the rabbits basic nutritional requirements, but it helps to keep rabbits occupied, reducing boredom and hence helping to prevent some behavioural problems.  Hay is necessary for ensuring the rabbit has strong, healthy teeth and jaws and also provides the correct type of fibre needed to maintain healthy gut movements.

Even if your rabbit is fed a ‘complete’ rabbit food, it should be have constant access to good quality hay.

How much to feed your rabbit 

Young rabbits can have as much as they can eat from weaning until growth slows down at four to six months of age.  After that age, adjust the food intake to suit the individual rabbit.  Obesity is a serious, and unfortunately common, health hazard to rabbits.  Ask your veterinary surgeon for feeding advice when you take your rabbit for his vaccinations and health check.  Remember, if your rabbit stops eating for more than 24 hours, take him to your local veterinary surgery, even if there appears to be no other problem, as there could be serious health problem developing.

Types of rabbit foods

Most rabbit owners prefer to feed rabbits commercial rabbit foods, which are convenient, quick and easy to feed.  If used in limited quantities, (alongside a lot of hay), they can form an integral part of a healthy diet for most rabbits.  It is always possible to feed greens, vegetables and hay in conjunction with commercial foods.

Always remember that the bulk of a rabbit’s diet should consist of hay.  This should be complemented with a large selection of leafy greens and vegetables (such as kale and cabbage) and a small amount of commercial rabbit mix or pellets.  You should not cut out the commercial pelleted foods altogether as these do provide important nutrients for the rabbit.

Also, any changes in a rabbit’s diet must be made slowly.  If you feed rabbit mix, it must be completely eaten, otherwise the diet may become unbalanced.  If your rabbit is a fussy eater, consider switching to a pelleted or extruded product. 

Commercial rabbit mixes:

Pellets or extruded?

Commercial rabbit mixes often resemble muesli and are a popular method of feeding with rabbit owners.  Always choose a properly formulated, reputable brand.  The main drawback of rabbit mixes is the tendency for some rabbits to become selective feeders.

Rabbit pellets – with these type of diets, every pellet has the same composition, which helps ensure that the rabbit eats a balanced diet.  However, they are not as popular with rabbit owners as the other rabbit mixes, simply because they look less appetising to the human eye.

In extruded foods, the ingredients are mixed, cooked and ‘extruded’.  They have all the important advantages of the pelleted rabbit foods, but are much more palatable.

Complimentary or complete?

‘Complete’ rabbit foods provide the rabbit with all the nutrients it requires, but it is still vital to offer hay to the rabbit, so as to help relieve boredom and strengthen the teeth. 

‘Complementary’ rabbit foods are designed to be fed as one part of the diet.  Hay and sometimes green foods must be added to provided a balanced diet.

Selective feeding

Commercial rabbit mixes only provides a balanced diet if the rabbit eats the whole daily allowance.  Serious health problems can develop in rabbits who become selective eaters.  Selective feeding can develop either because an individual rabbit develops a favourite food, picking out its favourite ingredients only and rejecting the rest of the mix, or if two or more rabbits are housed together and each individual rabbit eats a different ingredient of the rabbit mix.  If selective eating is a problem, switch to a pelleted or extruded rabbit food, or try another brand of rabbit mix.  If you persevere with the commercial rabbit mix, reduce the quantity given to the rabbit, so that the rabbit eats everything in the bowl before its next meal.  

Treats

If rabbits eat too many treats, they may become obese and can develop serious health problems; excess sugars and starchy treats can dramatically affect the sensitive population of ‘normal’ bacteria in the gut, which can then lead to serious digestive upsets.  If offering your rabbit treats, try to stick to healthy treats, such as chunks of broccoli, apple cores, cauliflower stalks.  Many of the commercial treats sold for rabbits (such as the milk based yoghurt drops, sticks of sweetened cereals) should be only fed in strict moderation, or not at all.

Calcium

Rabbits obtain their calcium from their diet.  They absorb calcium in proportion to that which is present in their food and excrete any excess calcium via the kidneys.  This explains why rabbit urine often appears ‘chalky’.  Too much or too little calcium can cause problems; calcium deficiency is linked to dental disease, where as excess calcium can cause urinary stones and bladder problems.

Water

Rabbits must have access to fresh water at all times.  Water bottles are easier to keep clean for hutch rabbits, but indoor (house) rabbits usually prefer a water bowl.

Coprophagy

You may see your rabbit eating his own soft droppings (caecoliths).  These are rich in valuable nutrients the rabbit needs to stay healthy.  This process is known as coprophagy and is a normal activity in all rabbits. 

The hard dry droppings the rabbit produces are waste products, but rabbits also normally produce dark, shiny pellets called caecotrophs or caecoliths. These are normally eaten directly from the anus (“coprophagy”) and you do not often see them. If you start noticing that your rabbit is producing lots of caecoliths, which are remaining lying in the hutch and not being eaten, there may be a possible problem.  Possible causes include obesity, reduced mobility and dental disease, but dietary problems are by far the most common.  Contact your local veterinary surgery for advice.

Remember:

o Never change your rabbit’s diet suddenly.  Abrupt changes in a rabbit’s diet can trigger fatal digestive upsets, especially in baby rabbits or rabbits that are stressed (for example if they are moving to a new home).  If changing your rabbit’s diet, it is recommended that the change over should be very gradual and should take at least one to two weeks, with lots of hay being fed during this period.

o Some plants can be very harmful to rabbit if eaten, causing illness, distress and potentially even death.  Ask your veterinary surgeon for advice about which plants, whether house plants or those in the garden, may be toxic to your rabbit.

 

 

 

JSPCA working to

prevent cruelty, promote knowledge, provide for aged, sick, lost and unwanted animals.

 

Jersey Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Inc.)

Founded 1868 – Incorporated 1936

89 St Saviour’s Road, St Helier, Jersey JE2 4GJ         

Tel: 01534 724331          Fax: 01534 871797

E-mail: info@jspca.org.je          Website: www.jspca.org.je

 

References and further reading: