Feeding your rabbits
Although we keep them as pets, domestic rabbits are still very similar to their wild cousins. In the wild, rabbits spend up to 70% of their day foraging and nibbling food. They have a similar digestive system to horses, which are also designed to graze throughout the day. Hence we often describe their feeding regime as ad lib. Rabbits that don’t have the opportunity to graze can become bored, depressed and even aggressive.
This article was written by a FirstVet vet
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Rabbits need 3 different types of food to keep them healthy:
- Constant supply of hay or fresh grass to nibble (85-90%)
- A variety of fresh vegetables and leafy greens (10%)
- A small quantity of high-fibre pellets (5%)
- Why do rabbits need to eat lots of hay or grass?
Rabbits are natural grazers. In the wild, when they are out of their burrows, they are constantly nibbling grasses and plants. This is very important to keep their digestive system moving correctly. As herbivores, their teeth grow throughout their lives, just like horses teeth. Rabbits have a specific chewing action when eating grass and hay. This ensures their teeth are worn down and kept at a safe length. Rabbits that do not grind their teeth down can develop sharp, painful ‘spurs’ on their teeth, which lead to dental issues and difficulty eating. Providing plenty of hay and grass for your rabbits enables them to show normal behaviour patterns and keeps your rabbits happy.
It is important to be aware that freshly cut grass (clippings from your lawnmower) are toxic to rabbits and can cause serious health issues, so please remember not to feed them to rabbits.
Ideas to encourage your rabbits to eat more hay:
- Ad lib hay is essential for rabbits. Make sure that your rabbits have hay in their enclosure at all times as they need to eat 24 hours a day. They often like to eat late at night and first thing in the morning so make sure they don’t run out
- Feed different types of hay to encourage your rabbits to eat. Individual grasses have different tempting textures. There are many hays and dried grasses to choose from. Examples include, Timothy, Oat, Orchard and organic hays. Others contain marigolds, dandelions or camomile. Toys made of hay are great for your rabbits to nibble and will help to keep them active
- Provide hay that has plenty of leaf matter. Hay with an abundance of stalk and mature seed heads may have been harvested past its best. This may make it less appetising for your rabbits. It might also be dusty which could cause respiratory problems
- Choose hay that is pale green to pale gold in colour. If it looks dull and brown then it might have been harvested once it was past its nutritional best
- Scatter dried herbs, nuggets or slices of apple or carrot amongst the hay to encourage your rabbits to forage and keep active
- Place hay on different levels. Using a hay rack can encourage rabbits to eat. Make sure you have a supply of hay near where they toilet to encourage them to eat hay whilst visiting that area (rabbits like to poo & chew!)
- Rearrange their hay rack each morning and evening and change their hay daily. If your rabbits have picked through the hay then they will often have eaten their favourite things. By moving the hay you might expose fresh and tasty sections that were hidden. Never wait for your rabbits to eat all their hay before topping it up. Rabbits are just like us and have specific preferences. Hay that is left after 24hrs should be put aside for bedding hay, and fresh hay should be provided
- Make your own hay rack and make toys using hay. Examples include, homemade hay racks using kitchen whisks, edible twigs, cardboard tubes and paper boxes
- Provide separate areas for eating hay and bedding hay. Or, use a different type of hay or specific bedding, for example, straw or shredded paper
If you are still struggling to encourage your rabbits to eat more hay, Supreme Pet Food have developed a new diet called Fibafirst®. It provides much higher levels of fibre (up to 30%) than many brands, therefore it is closer to the natural grass-based diet of a wild rabbit. It contains longer fibres, which means that rabbits have to chew the pellets. This promotes good dental health and extends their feeding time, helping to prevent boredom. You can read more about hay for rabbits here.
2. Fresh vegetables and leafy greens
Around 10% of your rabbit’s diet should be fresh and washed vegetables, herbs, plants and leafy greens. How much is 10%? It usually equates to an amount about the size of your rabbit’s head or an adult human-sized handful. Ideally it should be a mixture of the items listed below rather than just one thing.
- Apples (without the seeds) *
- Artichokes (tubers and leaves)
- Basil *
- Beetroot (leaves and root)
- Brussel sprout peelings
- Carrots and carrot tops (as a rare treat – they are high in sugar)
- Cauliflower leaves and stalks
- Coriander *
- Dandelion (only small amounts - it can make them urinate more often)
- Dill *
- Fennel leaves
- Green beans
- Mustard leaves
- Oregano *
- Parsley *
- Peas (plant and pea pods)
- Red cabbage
- Romaine lettuce
- Salad peppers
- Savoy cabbage
- Spinach *
- Spring greens
- Strawberry plants
- Swede *
- Sweetcorn plants
- Sweet potato *
- Turnips *
*Whilst these are tasty treats they are also very high in sugar or starch so they should only be given in a small amount, once or twice a week.
A list of edible plants for rabbits can be found in our rabbit safe plants article.
Unsafe fruit and vegetables:
- Apple seeds: they contain a tiny amount of cyanide. Cyanide is probably present in such small quantities that it doesn’t pose a threat to your rabbit but we would recommend that you avoid feeding them to be on the safe side
- Onions and shallots
- Potato and potato tops
- Rhubarb, including the leaves
- Tomato leaves
A list of poisonous plants for rabbits can be found here.
3. High-fibre pellets
The final five per cent of your rabbit’s daily diet should be a small amount of high-fibre pellets. We recommend an all-in-one pellet, or nugget based diet, to prevent selective feeding. Rabbits only need a very small amount of this concentrate each day.
To keep it simple, your rabbits daily diet should be:
- A ball of hay, about the size of their body per day
- Fresh food, about the size of their head per day
- Pellets, around 25g/kg body weight per day, depending on the brand. Splitting this into two meals is better for rabbits
For example, a 1kg rabbit will need 25g of pellets per day, and a 2.5kg rabbit will need 65g of pellets per day.
Why do vet’s no longer recommend muesli diets for rabbits?
Rabbit muesli is a mixture of cereals, legumes, pellets, extrusions and, in some cases, other ingredients such as locust beans or alfalfa. Cereals are the staple ingredients; they are high in starch, and low in fibre and minerals.
Muesli looks appealing to us because of the variation in colour and different shapes in the bag. However, it also allows rabbits to pick and choose each mouthful and only eat their favourite things. This is called ‘selective feeding’. Rabbits usually like to eat the bits that are high in sugar and/or starch first. A diet that is high in sugar/starch but low in fibre and minerals can lead to serious health problems, including dental disease, obesity, digestive problems and flystrike.
Offering muesli to a group of rabbits means that the dominant individuals will eat the most palatable ingredients, such as calcium deficient maize and peas. Whilst the subordinate rabbits will be left with the calcium supplemented pellets, the dominant ones are more likely to develop calcium deficiency-related health issues.
If you decide that you want to change your rabbit’s diet from muesli to high fibre pellets then make sure it is done slowly, over a four week period. This is important because the healthy bacteria in the gut need lots of time to adjust to the change. Make sure you don’t overfeed your rabbits during the change by measuring portion sizes and make sure they have access to unlimited high-quality feeding hay.
Take a look at the Rabbit Awareness Week website for more help and advice about feeding your rabbits.
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