What’s best to feed rabbits & what can happen when the diet goes wrong

When it comes to picking your rabbits diet there is an overwhelming variety of different food and treat options available, so how do you know which diet is best for your rabbit and are there any foods that you should avoid?

Over recent years our knowledge of rabbit husbandry, behaviour, and veterinary care have greatly improved. This has resulted in a greater understanding of how diet can affect the long-term health of our rabbits. Feeding your rabbit the correct diet can have many positive health benefits, along with improving the relationship that you have with your pet.

The ideal diet

Pet rabbits should be fed a diet that includes:

  • Grass and/or hay
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Small amount of concentrates

Grass and Hay

Wild rabbits will eat mainly grass and spend a lot of their time grazing. This means that the majority of your rabbit’s diet should consist of either grass or hay. This food is made up of long fibre which is vital for a healthy digestive system and also important for maintaining good dental health.

If grass is not readily available, then a good quality hay that is fed ad lib is an alternative option. While freshly picked grass can be fed, it is important to ensure that grass cuttings are never given to your rabbit, as they ferment quickly and can make your rabbit very ill.

At least 85% of your rabbit’s diet should be hay or grass, so no matter whether your rabbit is kept indoors or outside, you need to ensure that you can provide them with the long fibre that they need.

Any hay that that you feed to your rabbit needs to be good quality, dust free, and free from mould. There are different types of hay that you can choose from to feed your rabbit but grass hay (e.g. meadow/timothy hay) is an ideal choice, and also makes a great bedding material that rabbits will enjoy playing in.

Alfalfa hay is a legume hay, not a grass hay, so is high in calcium and protein compared to a grass hay. If fed to adult rabbits, alfalfa hay should only be given in small amounts as an occasional treat. Grass hay should be the main source of hay for your rabbit.

If you have a rabbit who is not keen on eating hay, then you can try encouraging your rabbit to increase their long fibre intake by using hay racks and filling cardboard tubes, cardboard egg cartoons and other boxes with hay, as these make great boredom toys for your pet.

 

Fresh Vegetables

Green leafy fresh vegetables and certain wild plants are an important part of a rabbit’s diet. Rabbits enjoy eating vegetables such as kale, broccoli, cabbage, and parsley, but there are many more vegetables that are suitable for your rabbit to eat.

Fresh vegetables should make up 10% of a rabbits diet, and you should aim to offer a variety of fresh food daily but introduce any new foods slowly, in small amounts, to ensure your rabbit does not suffer from any digestive upsets.

Traditionally, when thinking of vegetables to feed rabbits you might think of carrots as a popular option. However, while carrot tops are fine for your rabbit to eat, the rest of the carrot should only be fed in small amounts as a treat, because carrots have a high sugar content. This is also true for fruits too, so they should not make up a regular part of your rabbits diet.

Concentrated Food

Often rabbits are offered a diet that is too high in concentrates, as rabbits only require a small quantity of this type of food, which should make up a maximum of 5% of the overall diet. Most rabbits only require an egg cup sized portion of pelleted food, twice a day. Diets that are too high in concentrates can result in a rabbit suffering from dental problems and they can also be prone to becoming overweight.

Traditionally, many pet rabbits were fed a muesli diet that is made up of a variety of cereals and pellets. However, we now know that this type of diet can cause health issues, as rabbits will selectively eat their favourite parts of the food, preventing them from getting a complete diet. Instead, if you choose to feed a concentrated food then a pelleted diet should be offered, as this type of diet prevents selective feeding.

Can I change my rabbit’s diet?

Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive system, so if you decide to make any changes to your rabbit’s diet then these changes need to be made slowly over a minimum of 14 days. Any sudden changes to the diet can cause your rabbit to become unwell, so introduce any new foods gradually in small quantities, and slowly reduce any food that you want to remove from the diet.

If you have any concerns about you rabbit’s diet then you can discuss this in further detail with your vet, who will be able to give you advice on the best way to improve your rabbit’s diet.

How diet affects your rabbits health

Dental Health

Unlike our teeth, your rabbit’s teeth will continually grow. This means that your rabbit relies on their diet to wear down their teeth and ensure that no overgrowth occurs. Any overgrowth can cause significant pain and prevent your rabbit from eating normally.

Rabbits have several different types of teeth. Some of these teeth you can see by looking inside your rabbit’s mouth, while other teeth are hidden at the back of their mouth. The teeth at the front of your rabbit’s mouth are called incisor teeth and these are used to take food inside the mouth. Once inside, the food is ground down by the molar (cheek) teeth. These teeth run along the jawline at the back of the rabbits’ mouth and can go back as far as the rabbit’s eye.

High fibre foods such as, hay and grass, allow the correct wear of teeth. This is because the long fibre that is found in these types of foods requires the rabbit to chew from side to side, allowing the teeth to be continually worn down. In contrast, concentrated food changes the way rabbits chew, as it encourages an up and down motion, instead of the preferred side to side movement. This type of chewing will not help wear down the teeth correctly and can lead to the overgrowth of the molar teeth.

Digestive Health

Rabbits have a very different digestive system to many of our other pets, as they rely on microbes in their caecum (part of their gut) to help digest their food. Once their food has been digested, rabbits will produce caecotrophs (a soft pellet) that they will eat, and this enables them to gain all the nutrients that they need.

Healthy digestion also relies on a rabbit’s gut continually working and this is stimulated by long fibre passing through the digestive system. If the motility of a rabbits gut slows down or stops then this can have serious health implications for the rabbit.

What can happen when the diet goes wrong?

Obesity

Many pet rabbits are prone to becoming overweight and this can be caused by feeding too much concentrated food or treats; often combined with a lack of exercise. Rabbits can have as much hay as they need but their dried pelleted food needs to be rationed to help keep them healthy.

Rabbits that are overweight can struggle to eat their caecotrophs and keep themselves clean. This puts them at an increased risk of developing flystrike, which is a life threatening condition that requires emergency treatment.

In addition, obesity can contribute to other diseases including, arthritis and spinal problems. These painful diseases can seriously affect a rabbit’s mobility and quality of life, and are often life-limiting.

If you feel that your rabbit is overweight then you should speak to your vet, so your rabbit can be assessed and an appropriate weight loss program can be made for your pet. You should also consider reassessing your rabbit’s diet to make sure that you are not feeding too much concentrated food, but remember to make any dietary changes slowly.

Dental Disease

Any rabbit can develop dental disease, even if they are fed the ideal diet and are in the best of health. However, the risk for developing dental disease is higher if a rabbit is fed an inappropriate diet, as they will not be chewing correctly, which will result in inappropriate wear of the teeth.

Rabbits with dental disease will often form spurs on their molar teeth. These are sharp overgrowths that cause pain when chewing, as they rub on the sensitive soft tissues in the mouth. This will result in the rabbit decreasing the amount of food they eat and they will often choose to only eat foods that are easy to chew. Frequently, the first sign of dental disease is a change in your rabbit’s food preference.

  • Signs of dental disease include:
  • A change in diet preference
  • Decreased appetite/inappetant (not eating)
  • Reduced number and size of faecal pellets
  • Dribbling from mouth
  • Runny eyes
  • Lethargic (quiet)
  • Hunched posture

If you notice any signs of dental disease then your rabbit will need to be urgently be seen by a vet. Once at the vets, you rabbits teeth will examined, which may require an anaesthetic, so your rabbit will be asleep. This will allow for a full assessment of your rabbits teeth, dental x-rays and treatment to be performed.

Frequently, dental disease will require regular ongoing treatment to keep your rabbits mouth comfortable. However, for rabbits with severe dental disease this condition may be life-limiting as it may impact a rabbit’s quality of life, and their ability to chew food.

Gastrointestinal Stasis (Gut Stasis)

This is a condition where a rabbit’s digestive system slows down and in severe cases it can stop working. Rabbits with this condition can deteriorate quickly so it is always considered an emergency.

There are many different causes of gut stasis but feeding an inappropriate diet that is high in concentrates or does not contain enough long fibre, can increase a rabbits risk of developing this condition.

  • Common causes of gut stasis include:
  • Stress
  • Pain
  • Dental disease
  • Inappropriate diet
  • Obstruction (blockage of the rabbits gut)
  • Dehydration

Gut stasis can vary from mild cases that go on to develop into a more serious condition if the early signs are not recognised, through to severe illness that can be fatal if prompt treatment is not provided.

  • Common signs include:
  • Reduced appetite/inappetant (not eating)
  • Reduced amount or size of faecal pellets
  • Hunched posture
  • Lethargic (quiet)

Not every rabbit will show all of these signs, so if your rabbit starts showing any signs of gut stasis then you should contract your vets urgently for advice.

Written by Lisa Butwell

Author Bio: ‘I am a veterinary surgeon for small animals and I graduated from Liverpool University in 2015. I enjoy all aspects of small animal work but I am particularly interested in rabbit medicine. Currently, I live in Cheshire with my 2 friendly French Lop rabbits called Spot and Buddy, a Cocker Spaniel called Molly and 3 recently acquired rescue hens.