Feeding the correct diet to your rabbit is the best way to ensure his or her health and fitness.
Rabbits in the wild graze on meadows, eating various grasses and herbs which make up a diet that is high in fibre. The more the pet rabbit’s diet is varied from this, the more likely it is that problems can occur.
The problems that can occur are:
Rabbits’ teeth grow all the time and are worn down by chewing on abrasive grasses. Rabbits fed on a diet that contains little grass are the most likely to develop overgrown incisors and molars as there is little in their diet to wear down the teeth, and they will not spend enough time chewing.
This can lead to:
Once a dental disease is established, it can only be managed by the rabbit having regular general anaesthetics to trim and file the teeth, and severe dental disease may mean that the rabbit has to be put to sleep.
Rabbits have large hind-guts where the fibre in the diet is separated out into indigestible and digestible fibre. The indigestible fibre is passed out as the hard ‘currant-like’ pellets, and the digestible fibre is processed by bacteria in the hind-gut and then passed out as soft caecotrophs, which the rabbit then eats. Eating these caecotrophs allows the rabbit to get vital vitamins and fatty acids out of the diet. Fibre in the diet ensures that this separation takes place properly. A rabbit that does not eat enough fibre will not produce normal hard pellets, and will often be stained around the anal area, and this can increase the risk of fly-strike (see below).
A diet that is low in fibre and high in easily digested foods is likely to lead to an increase in weight, particularly in neutered rabbits. Obese rabbits are unable to groom themselves properly, and so may be stained around the bottom by urine or faeces, which can increase the risk of fly-strike. They are also more prone to joint problems, and skin infections around the dewlap.
Rabbits get rid of any calcium that is not needed by the body through the urine. If there is too much calcium in the diet, the urine becomes very thick and creamy, and there can be damage to the kidneys. The rabbit may show symptoms of cystitis, or have some urine scalding around the tail or down the hind limbs, which will increase the risk of fly-strike. This is more likely to happen if the rabbit is fed a lot of alfalfa hay or green leafy vegetables.
70% of their diet should be made up of good quality grass or hay – this will keep the teeth and gastrointestinal tract healthy, and prevent obesity.
28% of the diet should be made up of vegetables (root vegetables and moderate amounts of green leafy vegetables), herbs and a small amount of fruit.
2% of the diet should be made up of commercially available rabbit food, whether pelleted or not. This is about one tablespoon per day for rabbits under 3.5kg, and two tablespoons per day for rabbits over 3.5kg – not very much at all and some people are quite surprised by this.
Rabbit treats, vitamin and mineral supplements, should not be fed on a regular basis.