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Why is it important?

Disease related to inappropriate diet is fairly common in rabbits kept as pets, but it can be avoided with the right knowledge. Rabbits’ diets should consist of:

  • 80% grass or good quality, long-stem feeding hay (this is a portion roughly the same size as the rabbit’s body).
  • 10% fresh greens (a portion the size of bunny’s head).
  • 5% healthy treats (dried herbs/flowers).
  • 5% high fibre pellets (~1 tablespoon per kilogram of rabbit weight).

  • What’s special about rabbits?

    Rabbits are strict herbivores and have digestive systems very different to dogs, cats or humans. They require a high quantity of fibre in their diets which is separated in the colon into two groups:

  • Indigestible fibre. This travels straight through the guts and is passed out as hard faecal pellets (poo!).
  • Fermentable components. These travel into the rabbit’s caecum (part of their digestive tract that acts as a large fermentation vat), they are mixed with a cocktail of healthy bacteria which breaks them down to release energy. The contents of the caecum form small, mucus covered, sticky poos called ‘caecotrophs’ - these are passed, then eaten and digested to release proteins and essential nutrients.

  • What’s the risk?

    Rabbits kept as pets will always have a diet slightly different to the one they would have in the wild, no matter how hard we try. However there are lots of available foods and hays that, fed in the correct quantities, will help keep it as close to their natural diet as possible.

    Rabbits with diseases such as dental disease may find it difficult to consume enough fibre. Young rabbits have different nutritional requirements to adult and mature rabbits.

    What happens to the rabbit?

    A good quality balanced diet is essential for all aspects of a rabbit’s health – dental, gastrointestinal, skin, development and mental (to list a few!). Overfeeding leads to obesity, which is a big problem in pet rabbits. It can cause heart disease, mobility problems, skin complaints, urinary disease and many other issues linked to incorrect diet or exercise.

    How do you know what’s going on?

    You may see:

  • Signs of dental disease (overgrowth, spurs, dribbling, refusing certain foods).
  • Refusing to eat or not passing poos (gut stasis/ileus).
  • Weight change.
  • Poor growth.
  • Poo quality: small hard poos don’t contain enough fibre, sticky poos are caecotrophs which shouldn’t be seen, indicating they aren’t being eaten for some reason.
  • Poor skin/fur quality (dandruff/bald patches).
  • Urinary problems (staining around back end/cystitis signs).
  • Any of the signs above should be checked out urgently by your vet.

    What can be done?

    Hay should be provided in addition to, or in place of grass. There are many different types of hay which provide variety and have different benefits - such as meadow, timothy, alfalfa and orchard hay. These can be fed along with rabbit-safe forage mixes of dried plants and herbs for interest and enrichment (these can be found in pet shops). Keep hay fresh and clean to encourage eating.

    Rabbits should ideally be given the opportunity to graze for a couple of hours a day in a predator-proof enclosure. If this isn’t possible then grass can be picked or grown in trays. If grass is picked then vaccination is recommended due to the risk of disease/parasite transmission from wild rabbits and other animals. Never feed lawn-mower clippings as these ferment quickly and may result in death.

    Muesli’ style diets were popular in the past – colourful seed, biscuit and cereal mixes. These are often insufficient in fibre and unbalanced, as rabbits pick out the bits they like and leave the rest. Good quality pelleted foods are now available which are nutritionally balanced and should be fed as directed (~5% of the diet).

    Always introduce new foods or management changes gradually.

    What can I do to protect my pet?

    Have a look at the diet you are feeding and make sure you stick to 80% grass or good quality hay, 10% fresh greens, 5% healthy treats, 5% high-fibre pellets.

    There is lots of conflicting advice out there so if you are unsure then please speak to your veterinary team about how to improve your rabbit’s diet. If you are ever concerned about your rabbit’s health please make an urgent appointment with your vet.