Rabbits belong to a very special group of herbivores called hindgut fermenters. Along with horses, rhinos, elephants, tapirs and sloths, they digest plant matter by fermentation in their colon/caecum, using helpful gut bacteria. This unique digestive technique means that they require a rather strict diet because not only are we feeding the rabbit but also the billions of gut bacteria. These bacteria provide the rabbit with essential vitamins and will in turn become an important source of protein for the rabbit. As a result, we need to be very careful what and how we feed them if we are to avoid serious – or even life-threatening – complications.
Table of contents
- Avoid sudden changes
- Rabbits have pretty simple food requirements – don’t overcomplicate it!
- Make sure they have plenty of water
- Careful with the veg!
- Supplementing with pelleted food
- Source good-quality feed
- To keep your rabbit’s digestive system healthy and prevent obesity, try to feed as close to nature as possible.
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Avoid sudden changes
Unfortunately, these gut bacteria are rather delicate and they do not respond well to any sudden changes to the diet, especially foods that can cause diarrhoea. If this happens, the “good” bacteria will start to die, and this is extremely dangerous for the rabbit. So, if you notice any changes to your rabbit’s bathroom habits such as faecal material sticking to the fur or loose stools, you should call your vet immediately.
If you look closely, you will notice that rabbits produce two types of poop; normal faecal pellets which are firm and round, and the smaller caecal pellets which tend to be smaller, softer, and have a slightly different colour and smell. It is very important for your rabbit to eat the caecal pellets as they come from a different part of the digestive tract and provide a good source of helpful gut bacteria.
Rabbits have pretty simple food requirements – don’t overcomplicate it!
In the wild, they are happy with a variety of grasses and plants to forage on. Our pet rabbits will flourish too if just fed good quality meadow or timothy hay, as much as they want. If you are not able to offer a safe area where your rabbit can graze on fresh vegetation, try to provide opportunities to forage by hiding small treats in the hay. Lawn grass will suffice but it really lacks variety, so supplement with leafy greens and herbs such as parsley, dandelion, or watercress. All of these are rich in vitamins and are good options, but only offer a small amount (a handful) so your rabbit does not get an upset stomach or diarrhoea.
Make sure they have plenty of water
Rabbits often have a preference for drinking from a bowl or a bottle, so try to offer both options and see which they use most. Bowls can be easily overturned or contaminated with bedding, so choose heavy ceramic bowls that can be easily cleaned and sterilised. Water is the most important nutrient for any animal and especially for pet rabbits that have a mainly hay diet. Dehydration is just as dangerous as diarrhoea for a rabbit, but not as obvious. Make sure your rabbit has access to water at all times and refresh the water at least twice a day.
Careful with the veg!
Contrary to popular belief and some poor cartoon rabbit advice, carrots and lettuce are not a healthy choice! Carrots are very high in sugars; it’s better to offer fruit tree branches for chewing and to keep teeth in good condition. Lettuce really has no nutritional value and can cause diarrhoea; it also lacks fibre, which is essential for a healthy digestive tract.
Supplementing with pelleted food
If you still feel your rabbit needs more calories, you can offer an eggcup amount of good-quality rabbit pellets. This will provide essential vitamins and minerals but prevent obesity, which often happens when rabbits are offered muesli-style feed. Just like children, they tend to eat the tastier high-calorie parts they like and a lot of feed is wasted. Even rabbits find it hard to eat the healthy option all the time.
Source good-quality feed
If you are unsure about which leafy greens to offer, just ask your vet. They can also give advice on the best brand of pellet and hay. Remember, it is very important to wash any greens thoroughly, especially if you foraged them yourself. Only feed packaged hay that is clean, dry, dust-free, and designed for rabbits. Other hay sources may appear cheaper, but they can be contaminated or contain toxic plants, mould, insects, and dead mammals.
To keep your rabbit’s digestive system healthy and prevent obesity, try to feed as close to nature as possible.
Feeding can be simplified to the following 3 steps on a daily basis:
- Feed as much good quality meadow or timothy hay as they can eat
- Offer a handful of fresh leafy greens
- Offer an eggcup-sized portion of pellets.
It can be difficult to gauge if your rabbit is a healthy weight just by looking at them. So, weigh them at least twice a year and talk to your vet if you have any concerns or if they are not maintaining their weight.