Many rabbit ailments that we see at Newstead Vets are a result of incorrect feeding, and could have been prevented. Problems with teeth and digestion especially, can often be traced back to an inadequate diet. In the wild, rabbits spend long periods of time grazing and the way we feed them as pets needs to be as similar to their eating habits in the wild as possible.
Pet rabbits should therefore receive mainly grass and/or hay as the staple food.
Grass and hay
Grass should be grazed and not given as lawn clippings, which can go mouldy and can be contaminated from the lawnmower. The important thing for rabbits is to chew on long blades of quite fibrous grass, which help wear the teeth down and maintain good gut function. Lawn clippings tend to be too short and not fibrous enough.
Hay needs to be as fresh as possible. Choose a good quality, sweet-smelling grass hay, which is neither damp nor dusty. Avoid alfalfa hay in adult rabbits as it contains excessive levels of calcium. Ideally the hay should be provided in a hay rack and replenished daily. This ensures the hay remains appetising and prevents it from getting soiled. Hay can then additionally be provided as bedding on the ground. Hay should be stored carefully to protect it from damp and mould. It is best obtained in small quantities at a time to help retain freshness. Compressed vacuum-packed hay is a convenient form.
If there is absolutely no access to grazing land or to hay then the next best thing is specialised rabbit pellets. These must however be of the highest quality to mimic the properties of grass. Crude fibre should be 18 – 20%. Protein needs to be no more than 16%, and ideally 12 – 14%. Fat needs to be a maximum of 3%. There are very few commercial rabbit foods available that satisfy these requirements. Most are too high in protein and too low in fibre, leading to digestive and dental problems. To date, the best pelleted food we have sourced is “LM” Rabbit Diet, which we stock at the clinic.
Vegetables and wild plants
This is the next most important part of the pet rabbit’s diet.
Rabbits should receive a varied diet of vegetables and wild plants. Any new vegetables should be introduced slowly, and withdrawn if they cause diarrhoea the next day. There is great variation between individual bunnies as to what vegetables they can and cannot tolerate, so the only way to find out is by trial and error. The aim is to provide 1/2 -1 standard measuring cup of packed green leafy vegetables per kg bodyweight per day. Try to feed at least three different plants each time; the more variety the better.
Examples of wild plants and vegetables to feed include dandelions, brambles, celery, carrot tops, beet tops, kale, silverbeet, raspberry leaves, basil and mint. Plants can be suspended from inside the roof to increase time spent feeding, which is good for the teeth and helps prevent boredom.
Do not feed peas/beans, potatoes, cereals, bread, cookies, oats, etc as they are very high in starch. Other no-nos include rhubarb stalks/leaves, tomato leaves, avocados (high fat).
It is also important to be aware of poisonous wild plants. The most poisonous plants to avoid are: anemone, azalea, bittersweet, bryony, caladium, cyclamen, columbine, dog mercury, figwort, deadly nightshade, woody nightshade, poppies, ragwort, buttercups, daffodils, bluebells, foxglove, hemlock, spurges, kingcup, marsh marigold, monkshood, meadow saffron, mistletoe, St Johns wort, leyland cypress, fools parsley and hellebore.
Treats and “dietary toys”
Fruit are high in simple sugars and should only ever be given as small treats. Examples include apples, pears, berries, peaches, mango and pineapple. Avoid bananas and grapes altogether as they are addictive! (The exception to this of course is a sick rabbit that is refusing to eat, where these can come in very useful to kick-start the feeding).
Other veg that can be given only as small treats are carrots, pea pods, capsicum, Brussels sprouts and broccoli.
Fresh, non-toxic tree branches, un-dyed cardboard and untreated wood can be excellent “dietary toys”, providing good wear for the teeth and mental stimulation.