Rabbits are particularly vulnerable to disease resulting from incorrect feeding. Rabbits are grazing animals and in the wild will spend around 70% of their time foraging for food. They are completely herbivorous and the basis of their diet should be unlimited grass and hay. This will provide the fibre needed for a healthy gut and will reduce common dental issues. Leafy greens should also feature during feeding, with weeds such as dandelions and plantains providing essential vitamins, minerals and fibre.
Diet related health concerns:
Many rabbits are prone to dental disease. Rabbit’s teeth grow constantly, and are worn down naturally through the action of eating hay. Dental disease occurs when the teeth continue to grow- causing pain, sores, abscesses or physical deformities of the mouth.
Dental problems can occur due to poor diet or poor breeding/conformation and will eventually lead to the rabbit being unable to eat at all. This can lead to gut-stasis, starvation and death if not treated. A general anaesthetic is required to carry out dental treatment, and some rabbits may require dental work as frequently as every 6 weeks. A correct diet will reduce or sometimes eliminate the occurrence of dental disease.
Ileus or gut stasis is the term used to describe a condition where part of or the entire gastro-intestinal tract ceases to move. It is very common in rabbits and can be caused by a number of factors including: dental disease, stress, other illnesses or poor diet. More information on gut stasis can be found here.
Obesity can occur in rabbits that are fed a predominantly high carbohydrate diet such as muesli or pellets. This can lead to a number of different health problems such as heart disease and liver disease. Excess weight can also exacerbate arthritis and hinder the rabbit’s ability to groom, which can increase their risk of flystrike.
In captivity, rabbits were originally bred for meat- and so were traditionally fed muesli diets. This was a diet designed for short-lived rabbits to help increase weight gain. These diets are very outdated and will cause a number of health problems for our pet rabbits, who we hope to keep for up to 12 years or sometimes longer.
Although commercial rabbit pellets have come a long way in recent years and are far superior to muesli mixes, we still advise owners to follow their rabbit’s natural diet as closely as possible. This should be a diet of predominantly hay, grass and weeds. You can also offer small amounts of fruit and vegetables. Most rabbits do not need pellets; however some owners find they help some outdoor rabbits maintain weight over colder months when they are using more energy. Your rabbit does not need more than 25g of food per kg of bodyweight in pellets per day- these should be scattered around their enclosure to encourage foraging.
Caecotrophs and coprophagia in rabbits
Caecotrophs refer to small soft faecal pellets. These are the result of the fermentation of food in the caecum. The soft pellets are then re-ingested by the rabbits so that more nutrients can be absorbed. Caecotrophs are high in protein and provide essential vitamins which would otherwise be lost. The ingestion of these soft faecal pellets is therefore vital to the overall health of rabbits. This is known as coprophagia.
- As with all animals, fresh water should always be provided. A heavy water bowl offers a more natural way for your rabbit to drink than water bottles, however may become easily soiled and should be changed regularly.
- Ad-lib hay should always be available. Get the best quality hay that you can- it should smell sweet and not be dusty. Types of suitable hay include timothy hay, oat hay or meadow hay. Alfalfa hay is best avoided in adult rabbits, as it is higher in protein which can lead to kidney disease.
- Fresh or growing grass should also be available where possible. This is best supplied by allowing your rabbit to use a large outdoor space, giving them the chance to graze naturally and exhibit normal behaviour. Never feed lawn mower clippings, as these can ferment quickly, causing digestive upsets and gut stasis.
- Foraging should be encouraged – provide a large exercise in an outdoor area where your rabbit can play and graze. Scatter favourite foods around the area rather than feeding from one bowl. There are also a number of feeding toys available, which can provide added enrichment.
- Weeds and plants – there are many safe weeds and plants that your rabbit can enjoy. Many pet shops now sell weeds for rabbits in dry forms too, adding some variety to your pet’s diet throughout the year.
- Young bramble leaves
Other safe plants:
- Herbs: basil, coriander & mint.
- Apple leaves
Fruit and Vegetables
Most fruits and some vegetables are high in sugar and should only make up a small part of your rabbit’s daily diet. Fruit that is particularly sugary, such as apples and strawberries should be limited to small amounts once or twice a week. Safe fruit and vegetables include:
- Cauliflower (including leaves)
- Carrot tops and roots (roots are high in sugar and should be fed in small amounts).
- Squash, including courgettes and cauliflower. (Feed in moderation)
- Salad greens (these should be fed in moderation)
Food to avoid:
- Muesli diets. As mentioned above, these are not suitable for rabbits and will eventually lead to health problems as they are high in carbohydrates. They also allow the rabbit to selectively feed, leading to dietary deficiencies.
- Human food. Rabbits have very sensitive digestive systems; therefore food such as bread, crisps and biscuits can easily cause gastro-intestinal upsets, leading to gut stasis.
- Commercial treats. These are usually marketed as safe for rabbits, but are often high in sugar and offer no nutritional benefit. We recommend feeding some of the plants or vegetables above as treats instead. There are some companies which now produce treats made of natural grasses or weeds – these can be a suitable option. Please contact us for advice if you have a specific question about a product you’ve seen.
Toxic Food – these should be avoided at all costs
- Any plants, grass or hay that has been treated with chemicals such as pesticides or weed killers.
- Lawn mower clippings
- Anything from the allium family, including: onions, garlic, leeks and chives.
- Tubers such as potatoes.
- Any plants grown from a bulb. These include: daffodils, bluebells, crocuses, snowdrops and tulips.
- Human foods such as chocolate, caffeine and alcohol.
The list of plants that are toxic to rabbits is non-exhaustive and there are too many to list here! Please research any plants carefully before planting them in areas that your rabbit has access to.