05 Apr Rabbit Nutrition: An Overview
So much is written on feeding practices, with different names for grains, pellets and hay, and everyone has a different idea.
Many sources of information available are not applicable to Australian conditions, or even remotely similar to what is grown and sold here. It is often a matter of trial and error, availability, convenience, seasonal and personal choice. We all have our own likes and dislikes, as I’m sure our rabbits do. What works for one pet owner or breeder, won’t necessarily suit or work for another.
Rabbits, like people, require different levels of nutrition through their life stages. A kitten has different nutritional requirements to a brood doe or show rabbit. One is at the beginning of its lifecycle, while the other is in peak condition, or even retired on a maintenance diet. So where do you start? Search for as much information available from your experienced local breeders and club, and filter through the information to find the best suited to you and your rabbit/s. Ensure when purchasing or obtaining a rabbit, that you continue with the feed type as closely as possible as the previous owner, and change over gradually.
The basis of any feed routine is just that – routine. Feed can’t be changed on a daily basis, nor forgotten, it must be consistent. A rabbit basically requires it’s digestive system to be constantly moving to remain healthy. Therefore, feed must be readily available and of good quality, if your animals are to stay fit, healthy and disease free. Feed and routine also play a large part in the ability of an animal to breed successfully and even raise a litter. Fresh clean water must always be available.
Pellets should also have no more than 16% protein. Protein plays a vital role in growth and cell formation, but in large amounts can be detrimental to your rabbit’s health. Adult rabbits, in particular, are prone to illness caused by excessive protein, such as hyperactivity, prolonged moult, even kidney disease. Protein is also said to contribute to caecal dysbiosis (the overproduction of cecal pellets, or caecatrophs) by altering the cecal bacteria. For younger rabbits, whose need for protein is greater, their diet can be supplemented with lucerne hay, which is rich in protein.
The calcium content of your pellets should be somewhere around 1%. Excessive calcium is excreted in urine, and as such, is believed to contribute to kidney and urinary problems, particularly in older rabbits. Milky white urine for a number of successive days may indicate such a problem.
Pellets should have no more than 1% fat for adolescent and adult rabbits alike. A diet too high in fat can contribute to obesity, infertility in does, and put strain on vital organs.
Pellets may be manufactured from a variety of sources, though the majority in Australia are Lucerne based. Problems associated with the excessive protein or calcium levels of these pellets can arise, though risks of such problems occurring can be minimized by strict scrutiny of nutritional labels, and supplementing the diet with high fibre hay. Pellets should be enriched with vitamins, minerals and trace nutrients to ensure your rabbit’s dietary needs are met.
Make sure the pellets you feed are fresh and free from mould (to avoid mycotoxin poisoning. Long storage times means they may begin to lose vitamin A & E).
Switching Pellets: If you need to change feeds you must do so gradually. Make the change over a week or two, gradually increasing the ratio of new to old pellets each day, until you are finally feeding only new pellets. This must be done in such a way to avoid overwhelming the rabbit’s GI system, which is often responsible for stomach upsets.
Hay: In addition to pellets, rabbits require plenty of fresh cereal hay (sometimes referred to as grass hay), such as oaten, wheat or barley hay. Cereal hays are very high in fibre and will work to keep the GI tract moving; preventing GI stasis, impaction and diarrhoea. A healthy rabbit is ‘regular’! Younger rabbits (under 5 months of age) can receive a combination of Lucerne (or alfalfa) hay, and cereal hays. The added protein and calcium in Lucerne hay will help young bunnies’ metabolism and growth.
Straw may provide some added roughage, but it has less nutritional value. Hay is harvested when seeds in the seed heads are still immature. At this point, the seed heads and stalks yield higher nutritional benefit. Straw is essentially hay which has matured further, to the point where mature grains are harvested. By this time, the stalks have lost most of their nutritional value, and the seed heads (now mature grains) have been removed.
Vegetables: Rabbits have delicate digestive systems and the rapid introduction of vegetables can cause the overproduction of harmful bacteria such as Cloristridium, in the GI tract. This bacterium can cause diarrhoea, and even GI stasis. Introduce vegetables slowly, especially to young rabbits. Fruits and starchy vegetables such as carrots should remains strict treat items – the sugar and starch content of these foods are prone to disturbing the delicate balance of GI flora. Once adjusted to eating vegetables, rabbits can benefit from their inclusion in their diet. Vegetables are rich in vitamins and minerals, and can literally be a life saver for rabbits suffering from GI stasis. Vegetables can also be a source of fibre, and help to keep the GI tract hydrated. However a rabbit to remain healthy cannot manage on vegetables alone.
Supplements: It’s unlikely your rabbit will need vitamins. Rabbits generally receive all vitamins and minerals necessary to maintain optimum health, simply from being fed a diet of high quality pellets, cereal hay, and possibly select vegetables.
Diet and Nutrition for rabbits can be a complex subject. However as a new owner of a rabbit there are only a few main points that need to be remembered
- Do not suddenly change a rabbits diet as it may result in gastro upsets or even death. Introduce new or different foods gradually. All rabbits become accustomed to a particular type of food. The person that sells you your rabbit should provide a small bag of food to take home with you.
- If you can’t obtain the same brand of food please introduce your food slowly over a period of 7-10 days.
- Buy a good quality rabbit food. Rabbit pellets provide a good balanced diet for bunnies. Avoid buying cheaper low quality foods that contain a lot of chaff and not many pellets as this is unlikely to provide enough nutrition, especially for larger growing bunnies.
- Some rabbits are accustomed to some green foods such as celery tops, broccoli leave, carrot and apple. It is a good idea to check with the previous owner. Give this type of food in small amounts and introduce them slowly to rabbits that are not used to having it.
- It is not a good idea to give lettuce as this may cause diarrhoea and cabbage may cause colic.
- Hay is also an important part of a rabbit’s diet. Make sure it is nice fresh hay without any mould. Hay is much nicer – and more nutritious—than straw.
All these necessary requirements are met in the T&R Rabbit & Guinea Pig Pellet
Thank you to the WA Rabbit Council Inc for providing this informative article! We are proud sponsors of their upcoming Rabbit Extravaganza.