How to feed a rabbit correctly

The rabbit is a strict herbivore. In its nutrition, it is necessary to ensure a high fibre content in the feed, which is digested by the bacteria of the large intestine.

A rabbit's digestive tract needs balance

The rabbit has a very specific and complex digestive tract. The most important element of the rabbit's intestine is the cecum, which is a kind of fermenting bag. The cecum is part of the large intestine and is home to a diverse population of bacteria. The balance of the bacterial population can be affected by age, diet, season, environment, and the use of dietary supplements and medications such as probiotics and antibiotics. The consequences of damaging this balance can be life-threatening for the rabbit.

What should rabbits eat? Grass and hay in abundance!

Many health conditions in rabbits, such as dental disease, obesity, urinary tract disease, dysfunctional digestion (stasis) or urinary sludge, have some connection to their diet. By ensuring that rabbits are fed as nature intended, many diseases can be prevented or mitigated.

The rabbit must have access to high-fibre, low-calorie food that they chew for a long time (grass, hay). This supports the health of the rabbit's teeth and digestive tract. Chewing food rich in fibre prevents the rabbit from becoming bored. Unfortunately, this fact is often overlooked by breeders when domestic rabbits are fed selective food or feed that does not meet their specific requirements. This leads not only to health problems, but also to their behaviour disorders. Suitable food rich in fibre supports the rabbit's health and significantly influences its behaviour.

In addition to grass and hay, rabbits should be given leafy vegetables, a very small amount of extruded pellets and, of course, fresh water. When feeding a rabbit, we base it on what it would have available in the wild.

Carrots, popular with breeders, do not have a high nutritional value for rabbits, as they are very caloric and rich in sugars. It contributes to the development of obesity and often to dental disease in rabbits.

Fruit, in small amounts is fine. However, a handful of grape berries or half an apple is a very high-calorie and sugar-rich food source for a rabbit without any benefit.

muesli looks very nice and tasty for the rabbit. Again, however, they are very high in calories. We should therefore offer feed pellets to rabbits.

What not to give to rabbits

We can find a wide variety of treats for rabbits on the market. Basically, these are herbs, vegetables and fruits in various forms of processing, which are easy to feed to rabbits and are attractive to the animal. Unfortunately, this is again a feed with no nutritional value for rabbits.

Anything based on milk or yogurt is unsuitable for rabbits, as they have great difficulty digesting milk proteins.

Be careful with human food too. It often happens that the breeder eats something and offers the rabbit a small amount, e.g. cake, bread, pizza. Again, this is a very unsuitable food for rabbits.

Above all, inexperienced breeders are often tempted to give the rabbit visually nice food - for example, a bowl with sweetened, colourful and very tasty muesli . On the other hand, a bowl with some feed pellets does not look very attractive, according to breeders. For the health of the rabbit, it is exactly the opposite - m ü sli will mainly supply the rabbit with excess calories without nutritional value. On the other hand, a level tablespoon of feed pellets per kilogram of the rabbit's ideal weight per day will provide him with the necessary nutrients in sufficient quantity.

Nutrition pyramid for rabbits

Always think of the food pyramid when feeding your rabbits. A rabbit should be fed 85% hay and fresh grass, 10% should be healthy, safe, chemically-free green feed without fruit (this is unhealthy for rabbits) and around 5% should be palletized concentrate, not muesli.

It is not only the quantity, but also the quality of the feed that matters

Do not feed your rabbits hay that is dusty, mouldy or smelly. Also, avoid green grass that is steamy. Be consistent in feeding the rabbit, do not make sudden changes in the diet. Rabbits are very difficult to adapt to changes in feeding. They must always have access to fresh water from a bowl/drinking source they are familiar with.

Eating one's own feces to provide protein

A phenomenon called "caecotrophy" occurs in rabbits. This involves eating one's own gooey feces in order to maintain and supplement the correct microflora in the intestine. Rabbits eat the droppings they produce at night. It is the main source of protein for rabbits. Proteins, including essential fatty acids, are the reason why rabbits actually eat their own droppings. Proteins must also be given to rabbits in their feed. However, their content must change according to the animal's life cycle: During the lactation of rabbits, the protein content in the diet should be 18-19%. In young, growing rabbits, 16% and in adult, castrated rabbits only around 12-14%. For older rabbits with poorer kidney function, the protein content in the food must not exceed 12-13%. 

Food rich in fibre - especially hay and grass

Rabbits need food rich in fibre. The content of coarse fibre in the pellets should be as high as possible, i.e. 20-25 %. Keep in mind that most of the fibre in pellets comes from grass and hay. So it is okay if you give your rabbit pellets with a relatively low fibre content, but if he gets a lot of hay and grass with them. On the contrary, it is not right if you only compensate the hay and grass for the rabbit with feed pellets with a high fibre content.

Fibber is the basis for the rabbit. We divide it into digestible and indigestible. Digestible fibre has a length of less than 3 mm . It moves through the digestive tract and returns from the rabbit's colon back to the cecum during digestion. A complex digestive process takes place in the cecum, where food is digested with the help of microorganisms from the intestine, the production of caecotrophs, which provide the rabbit with the main source of energy.

Rabbits eat caecotrophs as soon as they are excreted from the intestine and thus receive minerals and vitamins twice. Therefore, it is extremely important for the rabbit to produce and receive caecotrophs. Very often, when a rabbit is overfed with pellets, or suffers from excess weight and health problems such as osteoarthritis, it does not have the ability to absorb caecotrophs, and thus does not receive vital minerals and vitamins.

Indigestible fibre is greater than 3 mm in length and is important for peristalsis (movement of the digestive tract) and is excreted by the rabbit in the form of hard pellets. A rabbit will eliminate more than 300 hard pellets per day, all of which should be the same shape and size. Whenever their number decreases (e.g. due to slowing of peristalsis), the rabbit will have a major health problem.

Both types of fibre, digestible and indigestible, must be received by the rabbit in its food, as it is necessary for its health.

Rabbits should have enough fibre in the form of grass and hay throughout the day, optimally free access in the amount they eat per day. Every day, the breeder should offer them a fresh dose.

The ratio of calcium and phosphorus in the diet

The ratio of calcium and phosphorus is also important in a rabbit's diet, namely 1: 1 - 2 :1. The rabbit gets these minerals from feed pellets.

Be careful with the amount of feed pellets

Rabbits are very fond of feed pellets. When we offer them to them, they immediately run to them. However, feed pellets are very caloric and energy-rich. That is why we have to offer them to rabbits only in limited quantities. We recommend one level tablespoon per kilogram of ideal live weight of an adult rabbit per day. This means that an average adult rabbit weighing 2-2.5kg should not receive more than 2-2.5 level tablespoons of pellets per 24 hours. It is okay to divide this total amount into two doses per day, but we should not increase the dose.

Feed pellets should not make up more than 5% of the total feed ration. Properly, we should not pour the feed pellets into the bowl, but spread them on the mat, thus supporting the natural feeding of wild rabbits, which are constantly grazing. In this way, we give domestic rabbits the possibility of natural behaviour. We should look at feed pellets as a food supplement, with which we supplement the amount of necessary vitamins and minerals.

However, never give muesli to rabbits. This contributes to dental disease. We also do not want to encourage rabbits to selectively choose feed. When you offer the rabbit feed pellets, it should eat them within about 15 minutes when they are spread on the mat. So don't feed them all day! If rabbits have constant access to them, they selectively choose them instead of chewing hay and green feed. This leads to a lack of fibre in the diet.

Change the pellets gradually

If we change the feeding of mixture to feed pellets or if we want to change one brand of pellets to another, then the transition should be gradual over at least 2-4 weeks. We should never rush to change feeding! You have to give the bacteria in the rabbit's digestive tract time. Otherwise, the change can cause serious intestinal disease.

If you are switching from muscle to feed pellets in a rabbit, then over the course of 4 weeks we reduce the amount of muscle and increase the amount of pellets in this ratio: ¾ muesli and ¼ pellets in the first week, then ½ muesli and ½ pellet in the second . In the third week ¼ muesli and ¾ pellets and in the fourth week we get to 100% pellets and no muesli. Throughout the change period, we monitor the amount of droppings, their size and shape. This ensures that we do not slow down the rabbit's digestion. With this change, it is also worth considering adding special probiotics to the rabbit's food. 

Do you feed your rabbit grass or hay?

We prefer grass over hay, as grass is the natural source of food for rabbits in the wild. Unfortunately, domestic rabbit breeders often overlook this fact. If rabbits have the opportunity to graze, they move more, sit and stand less. They graze and eat more than if we give them already torn fresh grass or a pile of hay. They also burn more calories when grazing. Grass also contains more water, which is why rabbits urinate more often.

Never offer rabbits grass cut with a lawnmower, as it spoils and ferments quickly. It produces gas and when the rabbit starts to eat it, it can result in bloat. Freshly cut grass is best.

Rabbits should have hay available all year round. A rabbit cannot overeat hay. It should always be fresh, and we should change it regularly. There are lots of different types of hay that you can feed – blueberry hay, oat hay, meadow hay, sedge hay. However, watch out for alfalfa hay, which is very high in calories and rich in calcium. It is therefore not suitable for adult rabbits. However, it certainly has its place for feeding young and growing rabbits and pregnant or lactating females.

Always look at the quality of the hay. It should smell fresh, not dusty and not dark, mouldy or smelly. Hay should not be stored in plastic bags as it steams and spoils. It should be kept out of direct sunlight. We should store it in a jute bag, which will keep it fresh for a longer time.

Straw only as bedding

Straw has minimal nutritional value and can be used as bedding. If you do, make sure the rabbit has good quality hay and fresh grass. Hay and grass should make up at least 85% of the total composition of the rabbit's food, the more the better. They are good for the animal's digestive system and healthy teeth. Sometimes breeders ask if they can use cheaper hay as bedding and feed with higher quality hay. Yes, that's fine, you can even mix cheaper hay with straw for bedding and offer the rabbits better quality hay to feed on.

The importance of hay and grass for healthy rabbit teeth

Don't forget the importance of fibre for healthy teeth. Hay and grass contain cellulose. Cellulose is really very hard and hard to chew. Rabbit teeth are adapted to this type of food, which they need to grind their teeth. Incisors grow at an average of 2-3 mm per week in rabbits, and molars (premolars and molars) grow at a rate of 2-3 mm per month. Chewing supports both horizontal and lateral movement of the jaws. Eating a lot of hay and grass also reduces the rabbit's boredom and destructive behaviour.

Rabbits chew their cud up to 200 times per minute when feeding. They receive food about 30 times a day and after each they consume approximately 2-8 grams of food in the course of 4 to 6 minutes. If rabbits receive only commercially available food (pellets and other treats), this behaviour changes and the jaws do not have horizontal and lateral chewing movements. Instead, they make more vertical movements, potentially damaging (cutting) the teeth, their rapid growth and wear. The surfaces of the teeth are thus ground incorrectly, the teeth tend to mash the food rather than grind it properly. This is another reason why forage in the form of grass and hay is so important.

Green feed and vegetables

Vegetables can be divided into suitable and unsuitable for rabbits. Green food, such as cabbage, spinach, celery, broccoli, herbs (parsley, mint, basil, dill, cilantro, etc.) is suitable. Some rabbits are very picky about the herbs they like. Some do not like strong aromatic herbs. We offer them several types from which they can choose.

Among the unsuitable vegetables are carrots, which are very rich in sugars and have practically no nutritional value for rabbits. We do not offer them other types of root vegetables either, we avoid fruit, lettuce, or corn.

Green forage and vegetables should make up 10 percent of the diet. We should offer them a selection by volume about the size of a rabbit's head each day and very slowly add smaller portions of multiple species. It is better to offer more different types of vegetables (three to five types) than just one or two types.

Watch out for treats

Every breeder likes to improve his rabbit. For rabbits, treats are not fundamentally important to their health. If we give something, it should be healthy and beneficial for the rabbit's health. We should avoid everything that contains milk and that is rich in sugars and everything that is dangerous for them and could potentially lead to choking. This means that we do not give raisins or peanuts, which carry the risk of suffocation if they fall into the rabbit 's breathing tube.

Another problem with peanuts, for example, is that they can lead to obstruction (clogging) of the alimentary canal. So, we can offer healthy treats such as dried herbs, hay and grass based treats. These things should always be seen as a treat, not as a main part of the food. Treats can also be used during training or as part of the bonding process.

How to give water to a rabbit

A water bowl is more natural to a rabbit than various feeding bottles. It is easier for them to drink from a bowl, and they tend to drink more. If a rabbit does not have access to water, it will develop dehydration very quickly. We recommend ceramic containers, which are heavy in themselves, so the rabbit will not knock them over and spill water. We recommend changing the water twice a day.

Feeding as a game and reward for the rabbit

Feeding should be natural and should resemble as much as possible what wild rabbits do in nature. It's supposed to be fun; it's supposed to get them moving and burning calories/energy. It should last long enough that they don't get bored and don't need to do unwanted things like gnawing on various objects. And in the end it should be a reward for the rabbit.

We can scatter food on the mat and thus support the rabbits in moving around the space. We can also encourage them to move by not only putting the food on the mat, but by placing it at a suitable height, hiding it, etc.

Reward balls are also a good idea to keep rabbits entertained. We often offer them to dogs, but their use in rabbits is forgotten. If we hide a few pellets in nothing, the rabbits will learn to play with them very quickly.

Rabbits like to gnaw on twigs or trunks of apple trees. Sometimes rabbits will spend hours gnawing and tearing off the bark. They move around, grind their teeth, pass the time and don't get bored. If you have access to chemically untreated apple tree branches, be sure to offer them to your rabbit. They are very beneficial for them.

Feeding according to the rabbit's life stages

The nutritional requirements of young, fast-growing rabbits differ significantly from food for neutered, adult rabbits or senior rabbits. The diet needs to be adjusted to take these requirements into account. We normally adjust the food for cats and dogs according to their age and activity, but this fact is often overlooked for rabbits.

A young rabbit

A rabbit is considered young up to sixteen weeks of age and as such should have had an unlimited amount of hay at its disposal (it may also contain alfalfa hay, which is a rich source of calcium and calories). However, they should also have at their disposal quality meadow hay based on various grasses. There are several types of feed for young and dwarf rabbits on the market, containing an increased amount of protein to support proper development and growth. They are often enriched with amino acids, vitamins and herbs that act as a natural source of antioxidants. They also contain probiotics. These can help young rabbits, who often have stress from a new environment.

We do not recommend unlimited access to feed pellets for young rabbits. We need the rabbit to understand that hay and green forage is a vital source of energy and that they need a lot of time to eat really large amounts of this high fibre food. Therefore, always strictly adhere to the dosage recommended by the feed pellet manufacturer. If the rabbit is not eating enough hay, the amount of pellets should be reduced. We don't want a rabbit that is half a year old and refuses to eat hay because it is used to eating only feed pellets.

Rabbits usually go on sale at the pet store around 8 weeks of age. We should remember to castrate young rabbits. We recommend castration for males around 12 weeks of age and for females from 16 weeks of age.

Adult rabbit

Adult and adolescent rabbits are a group from three to four months of age. This is the period when we recommend their castration. For males, we recommend castration around the twelfth week of age and for females from the sixteenth week of age. These rabbits don't need that many calories anymore. We definitely recommend that you phase out alfalfa hay and completely stop offering it from six months of age. We continue with the unlimited feeding of grass hay, which we offered even to very young rabbits.

At this age, we offer rabbits hay, oat hay, garden hay, meadow hay, sedge hay - these types of hay are less energetic and contain less calcium than alfalfa hay. We also already limit the amount of feed pellets to 1 tablespoon per 1 kilogram of live weight per day. As these rabbits grow, it is obvious that the amount of these pellets according to the current weight will go up. After reaching the sixth month of age, it is desirable to stop increasing the dose of pellets in order to avoid endless increases in the dose of pellets and obesity of the animal. Always feed according to the pyramid of 85% grass hay, 10% greens and 5% pellets.

Elder rabbit

Older rabbits need an adjustment of the feed ration, as well as an adjustment of the environment in which they are kept. We give senior feeding to rabbits from the fourth to fifth year of age (unfortunately, giant breeds of rabbits have a shorter lifespan, so we set them up for senior feeding from 3-4 years of age).

Some dwarf rabbits, on the other hand, need a transition to senior feeding only from the age of 8. We must always take into account how the rabbit behaves and looks.

Senior feed contains less sugar and protein (13%) to prevent obesity. Many of these feeds also contain the addition of glucosamine, which is beneficial for the joints. We also recommend reducing the protein content in rabbits with damaged kidney function.

Changing the feeding of rabbits from juniors to adults and from adults to seniors is done slowly and the change should take place gradually over the course of 2-4 weeks. We must not make sudden changes in feeding, even if it is the same brand or manufacturer of feeding as we have been using until now.

Feeding overweight rabbits

For overweight rabbits, there is a wide range of " light " variants containing a reduced amount of calories. Dosing according to weight helps to reduce and subsequently maintain weight at the right level. Once you reach your target weight, just increase the dose a little. It is not necessary to switch to non-weighted feed variants. Light versions of the feed also contain natural probiotics for the animal's digestive system and antioxidants to support the immune system. These diets are suitable for all overweight rabbits from the fourth month to the fifth year of life.

What breeders can trace from rabbit droppings

Rabbit droppings tell us a huge amount of information about their health. The droppings should be large, harder, the same size and shape. If you feed your rabbit more hay, the droppings are lighter in colour. On the contrary, darker droppings are found when feeding on fresh grass. However, they should always be the same shape and size. They crumble between the fingers and are stringy. In the event that the droppings are small, it points to the fact that this is an unhealthy rabbit with a slow digestion. In the case of intestinal stasis (slowed passage of the digestive tract), the rabbit does not produce any droppings. A healthy rabbit makes more than 300 droppings a day.

When you see the so-called "chained" bobs, it means that this is a rabbit that is currently shedding a large amount of fur. In this case, we recommend increasing the fibre content of the food, increasing the water intake and monitoring the droppings to ensure that the rabbit does not become dehydrated and has difficulty hardening. It is absolutely normal for rabbits to swallow hair when cleaning themselves and their companions. If the rabbit behaves naturally, eats and plays, it is not a pathology.

In the case of stasis (slowed passage of the digestive tract), droppings are irregularly shaped, hard, dehydrated, and lack fibre. If you are not sure about health of the rabbit, collect its droppings 1-2 times a day and compare them with each other. This allows you to determine whether the rabbit is sick or, on the contrary, recovering from stasis of the digestive tract.

Unconsumed caecotrophs (a rabbit's own gooey droppings) are a fairly common problem and cause a number of health problems. Sometimes it can be related to diet, other times it can mean that the rabbit has been given too many pellets and not enough fibre or has been fed some other inappropriate feed. Other causes include dental diseases, osteoarthritis, obesity, ingrown fur around the anus, stress, etc. If the increased amount of caecotrophs is associated with a dietary error, we recommend reducing the amount of pellets, increasing the amount of fibre in the food, limiting treats and unnecessary food supplements, checking the vegetables on offer (do not give carrots, fruit, ...).

What to remember for healthy rabbit feeding

  • The right food is the basis for the overall health of the rabbit.
  • The food of domesticated rabbits should imitate as much as possible the food of those living wild.
  • Feed the rabbits as much hay and grass as possible.
  • Think about feeding changes as your rabbit ages.
  • When feeding rabbits, remember the feed pyramid (85% hay and fresh grass, 10% green feed without fruit and 5% palletized concentrated feed).
  • Observe the rabbit droppings.

Disclaimer: This article is only informative and does not replace professional consultation or examination of the animal by a veterinarian. If you have any doubts about health of your pet, contact yours veterinarian immediately.

10.08.2022

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