Rabbit nutrition is vitally important for many reasons in rabbits. Getting it right from the start will prevent so many problems later in life.
Rabbits are classed as obligate herbivores which means that they rely on a strict plant based diet to stay healthy. They need a high fibre diet and can only get this from grass and hay.
The optimum diet for your rabbit consists of:
• 85-90% Hay/Grass
• 10% Greens & herbs
• 5% Extruded pellets or nuggets
• Treats are not required by a rabbit and actually can lead to obesity and selective feeding as with all animals so should be given sparingly
Hay is the main component of a rabbits’ diet and they can never have too much! Hay is high in fibre, moderate in protein and has low levels of fat, starch and sugars. Hay provides lots of long strand fibre covered in silica that is beneficial for wearing down teeth. Their specific chewing action combined with the abrasiveness of the silica keep rabbits’ teeth worn down naturally. Hay is also important for gut flora health and keeping it moving.
Did you know there were different types of hay?
Bedding hay – Cheaply manufactured, unknown nutritional value, less tasty and often a yellowy/brown colour
Feeding hay – Specially grown and harvested at the correct time for optimum nutritional value, smells fresh and fragrant, barn dried and dust extracted, tastier, high in fibre for gut health and often looks much greener and appetising!
Good quality hay should be dry, sweet smelling and free from dust, grit and mould. Buying ‘bedding’ hay in bulk is a good idea and can be bought from your local stables or farm but can also be bought from your local pet shop or online. Rabbits will eat this but it should be supplemented with speciality feeding hay that is more nutritious. These can be bought from pet shops, vets and online. Alfalfa hay is not a grass hay and is very rich so should never be fed in large amounts, it should only be given as a treat.
We use Oxbow Western Timothy hay for our rabbit patients, it smells delicious!
Pellets vs Museli
You will see two types of rabbit food in a pet shop, pellets or nuggets and museli. There is no comparison, museli should never be fed to a rabbit.
Museli is the ‘pretty’ bits in a bag. These are manufactured as they look more interesting to owners who think it looks better as it’s assorted ingredients make it look like they all carry different nutritional components for a balanced diet. Now that’s not technically wrong, it’s just that these diets are very high in fats and sugars and very low in fibre. A big no for rabbits.
Rabbits often make this worse by selectively feeding and eat all the bits that are higher in sugar and fat as they are tastier than the bits that actually do contain some fibre. If your rabbit is on museli how many times have you seen the brown pellet bits left till last and still there the next morning?! Rabbits fed museli are scientifically proven to develop multiple health issues including dental disease, obesity and digestive upsets.
Pellets should be the only food you reach for to include in your rabbits’ diet. Every pellet contains exactly the same nutritional content so no selective feeding meaning your bunny will receive all the nutrients it needs from the pellets. Remember pellets should still only take up 5% of the whole diet. There are quite a few brands on the market but we recommend Burgess Excel nuggets, Oxbow Essential pellets and Supreme Science Selective pellets. All have high (crude) fibre contents and have life stage foods too. If you are comparing different pellets remember to use the crude fibre content, it should be over 18% and protein should be between 12-15%.
All our rabbit patients are offered Burgess excel pellets and fed Oxbow Critical care alongside the rabbits’ normal diet (if it isn’t already this, to encourage them to eat).
Greens, Veg & Herbs
Fresh plants provide your rabbit with a range of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients as well as additional fibre. They also make your rabbit's diet more interesting by providing different flavours and textures, and give you plenty of scope for encouraging your rabbit to browse and forage in a more natural way.
Many different plants, vegetables, and herbs are suitable for rabbits. You can feed some daily, where as others, that are high in sugar or starch, should only be a rare treat. Aim to vary what you give them, and keep to small portions.
Check out the link below for safe fresh foods for your bunnies. It’s not exhaustive and the RWAF page also has a safe list but this one does separate out the calcium rich ones which is quite useful if your rabbit has bladder issues and useful to be aware of when formulating a balanced diet for your rabbits.
I’m not a big advocate for treats and none more so than rabbits. Rabbits are quite happy munching on their hay and greens and for them greens and herbs are treats. If you are doing all the above to make sure your rabbit is healthy why consider adding sugary treats into the mix to upset their guts or cause tooth decay?
That said there are a few treats around by the big brand companies that could be given sparingly that are basically freeze dried bananas or apple and hay. Some also do packaged herbs and these could be sprinkled on hay/grass to encourage foraging. Do your homework if looking for treats and avoid the pet shop milk drop type ones and cereal based sticks.
If your rabbit is on museli food trying to change them over to pellet food can be tricky but not impossible. Any change in diet should be done gradually and over a minimum of 10 days, 3 weeks is probably more realistic if they have been on museli for awhile. This is not only because changing over to a pellet form may not be quite as tasty initially for your rabbit as they are used to a high fat and sugar diet but it can also cause digestive upsets if done too quickly. A 10% change every 1-2 days is ideal. Day 1 you would give 90% old food and 10% new food, day 2 or 3 you would give 80% old food and 20% new food and so on until your rabbit is completely on pellets.
A slow transition to greens should also be adopted. If your rabbit isn’t used to greens or you are trying a new one this should be done slowly and introduce one or two at a time. Too much or too many greens and you will risk diarrhoea too.
We must not forget water in a rabbits’ diet, they need a fresh supply of water daily. Bowls are better than bottles as lapping from a bowl is more natural for a rabbit. It’s often a good idea to offer both, as both are not without disadvantages. Bottles can easily become clogged and tend to freeze in the winter months. Bowls can’t get clogged but they can easily be knocked over even when heavy ceramic bowls are used. Make sure you clean both regularly.
Water has a very important role in rabbits’ digestive tracts and bladders as with all animals. Ingested food needs to be kept moist so it travels through the gut better. If it gets too dry it will block the gut and cause gut stasis. Your rabbit will become more and more dehydrated and produce no faecal pellets. This is a life threatening emergency.
Water also plays a role in flushing out the kidneys and bladder. A rabbit absorbs every bit of calcium from their diet and although they need it for strong bones and teeth, they absorb more than they need. The excess needs to be flushed out otherwise it starts to accumulate and causes sludge to sit in the bladder and can cause bladder and kidney stones.
Clare Treacher RVN CertSAN ISFM CertFN
Registered Veterinary Nurse (RVN)
Certificate in Small Animal Nutrition (CertSAN)
ISFM Cert Feline Friendly Nursing (ISFM CertFN)