Your Bunny’s Diet

By Frances Harcourt-Brown BVSc MRCVS 2000

Correct diet is essential for your bunny’s health The digestive system of a rabbit is adapted for a fibrous diet, and indigestible fibre has been found to be essential to maintain good health in rabbits. ‘Rabbit Food’ in the form of mixtures of cereals and pellets are a convenient way of feeding pet rabbits but provide insufficient fibre and excessive amounts of carbohydrate. These diets allow the rabbit to select out its favourite ingredients, usually the cereals and peas, which do not provide sufficient calcium to maintain good bones and teeth. An alternative food that is available for rabbits are ‘Rabbit Pellets’ that are formulated for growing or breeding animals who have a higher protein requirement than the mature pet rabbit. The ideal diet for pet rabbits is a high fibre (approximately 20%), low fat (1-3%), moderate protein (12-13%) diet which contains sufficient but not excessive calcium (0.5%-l%) which is balanced with phosphorus at a 1-2:1 ratio. Rabbits housed indoors may not synthesise sufficient Vitamin D to absorb calcium from the diet as this process requires natural daylight. Dried vegetation such as hay contains Vitamin D, which is also added to the pellet portion of most rabbit foods. Picking out favourite ingredients such as flaked peas can lead to calcium deficiency and poor bones and teeth. Insufficient fibre can lead to digestive disorders such as hairballs and soft faeces that stick to the fur under the tail which can cause problems if the rabbit cannot groom properly because it is too fat or has dental problems, The practice of allowing pet rabbits to eat as much rabbit food as they like leads to obesity which prevents them from grooming properly and increases the likelihood of skin conditions and fly strike. Wild rabbits spend time foraging and chewing hard fibrous food. The provision of hay or grass provides pet rabbits with dental exercise and prevents boredom in addition to helping the digestive system work efficiently.

Some rabbit foods are designed to be fed as the only food that is needed by the rabbit. These foods will be labelled as COMPLETE FOODS not complementary. Complete foods contain a source of fibre and are well balanced provided the rabbit eats the whole mixture. If the rabbit leaves some of the food uneaten and selects out it’s favourite ingredients then it will be eating an unbalanced diet that can result in deficiencies, especially of calcium and fibre. It is important to follow the manufacturers recommendations and if the rabbit doesn’t finish its food then abandon that diet and choose an alternative Most rabbit foods are COMPLEMENTARY i.e. they are designed to be fed as part of the diet. It is a legal requirement for food compounds to state whether a food is complete or complementary and most rabbit foods are meant to be fed with hay.

Ideally rabbits would like to run around the garden, grazing grass, eating a wide variety of plants and vegetables and nibbling branches and bark from trees. They enjoy lying in the sun and also like a burrow to bolt into when they sense danger. Neighbouring dogs and cats are attracted to rabbits that are kept in this manner and so secure fencing is essential. Although this system would suit the rabbit, there are not many owners that wish to keep their rabbits in this fashion, especially if they are keen gardeners. Rabbits are very adaptable and may be kept in a hutch or even indoors providing they are fed correctly and allowed some exercise and the opportunity to play and have companionship from other rabbits or humans. Rabbits kept in solitary confinement in hutches are not happy although they can exist for several years.

Most rabbit owners buy their rabbit food from the local pet shop where it is sold loose with no information on the side of the packet. Rabbits enjoy the cereal portions of these mixtures especially if it has been sweetened in some way. Although small quantities of rabbit mixtures are not harmful and will satisfy some nutritional requirements, a diet of exclusively ‘Rabbit Food’ will lead to obesity, bad teeth and problems with grooming especially around the back end. ‘Rabbit Food’ from the pet shop with no hay or greenstuff is not good for rabbits unless it is a diet that has been formulated to be a complete rabbit food. Cereal mixtures or pellets should not be left in the bowl for the rabbit to eat whenever it wants because this can lead to obesity and selective feeding.

Cereal treats for pet rabbits are full of sugar and carbohydrate. They are like sweets for children and are not a good idea, especially if the rabbit is overweight.

‘Greens are harmful for rabbits, they cause diarrhoea and should not be fed’. This advice is given to many rabbit owners by pet shops or books and leaflets on rabbit care. Like many myths there is some truth in it as some green foods will cause mild diarrhoea, which lasts a day or so when the diet is changed. This is not harmful and will usually clear up on its own. Feeding hay and grass only for a day or two, or introducing small amounts of high fibre foods such as broccoli and spring greens to begin with will often prevent the problem. Some rabbits cannot tolerate certain green foods which should be excluded from that particular rabbit’s diet. The main culprits are succulent foods such as salads, lettuce and parsley or soft fruits such as pear or banana.Rabbits enjoy eating vegetables and fruit. The more fibrous the foods are, the more they enjoy them. Garden weeds, tree leaves and brambles, fresh and dried grasses are all suitable for feeding to pet rabbits. In general. rabbits will not eat anything that is harmful unless they are very hungry and there is nothing else on offer, so give them a choice.

Rabbits wear their teeth down by gnawing twigs. Hard foods and chews are good for their teeth’ Again, there is some truth in this as rabbits do enjoy chewing and gnawing but a high fibre diet that has sufficient calcium and Vitamin D is the way to prevent teeth problems.

Introduce new foods gradually.  Provide hay or grass every day, unless you are feeding a complete diet that states that you do not need to feed anything else with it. Even with a complete diet, additional hay, grass or vegetables will not be harmful. It is advisable to have good quality hay available all the time for pet rabbits. Stuffing the hay in a wide neck jar or using hay racks will prevent it being soiled on the floor.Feed a wide range of green foods and vegetables every day. Broccoli stalks, cauliflower leaves, cabbage, spring greens, sweetcorn, carrots, parsley, apples, sprout peelings, celery, pea pods, radish and carrot tops are all suitable. Swedes, spinach and kale can be fed occasionally (not more than once a week). Garden weeds and tree leaves can be fed to vaccinated rabbits; groundsel, sow thistle, plantain, ground elder, dandelions, docks, brambles, chickweed are all enjoyed by rabbits. Feed succulent vegetables such as lettuce and tomatoes in moderation.  Follow manufacturers instructions when feeding proprietary rabbit food. lf the rabbit does not eat all the mixture, change the diet.  If possible, allow rabbits outside to run around in natural daylight. Take care to prevent them from escaping or being attacked by neighbours dogs. Rabbits can be very destructive in the garden.  Feed small amounts of cereal mixtures only once a day and remove the bowl after a couple of hours. If there is food left in the bowl, feed less food the next day. This is especially important for rabbits that are producing soft sticky faeces or tend to be overweight. Hay or grass should always be available to stop them being hungry. Some rabbits produce red urine as a result of eating certain vegetables such as dandelions or cabbage. This is normal and not harmful.

Rabbits that have existing tooth problems or other related diseases may not accept dietary changes readily. This is especially true if the rabbit has a sore mouth or face. Chewing fibrous foods such as grass or hay may be painful and it can be difficult to make the rabbit accept a new healthy diet. Some rabbits will refuse to eat a new diet altogether. Although it is not possible to reverse many of the changes that have already taken place in rabbits with tooth problems, it is possible to strengthen the teeth and surrounding bone by ensuring the rabbit has sufficient calcium in the diet, vitamin and mineral supplements that contain calcium and Vitamin D are useful for rabbits that are finicky eaters or rabbits that have developed tooth problems already. It is important not to overdo supplements because rabbits that are given too much calcium can develop kidney and bladder stones. There are several brands of supplement which are suitable for rabbits. Follow the manufacturers recommendations and do not use more than one supplement at a time. Only use vitamin and mineral supplements if the rabbit cannot be persuaded to eat a balanced diet or if your vet has prescribed additional calcium and Vitamin D.

Like people, some rabbits convert food to fat very easily, especially if they lead an inactive life. Many of these rabbits tend to be greedy and enjoy their food especially the cereal mixtures and sugary treats. Ideally, these rabbits should be placed on a hay and grass only diet. Small amounts of rabbit food or a vitamin and mineral supplement should be given to ensure the rabbit is getting all the vitamins and minerals it needs.

Frances Harcourt-Brown BVSc MRCVS 2000