Rabbits are herbivorous, which simply means that they consume only plant materials and no meats. A rabbit is perfectly designed for the digestion of grasses, vegetables, herbs etc. Keeping that in mind, the rabbit is very hardy. Giving your rabbit sugary, starchy or any other man made foods will upset the gut flora, which will result in a very sick rabbit and even death.
Rabbits produce their own “vitamins” in their cecum. The cecum is located at the junction of the large and small intestine. In here is where all the good bacteria live. When the process is complete, voila’ out comes the vitamin pill. Usually rabbit owners do not see that type of fecal matter since the rabbit eats it straight from the anus. These feces are usually produced 4 hours after a meal and contain live and dead bacteria as well as vitamins and yeast. They are small, smelly, moist, and are grouped in a cluster. These are also known as night feces. We call these cecotrophs. The other pea sized feces are the ones we see all the time. This is the trash so to speak. These contain the indigestible stuff that goes straight through the colon. If we feed our little friend(s) too much of starchy or sugary foods (that includes fruits), it will cause the natural balance of good bacteria in the cecum to be off, leading in health problems and even death.
What is GOOD for my rabbit?
Fresh greens & fruits
All dark green/red lettuce, certain vegetables, some fruits and grasses from your kitchen or the garden. Store bought food should always be washed before feeding to make sure no pesticide residue is left. If you pick greens for your rabbit from outside, make sure it is has not come in contact with pesticides or weedkillers. The darker the greens, the more nutritious and healthier they are. Romaine lettuce is not very nutritious but all right to feed for the short term if nothing else is available. Iceberg lettuce is a no-no. It can cause diarrhea. Celery, carrots (in moderation, high in sugar), kale, parsley, cilantro, endive, dill and basil are all good choices. Be careful with broccoli and kale. It can cause gas in some rabbits, which is very painful to rabbits and can lead to death. Some herbs, like parsley, should be fed once a week to help detoxify the body. Be careful with feeding some herbs, as they can have certain effects on your rabbit, just like they do in humans.
Spinach is high in calcium, which is good for young growing rabbits or nursing does, but too much calcium in adult rabbits can cause bladder sludge. Apple and Papaya seeds need to be removed before feeding to rabbits. For a list of good foods see our pamphlet of GOOD FOOD CHOICES AND BAD FOOD CHOICES.
Besides fresh greens daily, the most important item a rabbit needs to have is unlimited quantities of the right kind of hay. It cannot be stressed enough the importance of hay to a rabbit. It keeps the teeth short and the gut moving. If the movement of the gut slows or stops completely, it can cause a very expensive vet bill or even death. SO FEED HAY EVERY DAY ALL DAY! Alfalfa hay is good for young rabbits and sick ones or older ones that are not eating enough hay. The main best hay for adult rabbits is timothy hay. There are also other good grasses out there, but can mostly only purchased through the internet or mail. Pet stores usually carry only Alfalfa and Timothy hay.
Pellets should be chosen with great care. There are many commercial pellets out there but not all are a good choice. Some have too many seeds (too much fat) or the fiber content is not high enough. Remember this: Rabbits need lots of fiber. The fiber percentage in pellets should be a minimum of 18%, protein 14-15% and only 2% fat. Pellets were originally designed for meat rabbits, or those that were kept solely for eating purposes or laboratories. They were designed to make the rabbit grow big and fat fast for very cheap. Nutrition and long life span was of no concern since they were slaughtered and would not grow to a ripe old age. Now that rabbits have become more popular as pets, the industry realizes that rabbit owners are concerned about their little “Thumpers” and want them to live longer, healthier lives. Pellets have come a long way but still need improving. Pellets should be fed only as a side entrée and not as the main dish. Also recommended is the measuring of pellets. Rabbits tend to overeat and quickly become overweight. Give about 1/8 cup a day to adult rabbits.
Fresh water daily is very important. It helps the body to function properly and the food moving. Like all living things, rabbits need fresh water daily.
Rabbits are very hard to resist when they sit on their hindquarters and beg for a treat with their cute twitching nose and their big round eyes. Be aware what treats you feed your furry friend. Not all treats are good. Definitely stay away from foods high in starch and sugar. Even treats from the pet stores need to be watched. Unfortunately the industry sells a lot of rabbit treats that are not very suitable. Yogurt drops would be the first worst choice. It says for rabbits, but if you read the ingredients label you will quickly discover the high sugar content, which we know is bad for the gut flora. Just like we do for ourselves, read the labels and be aware of what is in your rabbits food.
Make sure not to feed your rabbit molded or old, withered foods. If some mold is ever found in hay, throw the whole bag away and consider buying a different brand.
Remember that every rabbit is unique and has specific nutritional requirements. Nursing and baby rabbits need more calcium for instance. Older rabbits with a health problem have a totally different dietary requirement then a regular adult rabbit with no health issues. Be aware of your rabbits needs. Never be afraid to ask a rabbit-savvy vet for help or more information. Make sure to feed a healthy, balanced diet with lots of exercise daily and you and your rabbit are off to a good and happy start for a long term happy relationship.
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