Rabbit diet and health
This information is aimed at helping clients on keeping their pet rabbit as healthy as possible by feeding a nutritionally balanced diet. Deficiencies of particular nutrients in a rabbit’s diet can cause specific health problems. The most important element of a rabbit’s diet is fibre. If a rabbit’s diet does not contain the right quality and quantity of fibre, it can suffer from dental and gastrointestinal problems. It is also important to include other nutrients in the diet, such as Vitamin A, Vitamin E and Calcium, which can help in the prevention of muscular, nervous and vascular problems, as well as the preclusion of uroliths.
In addition, the right diet is an important factor in helping to prevent the increasing problem of obesity. Some manufactured rabbit foods contain unnecessary levels of sugars to help improve palatability, so it is important to select a diet that provides the ideal amount of calories. In addition, root vegetables such as carrots are high in sugary starch, so owners that experience obesity problems with their rabbit should be advised to avoid such foods. Obesity can predispose to serious health problems including arthritis, osteoporosis, faecal retention around the perineum, urine scalding, Fly Strike and metabolic disease, so it is important for owners to keep an eye on their rabbit’s weight and feed an appropriate diet.
The natural diet
In its natural habitat, the rabbit eats grasses, weeds, leaves, and the bark of shrubs, bushes and trees. Recommending a natural diet raises a number of issues that should be considered when advising the domestic rabbit owner:
- Availability of good quality, natural grasses, plants and bark
- Risk of feeding poisonous plants
- Owner requiring a more convenient option
- The pet rabbit feeding selectively
- Owner’s propensity to ‘treat’, causing obesity
- Selecting food items the rabbit prefers, affecting nutritional balance
In an ideal world, a natural diet is the best option – but can owners realistically meet the nutritional needs of their pets in this way? It is often best to recommend feeding high-quality hay such as alfalfa (or if not available, Timothy hay), topped up with a higher quality, high-fibre extruded mono component food, which the owner can purchase from most specialist pet stores. In addition, it is recommended to feed a selection of ‘green’ foods daily including broccoli, cabbage, parsley, watercress, celery leaves, endive, raddichio, bok choy, dock, basil, kale, carrot tops and beet tops. Your clients can easily purchase these from the supermarket, but they should be advised to wash them first before feeding. Some plants (including lettuce), are toxic to rabbits, so plants not on the list above should be avoided. Fruit should be regarded as a treat item and fed in limited quantities only as it is high in simple sugars and can lead to gastro-intestinal disturbance and dental problems.
Extruded mono component food
Mono component nutritionally complete foods are extruded, pelleted or baked biscuits that contain all the nutrients a small animal needs in each bite-sized piece, to ensure that a balanced diet is fed and selective feeding is prevented.
Fibre – making the right choice
We know the rabbit requires high levels of fibre – at least X% – but is there a difference in the quality of fibre available…
Alfalfa is the ultimate source of fibre, with higher levels of digestible and indigestible fibre than grass. The plant structure and high lignin content of alfalfa is also beneficial in promoting dental wear. Alfalfa also contains very good levels of essential amino acids, which are the building blocks of protein. This is because alfalfa is a member of the legume family, which are capable of fixing their own nitrogen due to the presence of special bacteria that live in nodules on the roots of the plants. The roots of alfalfa plants can reach depths of 4 metres, which means they can pick up lots of minerals which, when fed as a hay or as the principal fibre source in a mono component product, are passed on in the rabbit’s diet. Alfalfa is especially plentiful in calcium, which is also essential to keeping a rabbit’s teeth strong and healthy. Alfalfa is also low in anti-nutritive factors and therefore enables the rabbit to obtain more nutrients than grass alone. It helps to defend against pathogenic bacteria in the gut and is lower in sugar than other forages to help prevent obesity.