Rabbit Nutrition: Ensuring a Balanced Diet for Your Furry Friend
When it comes to nutrition, rabbits have very specific feeding requirements, and in order to ensure a long and healthy life, providing them with a balanced and nutritious diet is essential.
What is the ideal rabbit diet?
There are a few physiological quirks which rabbits have and these have a significant impact on their daily dietary needs.
Rabbits need high levels of fibre for three reasons:
To keep their guts working efficiently
To wear down their teeth which are open-rooted and therefore continuously growing (if rabbits receive insufficient levels of fibre, they fail to wear down their teeth sufficiently, leading to malocclusions, or incorrect alignment of the teeth, which is a very painful dental condition)
To help prevent them from becoming bored
A rabbit’s daily diet should consist mainly of large quantities of hay, or dried/fresh grass which will provide them with the required levels of fibre, and should be made continuously available to them, day and night.
Leafy green vegetation, herbs, safe weeds and a small amount of high quality specialist nuggets/pellets should make up the rest of your rabbit’s diet.
Muesli is not recommended, as rabbits often “selectively” eat the more tasty components of muesli, and it can actually be very harmful to rabbits, leading to serious teeth and tummy problems.
If your rabbit is used to eating muesli, it is best to gradually wean them off it over a period of 2-4 weeks, allowing their guts to slowly adjust to the change in diet.
There are several nutritionally balanced commercial diets available for rabbits, and these usually come in a nugget/pellet form. They can provide essential nutrients which are not provided by hay alone, but it must be a good quality product, and a restricted amount should be given, to try and prevent your rabbit from developing serious health problems, such as obesity, and dental issues. Life-stage commercial diets are also available, as the nutritional requirements of young rabbits differ to those of adult bunnies.
Small amounts of fruit such as pears and berries are safe for rabbits to eat, but again, must be given in moderation and treated like an occasional “treat”.
Fresh, clean water is vital for rabbits and should always be available, as a rabbit not taking in enough fluid can become dehydrated and this often leads to various serious health complications.
We also need to ensure that our rabbits are getting correct levels of calcium too. Rabbits require calcium primarily for maintaining strong and healthy teeth and bones and whilst being important for young, growing rabbits, it can be equally important for older animals prone to metabolic bone disorders such as osteoporosis. Calcium is also needed for muscle contraction and nerve signaling, and it plays a role in the coagulation (clotting) of blood, and enables the release of certain molecules in the body such as enzymes and hormones.
Signs of calcium deficiency in a rabbit include weak bones and teeth, numbness, confusion and muscle cramps, but unfortunately, by the time these symptoms are noticed, there are often irreversible consequences.
Rabbits, along with guinea pigs, absorb calcium rather differently to other animal species, and at a level that is related to the amount offered in their food, and so even if they do not require any more calcium, they will continue to absorb it. Excess calcium is excreted through their urinary system.
When discussing calcium levels, we also need to consider phosphorus, as a proper Calcium:Phosphorus ratio is important to rabbits. Levels of both of these minerals are regulated by parathyroid hormone (PTH), which is released by the parathyroid gland when blood calcium levels get too low. PTH stimulates the release of calcium and phosphorus from that stored in the bones, along with a reduction in the urinary excretion of calcium, and an increase in the amount of phosphorus excreted by the kidneys. This is why a proper calcium:phosphorus ratio is required - to maintain proper blood mineral levels and to protect the integrity of bones (remembering that this also includes the integrity of the teeth). A ratio of 1.5-2 parts dietary calcium to 1 part phosphorus is what to aim for, although this may be slightly higher for young, growing bunnies.
Commercial pellets will state their calcium content on the packaging, and high-calcium greens and veg should be rotated and fed less frequently in order to balance dietary calcium concentrations.
What should you not to feed rabbits?
Avoid feeding foods with a higher content of fat, starch or sugar, as these can upset the finely-tuned digestive system of a rabbit, and can lead to obesity, which in turn puts extra strain on the bones, and joints of the body.
Some of the most common foods which must not be fed to rabbits as they are toxic to them, include:
meat, eggs, dairy products
This list is not exhaustive, and should any of the above be consumed by a rabbit, then you are urged to contact your vet immediately for advice.
The amount of food and drink your rabbit consumes should be monitored closely, and a change in these habits may indicate that your rabbit is unwell. Similarly, if there is change in urine/faecal output, this may also be a red flag, and in all cases, a vet should be consulted without delay.