By Jake Brandvold, DVM
As a small animal veterinarian with an interest in exotic mammals, I get to see and treat a wide variety of species. One species that is particularly popular this time of year is the humble bunny rabbit. Easter was just last month and little baby cottontails are out in abundance. The baby domestic bunnies down at the feed store certainly are cure. But, that cute little baby fluff-butt will soon grow in to a lively family pet with specific needs to live a healthy life.
There is a lot of variability in rabbit size and shape, from the Netherland Dwarf Rabbit to the Flemish Giant. Other breeds include the Holland Lop, Angora rabbit, Mini Rex, English Lop, Lionhead, French Lop, American Fuzzy Lop, Jersey Wooly, Checkered Giant Rabbit, English Spot, etc… And while these different rabbit breeds may differ in appearance, there are many aspects of their care that remain the same across all breeds. In my opinion, one of these is rabbit dietary requirements.
Rabbit nutrition is very important for their overall health – just like the food that you and I put in our bodies is very important. There are many diseases that can be prevented in rabbits, if we put in the time and effort to feed them an appropriate diet.
Rabbits are herbivores – specifically, they are monogastric, and hindgut fermentors. The specificity of their gastrointestinal tracts results in specific dietary requirements. The most important part of a rabbit’s diet is hay. Specifically, Timothy or orchard grass hay. About 80% of a rabbit’s diet should be Timothy or grass hay – which means that rabbits should essentially be free-fed hay at all times. Hay is important for vitamins and nutrients, maintaining appropriate digestion, and teeth health. Rabbits that do not have constant access to timothy hay will develop diseases of their teeth – they need the high fiber in the hay to grind down their constantly growing teeth.
What about alfalfa hay? No. Stay away from alfalfa hay unless your rabbit is very young or pregnant. Alfalfa contains high levels of calcium, which can predispose rabbits to developing bladder stones!
Another part of a rabbit’s diet is commercial rabbit pellets. They should comprise 10% of the diet and should be a timothy pellet (not alfalfa). Avoid pellets with seeds, nuts, sugars, or dyes. Feeding too much of a pelleted diet can cause diarrhea, so I recommend only feeding ¼ cup per 6 pounds body weight per day.
The final 10% of a rabbits diet should be made up of fresh vegetables and greens. Leafy greens: Romaine/red leaf/green leaf lettuce, parsley, bok choy, dandelions. Non-Leafy greens: carrots, broccoli, celery, squash. Rabbits should be fed 1 cups of fresh veggies and leafy greens per 3 pounds body weight per day. But be careful: too many veggies can cause diarrhea!
Finally, fruit. Fruit should be fed only very occasionally and only as a snack. Fruits like pineapple, banana, and apples are fine, but only in very small amounts. One small piece 2-3 times per week. Fruit is high in sugar and rabbits have difficulty digesting it. Too much sugar will lead to obesity.
One more thing about rabbit nutrition. Make sure your rabbit always has access to clean, fresh water, and because water bottles are prone to bacterial growth, wash them out at least once per week.
The last thing about rabbits that we need to keep in mind about what they eat is kind of gross but it is a VERY important part of rabbit nutrition. Night pellets! Night pellets are a special kind of poop that is different from rabbit’s normal feces, and they will eat them to absorb more nutrition from the pellet. That’s right. Your cute little fluffy baby bunny eats its own poop.
Keep these suggestions in mind and follow a specific feeding plan with your pet bunny, and you should be able to minimize the risk of nutrition-related disease.