By Karla S. Rugh, DVM, Ph.D.
Posted: December 21, 2012, 4 am. EST
Rabbit Bender/Courtesy Christopher Mahoney
Hay is a must-have food item for all rabbits.
Wild rabbits eat lots of fibrous plant material: grass, leaves — even twigs — and small amounts of flowers, fruits and grains, when they’re available. This healthy natural diet is relatively easy to duplicate for your pet rabbit by using products that are readily available, namely hay, vegetables and leafy greens, and commercial pelleted feed.
Hay for rabbits: Your bunny needs ample amounts of fiber each day — it’s absolutely essential for proper digestion — and hay is the best way to offer fiber. Fiber ensures optimal motility (movement) of the rabbit’s digestive tract, which helps prevent problems such as cecal impaction (entrapment of digestive tract contents in the cecum) and hairballs (obstruction of the digestive tract by hair ingested while grooming). Rabbits that eat high-fiber diets are usually less prone to obesity, too.
Most hay is nothing more than dried grass (alfalfa, however, is a legume and contains some leaves). Hay provides fiber as well as nutrients. Most adult rabbits should be fed unlimited quantities of grass hay (timothy, orchard grass or brome) rather than alfalfa, which contains higher levels of protein and calcium. Juveniles, pregnant does and some senior bunnies, however, benefit from the added nutrients in alfalfa. Choose hay that is well-dried but fragrant, with no dust or mold. It’s OK if the hay is a little stemmy — the more fiber the better!
Vegetables and leafy greens for rabbits: You can feed your bunny veggies from your kitchen, as well as grass and certain plants (even some weeds; dandelions are a favorite) from your yard. Vegetables, unless organically produced, should be washed before being fed to your rabbit. Likewise, don’t feed your bunny yard plants that have been sprayed with pesticides or exposed to other toxins or pollutants. Feed at least three different vegetables each day to your rabbit.
Rabbit pellets: Pelleted food was originally developed to feed rabbits raised for laboratory use or for meat production. These products are convenient and offer nutritional benefits, but they shouldn’t be the only thing in your rabbit’s diet. Pellets contain fiber, but it is not in the form of large particles that the rabbit digestive system requires for optimal function, so pellet-fed bunnies still need hay. Most rabbits tend to overeat the tasty pellets, which can quickly lead to a weight problem, so pay attention to the amount of pellets your rabbit consumes each day.
Choose pellets that are low-fat (about 2 percent) with more than 18-percent fiber and 14- to 15-percent protein (16 to 22 percent if your bunny is housed outdoors, because outdoor rabbits tend to burn more calories). Ideally, the pellets should contain no animal products. For maximal freshness and nutrient content, purchase only the amount of pellets that your rabbit will eat within six weeks.
Water for rabbits: Your bunny also needs plenty of fresh, clean water every day. Water is essential for every bodily function, yet it cannot be stored, only conserved by somewhat limited means. Rabbits need at least 1 ounce of water per pound of body weight each day, and even more during hot weather. While rabbits do obtain some water from fresh vegetables, fresh water should always be available.
Excerpt from the Popular Critters® Series magabook Rabbits®,with permission from its publisher BowTie magazines, a division of BowTie Inc. Purchase Rabbits here.