Rabbits LOVE to eat, this is a fact; however as carers, we must ensure what we feed is the best for them.
A rabbit is designed to eat grass first and foremost and this should be the basis of their diet in the form of hay or specially prepared dried grass, straw doesn’t have the nutritional value of hay.
Should I feed rabbit pellets or mix?
There is a baffling variety of dried foods available on the market for your rabbit, but some are certainly better than others. They can be separated into three groups, mixes, pellets and extruded foods. Many people are familiar with rabbit mix but not so familiar with its risks and downfalls. Rabbit mixes contain just that, a mix of different ingredients for the rabbit to choose. Although every rabbit is different, most will have a favourite ingredient and one they dislike; this can cause the problem of selective feeding.
Rabbit mix is only ‘complete’ (that is containing all of the required protein, carbohydrate, vitamin and mineral levels) if all the ingredients are eaten at once. When a rabbit has the choice it will often pick and choose the bits it likes best whilst leaving bits it finds less tasty. We as rational human beings can understand we need to eat a balanced diet with some foods we prefer to eat more than others; a rabbit however simply does not understand this concept. Imagine giving a child a plate of chocolate and a plate of boiled cabbage and allowing it to choose which they would like for dinner; I’m sure you can imagine the outcome!
Rabbits with their continually growing teeth, need to have the correct levels of calcium and phosphorous to prevent dental problems which makes the issue of diet even more important.
The high cereal content of these mixes can cause digestive upset in rabbits due to their high carbohydrate content. This carbohydrate can not only contribute to obesity but can upset the delicate level of bacteria in the rabbit’s gut, causing it a host of troubles, as can having too much protein. Remember, rabbits were designed to eat grass which is generally low in nutrients.
Rabbit mixes also sometimes contain whole seeds such as grain or locust beans which, when swallowed whole, have caused death in some rabbits. The exit of the stomach is smaller than the entrance, these seeds can therefore be swallowed whole with ease but then get stuck resulting in a blockage and eventual death as the hard seed is unable to be digested or leave the stomach via the intestines.
Pellets were originally designed for laboratory and meat rabbits and do provide a more balanced diet than the mixes. However unless they are specifically for pet rabbits, they often contain far too much protein and fat and can act rather like rocket fuel for rabbits! Rabbits fed entirely on an unbalanced pellet risk being obese with all its associated health problems. Obese rabbits are unable to clean themselves properly and can quickly become caked in droppings. This is especially dangerous in hot weather as flies will lay their eggs on the soiled fur. Within hours these eggs can hatch and the resulting maggots will start eating your pet alive!
Extruded foods are a relatively new arrival on the rabbit food market and in my opinion, are the best option to supplement your rabbit’s diet. They are extruded, meaning they are rather like a rabbit biscuit.
Being designed for pet rabbits means they have been made with your pet’s longevity in mind, having a suitable ratio of nutrients. Don’t be put off by the fact that they appear boring. Rabbits are grazing animals by nature and do not have the same need for a variety of different ingredients as do other small pets. Extruded foods are as a rule, loved by most rabbits.
Whichever food you choose to use it is important to remember to give your pet free access to hay at all times, I really cannot stress this point enough. Hay provides fibre, both of a digestible and indigestible form, this in turn helps to keep the gut running smoothly, preventing hair balls, feeding the ‘good’ bacteria in the ceacum (the rabbit version of our appendix), preventing blockages and helping to keep the teeth in trim. I really believe that rabbits should have a diet containing 90-95% hay.
Extruded foods or pellets do make up an important part of the diet and should not be left out, as a rule of thumb, feed ¼ cup of food per 2 kilograms of your rabbit’s weight. As with all animals, metabolism can vary from one rabbit to another, if your rabbit appears to be losing or gaining weight, vary the ration of this food accordingly, and NEVER ration hay.
Lastly, hay provides mental stimulation. Much of a wild rabbit’s waking hours would be spent grazing, to obtain sufficient nutrients. An average pet rabbit will eat its daily ration of commercial food in a few minutes. A hay based diet gives your rabbit something to keep it occupied as nature intended, grazing, helping to prevent boredom and its associated behavioural problems.