This is probably the most important thing to consider when looking after pet rabbits. A large proportion of the veterinary problems we see in rabbits are related to improper feeding which leads to dental disease, gut disorders and obesity.
Rabbits have a very high requirement for dietary fibre, and have a ‘double digestion’ system, whereby food material goes through the digestive system twice. They pass two different sorts of droppings: caecotrophs (sticky faeces), which are usually eaten directly from the anus, and hard, pelleted droppings. If the rabbits do not eat the first faeces (e.g. due to obesity, dental problems, arthritis etc..) then dietary issues can arise.
Rabbit diets should be high in fibre, low in fat, starch and sugars with a moderate protein level, and with an abrasive action on the teeth. The ideal food is grass and hay! These alone however, are not usually practical in a home setting, and so supplementary rabbit foods can be offered.
Museli type rabbit mixes are not recommended as these are generally low in fibre and allow selective eating, whereby the rabbit will choose which bits to eat. We recommend a pelleted diet as each pellet is the same, ensuring they eat a correct balanced diet.
These should still be considered ‘supplementary’ in that the majority (80%) of the diet should be fresh good quality hay, plus leafy greens and vegetables such as broccoli, cabbage, celery, and chard. Fruit and root vegetables such as carrots and parsnips, should be given as occasional treats only due to being high in sugars which can lead to dental problems as well as upsetting the digestive system.
Rabbit teeth grow constantly and need to be worn down by chewing. If rabbits do not have the opportunity to chew and grind down high fibre foods such as hay and grass, then the teeth will wear abnormally and mouth pain will result due to sharp edges rubbing against the tongue and cheeks. Dental treatment can help, but once dental disease progresses, regular treatment is necessary and even then the problem can get worse over time.
Lack of dietary fibre will also lead to boredom (not spending as much time chewing) and gut problems such as gut stasis (fibre is needed to keep the gut moving).
If a rabbit stops eating for as little as twenty four hours, veterinary attention should be sought as serious gut issues can ensue.
Diets should not be changed suddenly for the same reason – any changes should be made very gradually over one to two weeks.
Low fibre and high starch and sugary diets can lead to obesity – very common in pet rabbits. This will have knock-on effects with a higher risk of hear and joint disease, development of sores on the rabbit’s hindpaws, difficulty in eating caecotrophs, leading to more nutritional problems, the risk of fly-strike and so on.
Fresh clean water should always be provided, either in a dropper bottle or bowl. Care should be taken to make sure that this does not freeze if outdoors during the winter. Recent research has shown that rabbits prefer to drink from bowls rather than bottles, so bowls may be better in terms of maintaining hydration, as long as they can be kept clean.
Our healthcare plan the Lifetime Care Club for rabbits covers yearly vaccination, a Rearguard treatment, microchip plus discounts on food and neutering visit https://www.belmontvets.co.uk/lifetime-care-club for more information.
The Rabbit Welfare Fund also has some really helpful information on rabbit care https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/