Rabbits are a popular companion pet, not only in houses with backyards, but also in apartments and other places without access to outdoors.
As a mobile vet I have been into several apartments with rabbits housed in fantastic enclosures and also running free around the home. With domestication and especially in these kind of environments it is essential to have the appropriate diet to ensure they are kept in good body condition and importantly for general dental health.
Unfortunately the advice being given by many people about what rabbits can eat is leaving some loved pets susceptible to poor health and dental disease. Going into people’s homes allows me to really assess how these pets are being kept and give the best advice possible about their appropriate care.
If you remember one thing alone about rabbit husbandry make sure it is that they eat grass! Lots and lots of grass! Their gut is designed to break down the fibrous content of grass and plants and they get all the nutrients they need. Remember, amazingly, they even eat their own poo which gives them even more ability to extract every little nutrient out of their diet as possible. They do this mostly at night so you usually don’t see it (thankfully!).
Two of the most common foods that are incorrectly recommended as good for your rabbit are commercial pellets, and mixes with seeds and grains etc. The pellets were originally designed for laboratory animals to plump them up and for ease of feeding. Unfortunately these animals aren’t usually living for as long as our pet counterparts and so any negative effects of these foods are not often seen.
Pellets generally have too high an energy content which can cause obesity and often the calcium is too high as well. There are newer pellet products from companies such Oxbow which are much better quality for a pet rabbit but should only be used as a supplement or treat rather than as the majority of the diet.
Bags of mixes are not a natural diet for rabbits and can be extremely hazardous for their teeth. Rabbits on a seed mix diet are susceptible to developing tooth abscesses which can cause nasty problems including inappetance, pain, weight loss and even death. Often these abscesses are hard to treat, sometimes the best option being to remove the tooth if it is possible, and other times long term antibiotics are required. Rabbits teeth continually grow and chewing fibrousy grasses and hays ensure that they stay in good condition.
So what are the best foods for pet rabbits?
If you have a back yard then ideally they should be allowed to graze on the grass, as well as providing a good quality hay for example Timothy, Oaten, Pasture or Meadow hay. These should be in permanent supply. If you don’t have grass outside then the good quality hays are fine and also fresh clippings of grass if you can get some. These grasses and hays should comprise around 80% of their diet. Steer well away from Lucerne or Clover hays which are too high in protein and calcium.
Vegetables and leafy greens are also an excellent food source and should form the rest of the diet. Examples include broccoli, cabbage, spinach, carrot tops, asian greens and herbs such as basil, parsley, coriander, dill and other leafy green herbs.
Rabbits can be fed “treats” but keep these to a minimum. Treats include fruits and root vegetables such sweet potato and carrot and also rabbit pellets such as the Oxbow products, but really only a small amount per day. Remember also to ensure that they have permanent access to water and if grazing outside they must have access to shade especially in the hotter weather.
There are many aspects to proper rabbit husbandry and maintaining health, so I suggest that you ensure you have good quality reference material for more information – two excellent websites are Boing and The House Rabbit Society. If you’re not sure whether something you’re doing is Ok then don’t hesitate to contact me to discuss anything and I’m also more than happy to provide a house call and help you with your rabbit’s general health.
Don’t forget that a mobile vet coming into your home is great way to get an excellent assessment of how your pets are in their own environment. Rabbits make great pets in the right homes but remember that they have special requirements and need lots of attention just like all the other cats and dogs and furry pocket pets!