What does a rabbit eat? Carrots? Fruits, grains and vegetables other than carrots? Sure, rabbits like these dietary options, but these types of food don’t match the diets of free-ranging rabbits and consumption of too much of any of these foods can lead to problems. Fruits and nonleafy vegetables contain high levels of sugars and grains also contain high levels of starch. Excess starch or sugars in the rabbit gut induces rapid growth of microbes that produce toxins that cause inflammation of the small intestine (enteritis), which results in diarrhea and could ultimately end in death (1). So, if picking fresh grass every day isn’t a viable option and if fruits, grains and vegetables aren’t recommended as the sole dietary components for rabbits, what should they be fed? A basic understanding the rabbit’s digestive system will lead to proper diet selection.
Rabbits are nonruminant herbivores with digestive systems that are similar to horses. A rabbit has a simple stomach and an enlarged cecum and colon populated with microbes that are capable of fermenting fibrous feedstuffs (1). Rabbits practice coprophagy – they eat their feces. This practice enhances digestion of the diet and is a completely normal part of the rabbit’s digestion process. Because rabbits are hindgut fermenters that practice coprophagy, they can be fed low-grain, high-fiber diets.
Many commercial rabbitries feed alfalfa-based pelleted complete diets. These pellets contain ground alfalfa and other ingredients that are mixed such that they provide all of the nutrients that a rabbit needs. A pelleted diet can be purchased at feed stores and fed to pet rabbits. However, in addition to a pelleted diet, rabbits should also be fed hay. The large, indigestible feed particles that are ingested when rabbits are fed hay are important for maintaining gastrointestinal health, enhancing gut motility, and reducing fur chewing (2). In addition, the tooth-to-tooth contact that occurs when hay is chewed promotes better dental health (2) and reduces boredom.
Alfalfa Hay can be fed to growing rabbits because their requirements for protein, energy and calcium are higher than what an adult rabbit needs. Alfalfa Hay shouldn’t be fed to adult rabbits because it contains too much protein and calcium and prolonged consumption may result in kidney damage. Timothy Hay, on the other hand, with moderate levels of protein and calcium, is an excellent roughage choice for adult rabbits. Timothy Hay and other grass hays for use in rabbit diets should be as dust free as possible, should contain no mold and very little weeds or other contaminants, and should be slightly green and smell sweet (2).
Have you found a good feeding plan for your rabbits? Share with us in the comments!
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(1) Irlbeck, N.A. 2001. How to feed the rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) gastrointestinal tract. J. Anim. Sci. 79(E. Suppl.):343-346.
(2) Clauss, M. 2012. Clinical technique: Feeding hay to rabbits and rodents. J. Exotic Pet Med. 21:80-86.