Rabbits eat grass. Unfortunately it is this simple fact about rabbits that is so frequently forgotten when we think about feeding our pet rabbits, and which can unwittingly lead us to cause our animals such tremendous pain and suffering.
Domestic rabbits do not differ biologically from their wild counterparts. Therefore the diet that we choose for them should not differ significantly from that enjoyed by their wild cousins. Wild rabbits are designed to survive on a poor quality diet, often living on sparce scrubland. Their teeth are therefore constantly growing in order to survive on this poor quality vegetation.
Like their wild relatives, our pet rabbit’s teeth are also constantly growing. Because of this, they need to chew large quantities of grass and/or hay each day to keep their teeth filed down.
A Rabbit’s diet should consist of 80% – 90% grass or hay
It is not just a matter of feeding lots of any type of food, which could very easily result in an obese rabbit, but it is the particular action of chewing the grass or hay that is important. When a rabbit eats hay or grass it grinds this course food between its back teeth which gradually wears them down. This is very distinct from the action of eating dried food which is crushed between the teeth.
A rabbits teeth grow at a rate of 2-3mm per week. Therefore to combat this they need to eat grass and/or hay for 6-8 hours every day. Where a rabbit is denied access to the correct amount of grass or hay, its teeth continue to grow until it develops sharp spurs on its back teeth which cut in to its mouth and tongue causing painful ulcers.
Because rabbits are prey animals they won’t tell their owners that anything is wrong. The first indication that you will have that all is not well is that your rabbit will stop eating. By the time a rabbit stops eating it is likely that it will have been suffering in a tremendous amount of pain for some time.
In order that the rabbits diet is formed of 80% to 90% grass and/or hay, all other food provided should be kept to a minimum. This applies equally to dry food. Traditionally rabbits were supplied with a huge bowl of mixed rabbit food each day ñ it then ate the bits it fancied (known as “selective feeding”) and the owner dutifully topped the bowl up the next day. To prevent this selective feeding, and therefore ensure a balanced diet for our rabbits, we recommend feeding pellets, rather than a traditional mix. We’re often told that this food looks boring which, I have to agree it does. However, it’s important to remember that the food in a traditional mix is coloured for our benefit, not the rabbits!
Mixed feeds also often contain a high proportion of carbohydrate and protein which fills the rabbit up and stops it foraging for hay. It is therefore important to choose a good quality pellet food which is high in fibre to aid digestion. These pellets should also contain vitamin D which is needed to absorb calcium.
As a guideline, a pair of rabbits in our foster scheme are fed pellets twice a day, in an amount to just cover the bottom of the food bowl one pellet deep. More often than not, the rabbits will eat all the dry food as soon as it is given, and then spend the rest of the time snacking on hay. This also helps to alleviate boredom for rabbits that might otherwise become destructive: a rabbit simply cannot eat too much hay!
To ensure that fresh hay is always available we recommend the use of hayracks, as well as using hay in litter trays, as bedding and even as toys (a handful of hay inside a toilet roll makes a very cheap toy for your rabbit to play with!).
Like all animals (including humans!) rabbits do enjoy treats. However these should not be given in excess as a rabbits attention is easily taken away from hay. Small quantities of fresh vegetables such as spring greens, fresh herbs and carrots all make tasty treats and these are by far better for your rabbit than many of the commercial rabbit treats found in pet shops.
You can also entertain your bun through food. For example treat balls can be filled with pellets instead of the usual bowl, or a carrot can be hung from the roof of your rabbits accommodation providing both dental exercise and entertainment.