By Dr. Susan Dyer

Rabbit nutrition is a very important aspect of rabbit care. Rabbits are considered a “hind gut fermenter.” They not only have a simple stomach, but have modified their cecum into a large compartment for the processing of fiber. Fiber does not provide nutrition; instead it provides a stimulus for gut motility. Because rabbits have such a specialized digestive system, the traditional diets that consist primarily of processed pellets made up of small fiber particles can lead to many health problems.

While wild rabbits prefer browsing on juicy buds and young leaves of bushes, they will also eat grasses, weeds, and bark. In captivity, a preferred diet for rabbits is a small measured portion of good quality pellet, timothy or local grass hay, and an assortment of vegetables.

Pellets should be formulated from timothy hay and have a fiber content of 18-22%. Alfalfa has an excess of calcium that can cause issues with urinary stone formation in some rabbits. Lower fiber content can increase the potential for diarrhea and anorexia. Pellets should always be measured, with lazy, overweight or under-exercised animals getting 1/8-1/2 cup per day depending on their size. For example, a 3 pound dwarf should get 1/8 cup, an 8 pound Netherland should get 1/2 cup at most. Pellets can be a source of obesity in rabbits when the protein content is greater than 16%. Younger animals can get pellets with higher protein and even utilize an alfalfa based pellet due to their higher calcium needs during growth.

Timothy hay fed freely to rabbits can help prevent obesity and life-threatening gut stasis. Stasis is a very painful syndrome in rabbits that causes them to stop eating and their stomach to start to expand from gas production. This causes a lack of appetite, no bowel movements, lack of energy and often tooth grinding which is a sign of pain. This syndrome is immediately life-threatening and should be treated by a veterinarian within 24 hours of any of these signs.

Greens are a natural way to provide more moisture and fiber to a rabbit’s diet. Greens should be introduced slowly to evaluate for any diarrhea. Once the preferred greens are determined, offer a variety of at least 3 greens at any given time to provide the best balance of nutrition. A list of preferred greens includes:
Arugula,
Carrot tops,
Cucumber leaves,
Endive,
Escarole,
Frisee Lettuce,
Kale (all types),
Mache,
Red or green lettuce,
Romaine lettuce,
Spring greens,
Turnip greens,
Dandelion greens,
Mint (any variety),
Basil (any variety),
Watercress,
Wheatgrass,
Chicory,
Raspberry leaves,
Cilantro,
Radicchio,
Bok Choy,
Fennel (the leafy tops as well as the base),
Borage leaves,
Dill leaves

The following greens are safe, but should be fed in lesser quantities due to the potential of the formation of oxalic acid, which can affect the kidneys when fed in high doses over long periods of time. Just provide one of these vegetables daily along with an assortment of those listed above.
Parsley,
Spinach,
Mustard greens,
Beet greens,
Swiss chard

Fruits are often offered to rabbits because they love them, but they are largely full of water and sugar, and lack much of the fiber and nutrition a rabbit requires. The sugars can act to change the intestinal flora and cause diarrhea as well. Feed fruits, root vegetables like carrots and potatoes, and flowers like broccoli and cauliflower in moderation. These provide a large amount of sugars with little fiber. For example, a 5 pound rabbit should get a 1/2 inch cube of apple or 1/4 of a medium carrot per day.

As you can see, feeding your rabbit can be much more complicated than common knowledge implies. With good monitoring you can avoid obesity and unnecessary abdominal pain, while providing your rabbit with a good variety in a high fiber and low protein diet. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you see diarrhea, inappetance or lethargy that lasts more than 12 hours or immediately if your rabbit is grinding its teeth, which is a sign of pain.

References:
Quesenberry, Katherine E. and Carpenter, James W., “Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents Clinical Medicine and Surgery” Elsevier, Inc., 2004.
http://www.rabbit.org/

Dr. Susan Dyer sees rabbits, dogs, cats, birds and other exotic pets at Stoneciff Animal Clinic of VT, Bradford, VT 802-222-4903 www.stonecliffacvt.com.