Domestic animals cared for by humans should be offered a diet as close as possible to their wild counterparts. In the case of rabbits, they have a digestive system that is specifically developed to make use of a nutrient-poor and fibrous plant diet. Their entire feeding strategy and behaviour is adapted towards nutrition based on grass, and the domesticated rabbit is dependent on nourishment derived from hay, various types of grass, forbs, herbs and leaves.
Since most people do not have fields and pastures where they can collect the necessary amount of diverse grasses on a daily basis, the rabbit’s needs
will not be covered by just feeding hay. However, hay should always form the greatest proportion of the diet, with a limited amount of high-fibre pellets or nuggets for mineral and vitamin supplementation.
Most illnesses that affect domesticated rabbits are a direct or indirect result of a suboptimal environment and nutrition. Incorrect diet, a lack of access to sufficient space to exercise, inappropriate substrate, predators and other environmental problems will inevitably predispose to a variety of disorders. It is therefore important to understand the rabbit’s nutritional needs and natural habitat in order to offer the rabbit a suitable life in a domestic setting. Knowledge of rabbit behaviour is also necessary to detect subtle symptoms of disease and digestive problems at early onset, which is vital in addressing these issues early enough to implement effective therapy.
The hay offered should be of high nutritional quality, and one can evaluate it by its feel, smell and appearance. The same holds for judging the hygienic quality, and the hay should never be mouldy or dusty.
Variety and selective feeding
Variety is the spice of rabbit life, and offering different hays will ensure both nutritional diversity and enrichment for herbivores. Rabbits, like many other herbivores, have evolved to differentiate and select high-energy items, to provide energy for growth, activity and reproduction. However, this food selective mechanism causes concerns when domesticated rabbits are offered high-energy diets or large amounts of vegetables and fruit since the animal will consequently choose these high-energy foods above hay
and grass. By providing herbivores with a diversity of hay, grass and herbs instead, one will experience a stimulated and curious rabbit that spends more time eating. Offering a variety of hay gives the rabbit the opportunity to feed selectively, which again will satisfy rabbits’ innate need to search for food. Both grass and lucerne/alfalfa hays are available, but grass hays should always be the main diet for adult rabbits, and timothy hay is the best. Lucerne/alfalfa hay contains more calcium and protein and is only suitable for growing rabbits or as a tasty treat. Due to the rabbit’s unusual calcium metabolism, a diet high in protein and calcium is not advisable for
adult rabbits, as this may lead to urinary calcium sludge.
Knowing that the rabbit is a selective feeder, as described above, explains why it is necessary to replace hay on a daily basis. Uneaten old hay must
be removed and replaced with a fresh supply.
In the corner of the litter tray. Note that rabbits can urinate on the hay in the litter tray, and that whilst this might be an ideal and preferred substrate to encourage the use of the litter tray, one must always make sure to provide hay for eating in an alternative appropriate way.
How much pellets/nuggets?
Pellets/nuggets are only supplementary food and should only be provided in a limited amount. A quantity of 20–25 g/kg ideal body weight is enough, and this is normally only a couple of tablespoons a day. This means that a rabbit weighing 2 kg only needs 40–50 g per day. Rabbits will not eat enough hay if offered excessive amounts of other foods, and it is therefore extremely important to follow these instructions. Eating enough hay is crucial for the correct chewing action and wearing down of the teeth.
Choosing supplementary food
There is a huge and varied range of food intended for rabbits, but historically there has mostly been a poor range of balanced diets on the market, which fortunately has improved recently. Muesli, mixes for rodents and grain-based diets have been marketed as proper rabbit food, while this is highly unsuitable for the species. When marketing cannot be trusted,
it will be troublesome to understand what to shop for rabbit. We will therefore introduce some guidelines for how to choose your rabbits’ dried food.
Why offer pellets/nuggets in a bowl? Based on the rabbit’s natural behaviour and feeding strategy, it is more stimulating and entertaining
to search for the food. It is possible to increase foraging behaviour by providing pellets/nuggets in a treat ball or by spreading them on the floor, in a basket with hay or around the room.
People with companion rabbits often think it is sad to see an empty food bowl. However, everyone with rabbits needs to know that it is in the rabbit’s best interest to gain a restricted and limited amount of supplementary food such as pellets. Even though they seem to lose their head when finally served pellets, it does not mean they are starving. With constant access to fresh hay and water, they are provided with necessary nutrition. Most illnesses that affect domesticated rabbits are a direct or indirect result of incorrect nutrition, so think of wild rabbits when you give your companion rabbit food.