Updated: Dec 2, 2022
If you've been following our Facebook page recently, you'll be aware of our recent tooth fairy appeal. We've recently had an influx of buns needing urgent dental work. Molar spurs are now so common in our new arrivals that it affects roughly 1 in every 3 rabbits coming into our care. While we've had a few with congenital misalignments, most could have been prevented with a correct diet.
Hay is the most important (and vital) part of a rabbit's diet. There should always be hay available, and rabbits should consume roughly their own body size in hay everyday.
Why is hay so important?
Hay is the best way to maintain optimum dental and gut health. Rabbits are furry fibre digesting poop factories, and perfectly adapted to continually chew on fibrous grasses. As domestic pets, we must provide rabbits with unlimited access to good quality long-stranded hay to keep teeth, tums and bums in good shape.
Rabbits need to be continually moving food through their digestive tract. If gut mobility slows down, rabbits enter into 'stasis' which is a serious and life threatening condition. If a rabbit stops eating this is an emergency and requires immediate veterinary attention. Every moment you wait significantly increases the risk of the gut stopping altogether and the rabbit not making it through the other side. Stasis isn't really an illness in itself, but rather a symptom of something else being wrong. As a prey species rabbits hide illness and injury really well, stasis can be a sign of a greater problem, it can also be triggered by stress. With this in mind, it's vital that a rabbit with stasis is seen by an experienced and knowledgeable vet.
Hay is an amazing fibre source and helps to keep tummies healthy and gut mobility at an optimum level. With good gut health and mobility the risk of stasis can be decreased and this reduces the risk of needing veterinary treatment, especially costly out of hours emergency treatment.
The best way to monitor gut mobility is via droppings, most specifically their number, size and consistency. A healthy rabbit should produce between 100-300 droppings in a 24 hour period, with a healthy dropping being large and easy to crumble. A decrease in number, size and consistency is an early warning sign that something is wrong and treatment is needed. We check droppings every day at the rescue, any change is flagged and we can ensure that the rabbit in question gets any necessary treatment and close monitoring over the next 24 - 48 hours.
Rabbits produce two types of droppings, one is the round dry pellet we are used to seeing and the other is a soft mucus covered dropping which we should never be aware of. These soft droppings, known as caecotrophs, are packed with nutrients and healthy bacteria, and should be eaten directly from the anus. When a rabbit's diet is incorrect an overproduction of caecotrophs is a common problem. They will be found squashed on the floor and stuck in fur. Unlike the round dry droppings, caecotrophs smell horrible and this attracts flies. If caecotrophs get stuck to the fur around bottoms the risk of flystrike is VERY high. Flies will be attracted to the smell of the caecotrophs, they will land on the rabbit and lay eggs. In hot weather these eggs can hatch into maggots in a matter of hours. The maggots will eat the caecotrophs before starting to eat the flesh of the rabbit. Yep, they will literally eat the rabbit alive. Flystrike is serious and once again requires immediate veterinary treatment. You should NEVER wash a rabbit with flystrike, each maggot needs to be removed with tweezers and this needs to be done in a veterinary setting allowing the wounds to be appropriately treated.
An overproduction of caecotrophs is linked with diets which are high in nutrients and sugars. Grass isn't very nutritious, and therefore rabbits need to eat a lot of grass to gain the nutrition they need. They have become perfectly adapted to survive, grow and breed (like rabbits), on what is considered as a low nutrient diet. As pets, owners regularly over feed commercial diets, leading to a nutrient rich diet, which is the exact opposite of what rabbits are naturally designed to digest.
Nathan was surrendered into our care with a history of a 'mucky bottom'. He arrived with a bag of muesli feed and a bag of pet shop bought hay. We immediately dumped the muesli and switched him to 2 fibafirst sticks in the morning and a tablespoon of Science Selective pellets in the afternoon. He was also provided with unlimited access to hay. In the first 24 hours, he continued to over produce caecotrophs and we were closely monitoring his bottom, much to his disgust. By the following morning the overproduction stopped and since this time we haven't found a single uneaten caecotroph. The only change we made was dietary and he went from a bun with a serious flystrike risk to a bun with a low flystrike risk. Unsurprisingly, Nathan also required a dental to remove molar spurs and is now much better at consuming hay.
Muesli mixes are an utter disaster for long term health. We see it time and time again, Zizi has been left with long term diabetes, Tim and Jack have diabetic issues and Nathan was at serious risk of flystrike. All brought about by poor diets. Please bin the muesli and choose a quantity pellet feed instead.
Never overfeed a commercial pellet, the recommendation is 15g per kg of body weight per day. This small daily offering provides our buns with all the vitamins and materials they require to stay healthy. When we feed too many we overload their systems and cause long term health problems.
Rabbits have two different kinds of teeth: incisors at the front and molars at the back. Incisors are like scissors, designed to cut grass which is then pushed back to the molars with the tongue. The molars or cheek teeth are like the grinding stones in a flour mill. They grind down the grass to release as many of the nutrients as possible before swallowing. With all this work, a rabbit's teeth grow continually throughout their lives. This prevents their teeth from being ground down to nothing within a year or so. In the wild, a rabbit's average lifespan is 1-2 years, as companion animals it's 10-12 years. A wild rabbit is unlikely to suffer from dental issues, firstly as a result of their diet and secondly as they are likely to succumb to predation before a problem arises.
Poor dental health is a major issue for domestic rabbits and in the majority of cases the direct result of a poor diet.
Bonnie arrived with us as an unwanted pet at around a year old. We don't know her full diet in her previous home, but she's arrived already requiring dental treatment to remove molar spurs. It is highly likely her spurs are the result of low hay consumption.
Molar spurs are incredibly painful, with the sharp edges rubbing against cheeks and tongues. It would be like having a mouthful of razor blades and every time you chew it's going to hurt… a lot! These spurs will continue to grow without intervention, until it becomes impossible for the rabbit to eat at all. The best way we can prevent the development of dental spurs is to provide our rabbits with hay and ensure that they are eating it.
Even with the best diet possible, all rabbits are likely to require at least one dental treatment in their lifetime. It is really important that molars are regularly checked by a vet and for owners to be monitoring hay consumption and droppings on a daily basis. Catching and treating spurs early is vitally important.
I've talked a lot about why hay is so important, but said very little about the hay itself. Not all hay is created equally and it's important to provide rabbits with good quality long-stranded hay. Most pre-bagged hay found in pet shops has been double cut, decreasing strand length. Shorter strands need less chewing, less chewing leads to less wear on molars and increases the chance of molar spurs developing. Pet shop hay is also generally unpalatable and regularly ignored by rabbits. There's no point in providing hay that rabbits don't want to eat!
There are loads of different types of hay available from meadow, timothy, oat, orchard and rye. Not all of these will be found in pet shops which are most commonly only meadow or timothy. There is a difference between these hays, including palatability and nutrient content. Because we have so many rabbits at the rescue we buy baled hay directly from a local farm. This is actually the most cost effective way, with a bale costing between £3-£5 depending on where you live. If you have the space available to store a bale I would highly recommend finding a local farm or agricultural shop. Farm baled hay is generally either meadow or rye grass hay. While both are fine, meadow is generally better as it will contain a mixture of different grasses and wild plants such as plantain. We always provide unlimited access to farm baled meadow hay across two different feeders, giving rabbits 24/7 access to clean fresh hay. To help maintain good dental and gut health we also provide a small daily offering of stalky timothy hay from Haybox. We have tried other brands, but the overall firm favourite from all of our rabbits has been from Haybox and they devour their daily offering very quickly. You can exclusively provide timothy hay, but with so many rabbits here cost is prohibitive, even with a small offering we get through 15kg every 2½ - 3 weeks. We also buy in orchard hay, which has a higher nutrient content and softer strands for our rabbits with dental problems, and rabbits who need to gain weight or need more encouragement swapping on to a healthy diet.
We used to recommend hay racks, however, we were altered to a recent piece of research that suggested that rabbits will eat more hay when placed on the ground. So we gave it a try ourselves and where blown away by the results. Within a couple of minutes all of our rabbits started to eat the hay and over half of the rabbits where still eating from the pile 10 minuets later. We've now removed all our hay racks, and provide two piles of hay within each enclosure, hay consumption and poo quality has increased across the board. We have also stopped feeding anything other than fresh hay in the morning, and providing a pellet feed with a small amount of veg at around 4pm in the afternoon. Even our most finicky of buns now tuck into their hay first thing with gusto.
When hay isn't hay
Hay cookies are a great example, yes they are made from compressed hay, yes they contain beneficial fibre for tums and bums but they don't help with dental health. They make a great occasional treat but they should never be the only source of hay.
Alfalfa hay must be fed with caution as it's very high in calcium. Rabbits metabolise calcium through their bladders and excrete the excess via their urine. If you've ever found a cloudy milky patch in the litter tray, this is evidence of a calcium rich diet. Too much calcium in the diet can lead to urinary tract problems with sludge building up in the bladder. Alfalfa hay can be given in small amounts as an occasional treat but should never be the only hay source.
Freeze Dried Grass - Hang on, isn't hay dried grass? Yes, it is, but it's been made differently from products such as Readigrass and Graze On. Hay is left to dry naturally in the field after cutting, but dried grass products are dried using low temperatures. This removes the water but leaves behind the high nutrient content of fresh grass. Some rabbits can find these products too rich and lead to an overproduction of caecotrophs, oddly we find this most common in mini and dwarf lops. We do on occasion offer our rabbits a small amount of Readigrass and have found that our more sensitive rabbits are happy with Readigrass Timothy. Due to the high nutritional value and short strands, freeze dried grass products do not make a suitable replacement for a good quality long-stranded hay. They are a great forage treat or hay topper but should not be fed in large quantities. We provide a small handful four times a week.
How to encourage your rabbits to eat hay
If this blog post has been a revelation for you and your rabbits haven't been eating hay, the first stop is an appointment with your vet. Molar teeth will need to be checked for spurs and any necessary treatment carried out. Rabbits aren't going to eat hay if they are in pain.
Providing teeth aren't the problem, the most common reason for rabbits not eating hay is due to overfeeding other elements of their diet. Pellets should only make up 5% of their daily diet, some people cut this down even lower. Pellets are essentially a daily vitamin pill to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need, 15g per kg of body weight is perfectly sufficient. If you've been filling bowls with pellets once or twice a day this will be the reason that the hay rack has been ignored.
Grazing on grass is great, but we mostly keep our lawns short, short strands need less chewing and for optimum dental health we want to encourage lots and lots of chewing. Remember, wild rabbits have a much shorter life span compared to our domestic pet rabbits, we need to encourage lots of chewing over years. 5% of their diet should be fresh foods such as fresh grass, safe plants and weeds, and a small amount of veg. We are also adding treats into this 5%.
The remaining 90% of a rabbit's diet should be hay, hay and more hay. Try different types of hay, many online retailers offer free samples for your buns to try. You can find our recommended retailers list here. If you want more information on providing your buns with a healthy diet please hop over and check out our blog article.
If you have found this article helpful, please consider making a donation towards our work at Nibbles. We are West Wales' only specialist rabbit and rodent rescue and totally reliant on donations and fundraising to keep the centre open and running. We can't do what we do, without the support from wonderful people just like you!