Updated: Feb 13
We all know the importance of a healthy and balanced diet, and can easily distinguish between a healthy option and an unhealthy one, even if we decide to choose the chocolate bar over the apple. It can be much harder to make the correct choices for rabbits, especially when pet shop shelves are packed with unsuitable, unhealthy and, in some cases, dangerous feeds and treats. This blog will help you provide your rabbits with a healthy diet, which will have a positive impact on their overall health and welfare.
Obesity can be a real problem in our pet rabbits, and carries all the same health risks as it does in humans. A high calorie, sugar rich diet will lead our buns to become overweight and many foods we consider as healthy ourselves, are actually considered as junk food for buns.
We've all seen Bugs Bunny eating carrots, but carrots are actually like Mars Bars to rabbits. They are very high in naturally occurring sugars and surprisingly low in dietary fiber. They may be a healthy addition on our plates, but for our buns they should be an occasional treat and then only in a very small amount; a slice around the size of a 2p coin once a week.
Other sugary treats such as banana, strawberries, and apple should be treated in the same manner.
In addition to the pressures placed on the heart, bones, and other internal organs, obesity in rabbits also restricts their ability to reach round to their bottoms to eat cecotropes, as well as causing an overproduction of these smelly mucus-covered droppings. This greatly increases the risk of cecotropes getting stuck in fur, leading to fly strike.
We see a far greater incidence of rabbits arriving at the centre overweight, than rabbits arriving underweight. All have been overfed on a commercial rabbit diet and usually arrive with a full bag of carrots, and a bag of poor quality hay.
Keeping our buns at an ideal weight, where you can just feel the roundness of their spins, is vitally important for overall health. Feeding a correct and healthy diet is the best way to keep our buns slim and prevent all the problems associated with obesity.
Poor diets wreak havoc on the overall health of our pet rabbits and lead to frequent and costly trips to the vet. Obesity, flystrike, frequent bouts of stasis, and dental spurs are the most common ailments resulting from a poor quality, low fibre, high sugar diet. For optimal health and well-being it is really important for rabbits to receive a healthy diet to help minimise the above risks. It is also really easy, and inexpensive, to get their diets right.
Hay Hay and More Hay
80-90% of a rabbit's diet should be comprised of quality long stranded hay. In fact, hay is the only part of their diet which can, and should, always be available. For optimum gut and dental health a rabbit should consume roughly it’s own body size in hay everyday.
Why is Hay so Important?
Hay is the only way to maintain optimal dental health in our pet rabbits. Rabbits' teeth grow continually and are naturally worn down by the grinding action of chewing fibrous plants and grasses. Without this continual grinding action, molars quickly develop spurs, which will eventually cause painful ulcers.
Dental health is often overlooked and many rabbits end up suffering in silence. We see this all too often with rabbits coming into our care. Young or old, 1 in 3 rabbits require dental work to remove molar spurs on arrival, which could have been prevented with the provision of a suitable hay based diet.
Hay is a great source of dietary fibre and fibre is a vital part of a rabbit's diet. In fact their entire digestive system relies upon it. Without enough fibre, digestion becomes sluggish and rabbits enter into what is known as GI stasis. Poor diet isn't the only reason for stasis, and stasis is an emergency which needs urgent veterinary attention.
Stasis should really be thought of as a symptom to an underlying problem, rather than an illness in its own right. Something causes stasis, whether that's pain, a stressful experience, a blockage, or an unhappy digestive system, just to name a few causes.
So what exactly is stasis and why is it so dangerous?
Stasis is when a rabbit starts to refuse food, or stops eating altogether. Rabbits need to be constantly moving food through their digestive systems. In a nutshell, when a rabbit stops eating, the digestive system stops moving and essentially shuts down altogether. Once shut down, it doesn't restart and without food the rabbit will die. That's why stasis is classed as an emergency, there is a limited window to get the system fired up again and get things moving.
A healthy diet won't totally protect against stasis, but it does help to reduce the risks and reduce the severity of incidents.
Choosing The Right Hay
All hay will contain beneficial dietary fibre, but not all hay contributes to good dental health. Many of the bagged hays found on pet shop shelves will have been double cut, shortening the strands and reducing chewing time. For this reason we advise avoiding the common pet shop shelf offerings and sourcing your hay elsewhere. There are a number of options available when it comes to sourcing a good quality hay which will contribute to gut AND dental health.
The cheapest option is to buy baled hay from a local farm or feed merchant. Generally you will pay between £4-£8 per bale depending on your location and get 15-25kg of hay for your money. You can use this hay for eating and for bedding, with a bale lasting a pair of rabbits between 6-8 weeks at a minimum.
Not everyone has the space to store an entire bale of hay, or maybe you want to add some different varieties into their daily mix. In this case there are some great online companies offering a wide variety of hays. Although these hays will be more expensive than baled hay, they generally still work out cheaper when compared to pet shop hay.
A rabbit eating sufficient hay will produce large poos which are easy to crumble. They can vary between dark and golden brown in colour, depending on the hay and other aspects of their diets. If rabbits are producing small hard dark poos this is a clear indication that they are not eating enough hay and lacking in dietary fibre.
Although we tend to think of poop as pretty gross, it's actually one of the best indicators of overall health in our rabbits. It can tell us a lot about their gut health and how they are feeling in general. As a prey species, rabbits hide illness and injury incredibly well, they can hop about acting normally, but actually they are suffering from pain or feeling very poorly and we, as owners, have no idea. So don't just bin those poops! Have a look at their quantity, size, quality and consistency before you throw them out.
A good poop from a healthy rabbit should be large, golden to dark brown in colour, dry and easy to crumble and have a nice ball shape. When you crumble a poop, you should be able to visibly see sawdust like strands of indigestible hay fibres. There should also be plenty of them. Any changes from the above indicate problems. If size and quantity drop, this indicates that the gut has slowed down and the rabbit is going into stasis. This is the point when you make a vet appointment and this is classed as an emergency! Quick and prompt treatment at this stage can and does make all the difference to a quick and successful recovery.
Rabbits actually produce two different types of droppings. There's the dry ball like pellets we see in litter trays and a second mucus covered dropping we should never be aware of. We should never know about these poops because rabbits actually eat them directly from the anus. Known as cecotropes, these droppings are packed with nutrients and beneficial bacteria. When we haven't got our rabbits' diet correct, it's common to see an overproduction of cecotropes.
How To Feed Hay
We no longer recommend the use of hay racks and removed hay feeders from our rabbit units in early 2022, after we were alerted to new research via the RWAF, read the article here . We were blown away by the instant results when we offered a pile of hay on the floor in the morning. Every rabbit in the rescue ate from the pile within 1-2 minuets of it being offered and 80% of the rabbits were still eating 15 minuets later. The increase in hay consumption was evident the next morning when we came to clean enclosures and where cleaning up vastly improved poops from all! We now provide 2-4 piles of fresh hay every morning and all the rabbits tuck into their breakfast and will continually return to piles to graze throughout the day.
It is important to mention that we do not offer any other food items in the mornings other than a pile of fresh hay and on occasion a small amount of dried forage sprinkled over the top at around 1-2 tbsp. per rabbit. Over the years we have come to the realisation that offering other food items at the same time as providing fresh hay will limit overall hay consumption.
The Remaining 10-20% of a Healthy Diet
If you have had real issues with encouraging your rabbit to eat enough hay I would recommend that when stripping back a diet, you feed 90% hay, 5% pellets and 5% fresh foods and treats. If your rabbit is generally a good hay eater then you can opt for 80% hay, 5% pellets and 13% suitable fresh foods and 2% treats. The best way to monitor the amount of fibre being consumed from hay is via poos. If poos reduce in quantity or quality cut back on fresh foods and treats to a minimum of 5%.
There are lots of different types of rabbit feed available in pet shops, and just like the huge array of human food available in supermarkets, not everything is healthy.
When choosing a commercial feed the first thing to do is remove ALL muesli mixes from the equation. These not only encourage selective feeding, where a rabbit will eat the parts they prefer and leave other parts. They are also generally higher in sugars, packed with grains, and contain little to no beneficial fibre. Many owners choose muesli mixes as they seem more attractive with their bright colours, and are generally a lot cheaper. As many owners drastically over feed a commercial mix, it's not surprising that they are put off switching to a good quality pellet due to price. A balanced healthy diet requires so little commercial mix, that a 2kg bag of pellets will last 2 rabbits around 1 month.
There are two different types of pellet feed available: extruded and cold pressed. Extruded pellets are created via a cooking process and cold pressed are created using high pressure to squeeze ingredients together. Extruded pellets create a more side to side grinding action when consumed and cold pressed create an up and down chewing motion. As a result, extruded is generally accepted as the better choice for dental health.
The ingredients also need to be carefully considered when choosing a pellet brand. Many of the cheaper pellets use grains as their main ingredient and grains are low in fibre. To make the best choice for our rabbits we should select a brand which lists hays and grasses as the main ingredient. When looking at labels, the main ingredients are listed first. You also want to look at the fibre content which should be at least 15% preferably more.
It is generally accepted that the best brand for overall health is Supreme Science Selective, followed by Burgess Excel Light. Supreme now also produce a grain free version of their rabbit selective pellet which is also a good option.
A healthy adult rabbit rabbit requires 15g of pellets per kilo of body weight every day. So an average sized rabbit weighing around 2kg will require 30g, this equates roughly to 1 level tablespoon. This doesn't seem like much at all, but as the vast majority of their diet should consist of hay, this small daily offering of pellets is quite sufficient. It is best to feed this as a single meal, rather than splitting to maintain a high level of interest in grazing on hay for the majority of the day.
During our diet review in early 2022, we drastically cut back on commercial feeds after concerns over low hay consumption across the rabbits in our care. When we looked at what we offered we quickly realised that, over the years, additional extras had slowly increased to inappropriate levels. The rabbits where filling up on these extras, becoming too full to eat hay. We now only offer a commercial pellet once a day mid-afternoon as this fits best with our daily routine.
We believe that it is important to provide rabbits with a daily portion of pellets. To provide the correct nutrition via a pellet free diet is very difficult and will require owners to be incredibly dedicated and forage for a wide variety of different plants and weeds. Offering a small amount of pellets on a daily basis will ensure that your rabbits are getting the correct vitamins and minerals to promote overall health.
By far the best fresh foods we can offer are the plants/weeds rabbits would naturally eat in the wild. We are very lucky here at Nibbles to have forage available on our doorstep and we even grow some plants specially for the buns. We currently have raspberries (for the leaves not the fruits), hazel, willow, apple trees (for the leaves and branches), yarrow, dead nettle, bittercress, dandelions (leaves and flowers), cleavers, ribbon wart, bramble, rose, and hand picked grass. Not only is this a 'free' snack for the buns, but it's also really healthy.
Foraging can be pretty daunting when you first start out. Identifying safe plants can be tricky and it's easy to feel pretty lost and confused. But there's a great group on FB which can help you identify safe plants. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1652220135072671
It's important to choose where you forage very carefully. Many weeds and even fruit trees can be treated with pesticides, if you cannot be 100% sure they haven't been treated don't offer them to your buns.
How about creating a little section of your garden to grow suitable plants? If you don't have a garden, grow some plants in trays on the window sill.
Let's talk veg, buns really enjoy fresh foods and for many the easiest way to source fresh foods is at the supermarket. So what should you be choosing for the buns during your weekly shop?
The best thing by far is fresh herbs, parsley, basil, coriander, dill and mint make really healthy additions to a daily portion of fresh food. Rocket and romaine lettuce are also a good choice.
Veg like kale, spring greens, broccoli, sprouts, sweetheart cabbage and savoy cabbage are all very gassy foods. Some buns don't find this a problem, but for others it can lead to gas building up in their digestive system and lead to stasis. These items should never be fed in large quantities and should be completely excluded for sensitive buns.
Carrots and fruits such as apple, strawberries and banana should be considered as an occasional treat and not part of their daily diet. These foods are incredibly high in naturally occurring sugars and the equivalent of human junk food.
It's important to remember that fresh vegetables aren't a substitute for fresh grass and forage. They should not be fed in the same quantities as an easy replacement, but rather as a small additional extra. If you are unable to provide fresh grass and forage don't panic, your buns will be absolutely fine with a small amount of supermarket foods.
Treats and Extras
We all love to treat our pets, but it's important that we keep treats healthy. Thankfully, there are a lot of options now available to give our buns something special and not compromise their overall health. It is also important to remember that the definition of a treat is an event or item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure. If we provide our rabbits with a treat everyday, it is no longer a treat and becomes part of their daily diet.
Dried forage and flowers is a lovely addition, which can be sprinkled on hay, to encourage natural foraging behaviours. From dried plantain, nettles, dandelion, meadow mixes and flower mixes, there is plenty of choice to keep it interesting for our buns.
Science Selective now produces a wonderful selection of dried treats, and fenugreek crunchies still remain the most popular treat amongst our buns at the rescue. We hide these small treats in children's stacking cups, to help increase enrichment.
Many will think of willow balls as a toy rather than a treat, however, many buns will actually eat the willow. They do make a lovely treat and all our buns adore them.
Feed with Caution
Freeze-dried grass is another option to treat our rabbit. It is important to remember that this isn't a substitute for hay and should only be fed as a treat. Some rabbits, especially lops, can find this too rich and it will lead to an overproduction of cecotropes. If this is the case, it's best to avoid these grasses altogether. Rabbits should only be given a small handful once or twice a month.
Hay cookies are very popular here at the rescue, and the rabbits quickly devour them. Although they contain plenty of dietary fibre, they don't contribute towards good dental health. Pigging out on hay cookies leaves no room for their long-stranded hay piles! These should be offered as a rare special treat so we don't compromise good dental health.
So what items should we be avoiding and why?
First is muesli diets, these are commercial feeds made up of different grains and coloured biscuits. You can find muesli mixes which contain dried fruit and some are even coated in molasses.
So what's the problem with feeding a muesli mix? Firstly, they encourage selective feeding, where rabbits will pick out the bits they like and leave the bits they don't. This prevents them from getting a balanced diet, which meets their nutritional requirements.
Secondly, these diets are incredibly high in sugar and have very little dietary fibre. Sadly, we've seen the impact these diets have on long term health. Our lovely Zizi fed on muesli for 5 years has been left with diabetes. Tim who was given copious amounts of a fruity muesli has diabetic issues. We see rabbits arriving over weight, with mucky bottoms and terrible gut health. These mixes also have no benefits for dental health either and rabbits tend to pig out on sugar rich muesli mixes and completely ignore hay.
Many treats marketed for rabbits should also be avoided, one of the worst being dried maize, which is found in nearly every pet shop. Rabbits cannot digest maize, just like we can't digest sweetcorn. It has absolutely no benefit for our buns and, most concerningly, can lead to blockages in the gut.
Many other treats are high in sugar, some also contain dairy products and honey. Lots have whole grains which aren't good for our buns. This is especially true of many of the treat sticks, designed to hang on mesh.
We recommend that water is provided in a bowl, rather than a bottle. Bottles are much harder to drink from and harder to clean. Research has shown that rabbits tend to drink more when provided with a bowl, compared to a bottle and are therefore better hydrated. Using a heavy ceramic bowl will prevent them from tipping it over. We converted from bottles to bowls many years ago and certainly wouldn't switch back.
It's very important not to make sudden changes to your rabbits' diet, other than increasing the amount of hay offered. Suddenly changing a commercial diet or drastically increasing the amount of fresh food, can lead to digestive upset and stasis. When introducing new foods or switching brands of commercial feeds, it's important to do it slowly, gradually increasing the amount offered over a period of days.
I have in no way provided an extensive list of suitable fresh forage, fresh supermarket veg, or treats. Rather I have included items which are generally easily available. I would always recommend The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund for anyone looking for reliable and up to date information about rabbit care and welfare. Their website is packed with information to help you improve the overall health and welfare of your rabbits. https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk
This blog has been updated (Feb 2023) to include the latest recommendations, based on peer reviewed research, for optimum health and welfare. There is always something new to learn when it comes to keeping our furry family members happy, healthy and living their best lives.
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!