Updated: Dec 11, 2020
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. But it can be harder to make the correct choices for rabbits. There are many health problems associated with poor diets in domestic rabbits and pet shop shelves are filled with unsuitable, inappropriate and, in some cases, dangerous feeds and treats. Many items are packed with sugars and even items we consider as healthy for humans, such as carrot, apple, banana etc, aren't actually healthy for rabbits, due to their high sugar content.
Poor diets in rabbits leads to obesity which increases the risk of flystrike, a very dangerous and life threatening condition. It increases the risk of dental spurs developing, causing painful mouth ulcers. There can be a reduction in healthy gut function, leading to frequent bouts of stasis and increasing the risk of intestinal blockages, both of which can be fatal if not treated immediately. It can also cause an over production of cecotropes (the sticky smelly poos which rabbits eat directly from the anus), which again increases the risk of flystrike.
For optimal health and well-being it is really important for rabbits to receive a healthy diet to help minimise the above risks and it is 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, be fed ad-lib. For optimum gut and dental health a rabbit should consume roughly it’s own body size in hay everyday. There are many different types of hay available, meadow and timothy being the most common. Timothy hay is a little sweeter and generally preferred by rabbits, but meadow is just as suitable. If you search online you can find a wide array of different hays and the only one which shouldn't be fed ad lib to adult rabbits is Alfa hay, due to the higher calcium levels.
Choosing The Right Hay
We would generally not recommend the pre-packed hay commonly found in pet shops. In the vast majority of cases the hay has been chopped, shortening the strands. Shorter strands take less time to eat and reduces the side to side grinding action of cheek teeth. Rabbits teeth grow continually and are worn down by the grinding action of constantly chewing hay and grass. When not provided with the opportunity to chew suitable hay, cheek teeth over grow and create sharp dental spurs which rub on their cheeks and tongues causing painful ulcers. Although dental spurs are very common in rabbits and some breeds are far more prone to dental issues, you can seriously reduce the risk of dental problems by providing suitable eating hay and save a lot of money on costly dental treatment. Chopped, short stranded hay is especially common with pre-packed meadow hay which can be very finely chopped, making it totally unsuitable for eating. There are some brands which do make suitable eating hay but these tend to be more expensive and it is far cheaper to order online with specialist companies and the hay is generally better quality. The other option, if you have the storage space and local availability, is to buy baled hay directly from a farmer or local agricultural merchant. This is by far the cheapest way and we pay around £4.00 a bale from a local farm to feed the rabbits at the rescue.
There are some great online shops which offer a wide variety of suitable eating hay. Some of these companies even offer sample packets. We recommend:
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.
How To Feed Hay
It is important to provide suitable hay feeders, this will help keep the hay fresh and unsoiled. As rabbits like to eat and poop at the same time it's a great idea to put a litter tray underneath a hay feeder.
You are going to struggle to find a suitable hay feeder in a pet shop. The vast majority of the hay feeders available are far too small to hold a sufficient amount. But there are some great hay rack hacks which are easily available and inexpensive. At the rescue we provide rabbits with two separate hay feeders. In their 'hutch' areas we have used wire letter box cages which are easily found on line. They have been screwed on to doors or hutch walls and have a flip up lid making it easy for us to empty and refill them. In the 'run' areas we have used wire hanging baskets held up by a simple screw in mug hook, again easily found and ordered online. Other people have used plastic bag holders which have been attached to the side of pens, hutches and runs. You can also buy some great handmade large hay feeders on ebay and from Manor Pet Housing. There are even 'hay bars' which have a built-in litter tray directly in front of the feeder.
Hay should always be available and any uneaten hay should be removed and fully replaced with fresh hay at least every other day. You don't need to waste uneaten hay from hay racks, as it can be reused in litter trays and sleeping areas.
How To Encourage Your Rabbits To Eat Hay
If your rabbits aren't eating enough hay there are a number of things you can do to change this. I would always recommend that you visit a rabbit savvy vet for a dental check before you do anything else. A rabbit with painful spurs is just not going to eat hay as it is simply too painful. As a prey species rabbits hide pain, and illness, incredibly well and even a trained eye can easily miss early signs that something is wrong. In a lot of cases a rabbit will only start to visibly display obvious symptoms when conditions are advanced and urgent veterinary care is critical. With this in mind, it is common for owners to be totally unaware that their rabbit is in pain from dental spurs and not just being a fussy eater. Once a vet has ruled out spurs, or if they have been discovered, the necessary dental work carried out, you can start to make changes to their diet to increase hay consumption.
One of the most common reasons for low hay intake is simply that owners are over feeding other elements of a rabbit's diet. Although rabbits are mini poop factories and can produce over 300 poops in 24 hours, just like humans, a full belly is a full belly, and they simply won't eat the hay as they have filled up on sweeter and tastier items.
Sadly we have a lot of rabbits arrive with us at the rescue who haven't been given constant access to hay or simply aren't eating it as they have also been provided with a huge bowl of pellets, whole carrots, and a variety of other unsuitable treats. We can tell by the consistency of the poos they produce in the first 24-48 hours in our care. By stripping back all other elements of their diet to suitable levels, hay intake generally increases dramatically within the first few days and poo consistency improves just as quickly. By the end of the first week they are producing beautiful large crumbling poos and munching through hay throughout the day without complaint.
We have had far more fussy rabbits who simply refuse to eat hay, and in one case, refused to eat anything other than very specific parts of a terrible rabbit muesli brand. He was a real challenge as he would go into stasis if offered anything else. But eventually we even managed to get him to eat his hay and more suitable pellets. So I'm a firm believer that it is possible with any rabbit. We managed to convert him in the end by mixing the muesli feed and pellets in a plastic container and leaving it on a radiator for a few hours. This transferred the molasses on to the pellets and gradually he started to eat the pellets. We did the same with the hay, allowing the sweetness of the molasses to mix with the hay. Very slowly, over a long period of time we reduced the amount of muesli mixed in, reduced the amount of time we left it on the radiator and eventually phased out the muesli altogether. This took over 8 months and to date he has been the most difficult rabbit we've ever encountered.
If you have ruled out or treated spurs, stripped back other elements of the diet and hay intake still remains low, try different types of hay. Mix and match and see which your rabbit prefers. Leave piles of hay around their enclosure; generally place piles in locations which will annoy the rabbit, such as tunnel entrances, and pop holes into sleeping areas and boxes. This encourages them to chew at the hay to get it out of the way. As they start to nibble at it to break it up, they will eventually start to eat it rather than drop it. Fill litter boxes with fresh hay on a daily basis and rather than flattening it down, fluff it up around the edges or in the middle so it is mouth height and do the same in sleeping areas. If all of the above fails, nip to the supermarket and buy some dried parsley, basil, and/or coriander, sprinkle this over batches of hay in a carrier bag and leave that on a radiator for ½ an hour to warm up and mix the flavours of the herbs. Slowly reduce the amount of dried herbs until your rabbit is happily eating plain unadulterated hay.
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%.
I've mentioned poo a lot already, rabbit owners become obsessed with their rabbits' daily offering as it's one of the best ways to assess overall health. A change in the size, shape, consistency and amount can indicate the beginning of stasis, dental problems, and other health problems which will require veterinary treatment. We become so proud of our rabbits for producing a batch of perfect poos, we'd be happy to display them on the fridge.
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