So I thought I should chat a little about rabbit nutrition. This is such an important aspect of rabbit health that it really deserves a blog. It is also fairly uncomplicated to provide a healthy diet. In fact, a simple diet is better.
This is what makes up a very good rabbit diet:
1) Free feed (always have available) a good quality grass hay such as Western Timothy or Orchard grass. Avoid legume hays like alfalfa for your basic healthy adult rabbit as this type of hay provides more calcium and protein than needed and in some rabbits cause weight gain as well as poorly formed stools and excess cecotropes. Cecotropes are the night feces rabbits deficate and then eat. Yes, rabbits eat some of their own poop and this is normal. However if they produce an excess or they do not eat them all, it clings to the rear ends, onto the tail, and the belly. It smells aweful, it is messy, and often people think the rabbit is having diarrhea. So balancing the diet is one step to helping this issue.
2) A grass hay–as stated above. Grass hays have multiple benefits. It keeps the teeth healthy because the rabbits have to really chew and grind the fibrous stalks. This helps the rabbits wear down the teeth as they chew. Rabbit teeth are continuously growing and without a good fiber diet, teeth can overgow and cause huge problems–requiring veterinary intevention.
3) Did I mention a grass hay? Hay is also extremely important for normal gastrointestinal (stomach and intestine) motility. In fact, lots of hay in diet can help prevent hairball obstruction in some rabbits as it keeps things moving through at a constant rate.
4) Lettuce such as Romaine, Green leaf, Boston, Bibb. These are good sources of fiber, moisture, vitamins, and a source of enrichment.
5) Theoretically, pet rabbits do not need pellets, however, they like them and owners tend to want to provide additional enrichment. It is critical to not overdo the pellets. Pellets are highly digestible food (hay that his been ground and pelleted) so it just adds more calories to the diet. Too many pellets can lead to excess cecotrophs as mentioned before. A good quality pellet will have just a timothy based pellet with no added crunchies, fruits, seeds, etc. Less then 1/4 cup of pellets is recommended and in dwarf breeds, less than 1/8th cup is recommended. Speak with your veterinarian to discuss specifics.
6) Other treat options that are ok include: A piece of baby carrot or a piece of apple (about an inch in size of each) a few times per week.
Treats and foods to avoid include:
Significant amounts of fruits and high carb veggies (a rabbit does not need a full sized carrot per day unless it is the size of the killer rabbit from Monty Python).
Honey sticks, crunchy treats, yogurt drops, cookies, or any other table treats. None of these are needed in a healthy rabbit diet.
Obviously daily fresh water is critical. You do not need to put any vitamin or mineral additives in the water, the diet will provide enough.
Rabbits do not need mineral or salt blocks. In fact these can lead to medical problems. I had one rabbit that had an unusual form of bladder stones. After surgery, we had these analyzed and they were the same composition as the mineral block that the owner was using.
Owners often are concerned about how to keep the incisors (front teeth that are most visible) healthy and prevent overgrowth. A rabbit with normal occlusion in which the teeth align appropriately, should not need more than a healthy diet with lots of hay. Providing rabbit chew toys can be good for enrichment since rabbits like to chew through items. Rabbit hemp rugs, rabbit chew sticks and wood products are fine for them.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Now before you make any major change in your rabbit’s diet, you need to consult your veterinarian. Some rabbits already have teeth problems and will not eat hay so you cannot just change the diet cold turkey. Rabbits will also get very annoyed and throw tantrums if they do not get all of the treats they are accustomed to so you may have to slowly wean down the snacks. Always make sure your rabbit is eating well and passing normal sized stools regularly during any food change.
So the take home message on rabbit diet is lots of good quality hay , minimize the high carb treats, and offer plenty of water and some good low calcium greens/lettuce. A few pellets and a little carrot and apple can round out the diet.