How you feed your rabbit plays a part in determining whether you have a top show prospect, hearty litters, and a happy, healthy pet.
A rabbit's primary food should be pellets — commercially made bite-sized bits of ground hay and other ingredients, vitamins, and minerals tailored specifically for the rabbit's digestive system.
"It should have a minimum of 16 percent protein with a higher fiber level — good, digestible fiber," advises Dr. Rob McCoy, a nutritionist and vice president of Nutrition and Quality Assurance for Manna Pro Products, LLC, which produces a wide range of animal nutrition and health products.
Each rabbit's nutrition depends on its life stage and intended purpose. Most rabbits thrive nicely on a diet containing 16 percent protein, such as Manna Pro's Select Series Pro Formula. Nursing mothers, however, need extra protein — about 18 percent — as do newly weaned kits, or baby rabbits. Select Series Gro Formula provides the ideal diet for the doe and her litter.
A quality rabbit pellet contains complete nutrition for the animal, which means that you don't have to supplement the pellets with hay or vegetables.
"It's fine, especially if the rabbit is a pet, to provide it with some good long-stem hay. That will not only provide nutrition, but it will also alleviate boredom," McCoy says. "And just like when you're choosing feed, choose good quality hay and make sure it's not moldy or musty."
But use hay sparingly, he recommends. "You don't want to replace pellets with hay, because pellets contain vitamins and nutrients that are lacking in hay alone," he says. The same applies for vegetables, which are good occasional treats for your rabbit, as long as they're clean and fresh, McCoy says.
Rabbits that don't get a balanced diet will grow slowly, their coat will be dull and lifeless, and they'll be less able to fight disease.
"They're not as hardy," McCoy says, "and they're more susceptible to things in the environment that can lead to illness or even death."
Feed your rabbit enough each day to allow him to browse until the next feeding. "Unless they're being limited for some reason to keep their condition at a given level, you typically would let them have free choice access to feed so they can have all they want," McCoy says.
If they look like they're gaining too much weight, simply cut them back, he adds.
Perhaps the most important ingredient of a rabbit's diet is water. Without it, a rabbit won't be able to regulate his body temperature in hot weather; in winter, he'll stop eating, leading to weight loss and possible starvation.
Keep a supply of fresh water by installing in his cage an automatic waterer, bottle, or heavy crock that he can't tip over, McCoy says.
Whether your rabbit is a house pet, 4-H project, or star of the show table, a nutritious diet will keep him healthy and the both of you happy.
Carol Davis is editor of Out Here.