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    Rabbit Nutrition

    Whether your rabbit is a house pet, 4-H project, or star of the show table, a nutritious diet will keep him healthy and happy.

     

    Each rabbit's nutrition depends on its life stage and intended purpose. Most rabbits thrive nicely on a diet containing 16 percent protein. Nursing mothers, however, need extra protein — about 18 percent — as do newly weaned kits, or baby rabbits.

     

    Rabbits that don't get a consistent, balanced diet will grow slowly, they'll experience digestive problems, their coat will be dull and lifeless, and they'll be less able to fight disease.

    The Rabbit Diet

    A basic rabbit diet should consist of hay, pellets, vegetables, fruits and treats, and water.

    Hay

    Rabbits need hay — specifically, Timothy grass hay. Rabbits should have access to a constant supply of this hay, which supports their digestive system and provides the necessary fiber to help prevent health problems such as hairballs, diarrhea, and obesity.

    Alfalfa hay, on the other hand, should be given to adult rabbits only, and then in very limited quantities, if at all, because it's high in protein, calcium, and calories.

    Providing hay also keeps rabbits occupied and prevents boredom because rabbits enjoy chewing. Make sure the hay is not moldy or musty and is of a high quality.

    Feed your rabbit enough each day to allow him to browse until the next feeding. Unless the rabbit is being limited to keep its condition at a given level, you can let it have free choice access to feed so it can have all it wants.

    If they look like they're gaining too much weight, simply cut them back.

    Hay should not replace rabbit pellets, because the pellets contain nutrients and vitamins not found in hay.

    Pellets

    Rabbit pellets are commercially made bite-sized bits of ground hay and other ingredients, vitamins, and minerals tailored specifically for the rabbit's digestive system. Hay quality varies, depending on how it was harvested, so if you happen to buy a lower-quality hay with fewer nutrients, the pellets will make up for the missing nutrients.

    Pelleted rabbit food should be given only in small quantities. Feed about one-eighth to one-fourth of a cup per 5 pounds of your rabbits body weight per day, spread out over two daily feedings.

    Look for a pellet that is plain — no colored pieces, crunchy puffs, seeds, or nuts. Some rabbit feed contains seeds, corn, and other foods that are too high in calories for a healthy rabbit's diet.

    Always feed only fresh pellets. Old, rancid pellets can contain harmful molds or other toxins that may sicken or kill your rabbit. Check to see that the pellets are not dry, crumbly, or have a foul smell.

    Vegetables

    An adult rabbit should have leafy, dark green vegetables such as romaine and leaf lettuces (not iceberg lettuce), parsley, cilantro, collard greens, arugula, escarole, endive, dandelion greens, and others.

    Variety is important, so feed your rabbit three different vegetables at a time. When introducing new veggies to a rabbit's diet, try just one at a time and limit the quantity.

    It's best to wait until your baby rabbits are at least six months old before adding fresh greens — including fruits and vegetables — to their diet, to avoid enteritis, or inflammation of the small intestine.

    Fruits and Treats

    While hay, rabbit pellets, and vegetables are the basis of a healthy diet, rabbits also enjoy treats. Most of us think "carrots" when we think of rabbits, but carrots are a starchy vegetable and should be given only sparingly as a treat.

    Other treats your rabbit might enjoy are apples — without stems or seeds — blueberries, papaya, strawberries, pears, peaches, plums, or melon. Extra-sugary fruits such as bananas, grapes, and raisins are good, too, but should be given on a more limited basis.

    Again, it's best to wait until your baby rabbits are at least six months old before giving them fruits, to avoid enteritis.

    Water

    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.

    That said, rabbits should always have an ample supply of fresh water available.

    Be sure to change your rabbit's water at least once each day. Water can be kept in a sipper bottle or bowl. If you use a sipper bottle, watch new rabbits to make sure they know how to use the bottles, and clean bottles daily so the tubes don't get clogged.

    If you use a bowl, clean and replace with fresh water twice daily and make sure that the bowl is heavy enough so it won't tip and spill.

    What Not to Feed a Rabbit

    With their sensitive digestive systems, there are a number of foods that you should avoid feeding to rabbits. These include:

    • Iceberg lettuce
    • Tomatoes
    • Cabbage
    • Corn
    • Beans
    • Peas
    • Potatoes
    • Beets
    • Onions
    • Rhubarb
    • Bamboo
    • Seeds and grains
    • Chocolate
    • Candy
    • Most human food
    • Anything moldy

    If you are not sure about a certain food, ask your rabbit's veterinarian.

    Treating Enteritis

    Rabbits are prone to digestion problems when they're confronted with stressors, such as drastic weather changes, predators in the area, sudden dietary switches, or loud noises.

    Typically, a rabbit's reaction to these stressors is to stop eating for a period of time. But when the hungry rabbit returns to his feed and eats heartily, the microorganisms in his body do not adjust well, which results in enteritis, or inflammation of the small intestine.

    The signs of enteritis include loose, sticky fecal pellets or diarrhea. In severe cases, the rabbit will barely eat.

    If enteritis occurs in your rabbits, take these steps to help your rabbits recover quickly:

    • At the first sign of enteritis, reduce the amount of feed offered to one-fourth to one-half the usual amount.
    • Offer your rabbit long-stem grass hay. Grass hay is high in fiber, and is consumed slowly. This will help firm up the loose fecal pellets.
    • After two or three days, the rabbit's symptoms should begin to stabilize. After five to seven days, gradually increase his food to normal levels.

    Feeding high-fiber rabbit food is helpful in fending off stress-induced enteritis. And because rabbits thrive on consistency, help your rabbits avoid digestive problems by being consistent in how you feed them.

    Chew on This

    Chewing is part of a rabbit's natural behavior, but it doesn't have to be destructive.

    To keep rabbits active and amused, you may want to put untreated wood blocks or cardboard in their cages. Bowls, balls, and rings made of willow wood are big hits with many rabbits. You can also use paper-towel rolls, toilet-paper rolls, and other chewable cardboard materials that can be tossed in the trash once they've served their purpose.

    Avoid objects with sharp edges, loose parts, or soft rubber that rabbits could chew into pieces and swallow.