With rabbit Awareness Week happening next month, it seemed appropriate to continue our rabbit theme!
Many of the problems we see in pet rabbits stem from their diet- often these are the results of long-term issues and so are almost impossible to correct. Fortunately, it does mean that these problems are often preventable
In particular, dental disease and gut stasis are commonly associated with dietary issues. Even fly strike risk is increased by poor diet resulting in failure to remove the edible faeces from round the back end.
A recent study performed by Edinburgh University confirmed these findings- different groups of rabbits were fed diets ranging from all fibre (especially hay) to all muesli concentrate diet. Unsurprisingly, those in the all-fibre group had the healthiest teeth and the healthiest guts.
They were also in best overall shape. Sadly some of those in the all-muesli group had to be removed from the trial as they began developing severe dental disease even in a few months: many of these rabbits also became clinically obese. Of the rabbits in the mixed diet group, there signs of dental disease developing and they were fatter than those having just fibre.
Are we surprised? Not really- rabbits evolved to eat fibre (ie. Grass and hay) so it makes sense that they are happiest and healthiest when eating these. Concentrate and muesli rations were basically developed for feeding production rabbits (ie those destined for food and fur) and are not designed for longevity. They have become popular amongst pet rabbit owners as they are so easy to feed.
However, it is becoming obvious that something must change- one major pet store now no longer stocks muesli-type diets, and as rabbit owners we need to be looking to give a much more natural diet.
If possible, this should be all-fibre- unlimited hay and grass should be the basis of all rabbit diets from as young an age as possible. Contrary to some advise, rabbits do not get diarrhoea if fed grass, unless they are suddenly given large amounts of fresh wet grass when they have never seen grass before: to avoid this? If your rabbit is unused to grass, then introduce it gradually over 5-7 days!
Greens should be added for interest- dandelions and garden herbs are excellent, but a range of dark green leaves and brassicas can be given. To avoid dietary overload, used mixed greens each day.
Carrots are not a staple of the rabbit diet but can be given in small amounts along with apple or pear as treats.
There are some situations where concentrate food is desirable- eg. growing rabbits; pregnancy/ nursing; and in the coldest parts of winter. In these cases, use one of the high fibre nuggets or a top brand pellet and do not exceed a level of 25g/kg bodyweight per day. Muesli diets encourage selective feeding as well as causing the problems described earlier, so should be avoided completely.
It would be wonderful if we could prevent dental disease in rabbits. While genetics do play some part, improved nutrition would make the biggest difference.