Rabbits are highly specialised herbivores with a digestive system fine-tuned for a fibre-rich diet. In the wild, they spend much of their time foraging and grazing, choosing different herbs and plants as well as grass. This wide variety helps them achieve some degree of nutritional balance.
Mirroring the natural diet is key to keeping rabbits in optimum health. However the reality is that wild rabbits have shorter lifespans than pets, partly due to being preyed upon and disease, but also due to an insufficient diet. Feeding pet rabbits correctly, means they are able to live longer healthier lives. So what does this mean?
Health, happiness and hay
First and foremost, rabbits need fibre, and a great source of this roughage is hay or grass. This should constitute around 80 percent of the diet and should be available at all times – a good guide is to aim for a body-sized portion every day. Feeding plenty of hay encourages natural chewing behaviour, supporting dental as well as digestive health.
The palatability and nutritional content of hay varies, and rabbits can be picky – the healthiest, tastiest choices are generally meadow or Timothy hay, but quality is just as important as type. Good quality hay is pale green to gold in colour with a delicious fresh smell, while poorer quality hay is often a dull brown and much less likely to tempt tastebuds.
To ensure they get all the nutrients they need, rabbits should also be offered a carefully measured portion of rabbit nuggets every morning and evening in addition to their hay. With a natural tendency to selectively feed, rabbits are hard-wired to pick out the most tender, succulent plants with a high nutritional content. While this benefits wild buns, the same behaviour in our pets can lead to nutrient imbalances, dental and digestive problems, and obesity. Rabbit nuggets prevent the selective feeding habit in one tasty package.
The best foods will be rich in delicious natural ingredients – how about Timothy hay and thyme, spinach or flaked peas? Maybe not your cup of tea but just the kind of flavour combination that rabbits love. Using high quality, natural ingredients means that there is no need for sugary additives to improve taste, which is good news for dental and digestive health. Remember to look out for hidden sugar, often under the guise of molasses or syrup.
The fibre content of food is important too. Crude fibre is the statutory measurement of fibre on pet foods that is the true indicator of the fibre content in a food. Levels vary but as general rule the higher the levels the better – 25 percent is ideal for supporting optimum dental and digestive health in adult rabbits. A daily handful of leafy greens helps to top up fibre intake, as well as adding variety to the diet.
Optimum food for life
So, is a ‘one size fits all’ approach to rabbit nutrition the way forward? Life stage diets for dogs and cats have been available for years, with puppy, kitten and senior diets widely available. Equally it is now recognised that the nutrient requirements of young rabbits are different to those of adults and more senior buns. Junior diets contain higher protein levels to support healthy growth and development, while senior diets have reduced energy levels to reflect changing activity levels, together with correctly balanced calcium and phosphorus for optimum bone and joint health. Tailoring nutrition to each life stage helps support health, wellbeing and optimum food for life.