By Diana Kronenberg
Rabbits may seem like cute balls of fluff, but they are actually complicated creatures with sensitive digestive systems. They require a special diet to keep their GI tracts in working order. An unbalanced diet can lead to deadly consequences.
Like humans, rabbits have a “food pyramid,” and the largest portion of their diet should be hay. Hay fiber keeps everything else in their gut moving. You will find timothy hay, which is a “grass” hay, in most pet stores, along with alfalfa. Alfalfa should only be given occasionally as a treat since it can be too rich for some. Fill litter boxes with lots of timothy hay, and leave boxes, racks, or piles of hay for fun foraging. Just make sure there is plenty of it and add fresh on top every day. In addition to pet stores, hay can be purchased in bulk online and at animal feed stores.
The second part of a balanced rabbit’s diet is leafy greens. Rabbits like variety, so try and give them at least 3 to 5 different types of greens every day. You should give about one cup of greens for every four pounds of rabbit, either once a day or split up into multiple feedings. Greens you can feed rabbits include: Romaine lettuce, leaf lettuces, Boston lettuce, chicory, escarole, dandelion, arugula, cilantro, parsley, watercress, mint, basil, dill and carrot tops. Avoid gas-producing greens (cabbage, broccoli, beans, etc.). Gas in rabbits can build up, leading to a potentially life-threatening situation. (See “Gastrointestinal Stasis, The Silent Killer,” rabbit.org/care/gi-stasis.html)
Next up are pellets. Most adults who eat hay and greens will need about 1/4 cup of pellets each day to round out the vitamins and minerals they need. This can vary, depending on age, metabolism and other factors. Your vet can give you a better idea what is the right amount of pellets for your rabbit, and ration them accordingly. Make sure they do not contain extras like colorful bits, seeds, fruits, or nuts. That stuff is in there to look pretty and convince you to buy it, but the extra sugar and fats can be harmful to rabbits’ delicate gut balance.
Speaking of harmful sugars and carbs: never feed starchy, sugary or fatty treats. No cookies, crackers, or chips for bunnies! Many commercially marketed treats that claim to be for rabbits are not much more than sugar and starch. Read treat labels! Most rabbits can handle tiny amounts of fresh fruit. A one-inch chunk, maximum, per day, of carrot, banana, apple or berries is ok for most—but not all—rabbits. Use caution until you know.
Some rabbits wolf their food down immediately while others take their time. Know which kind of eater your rabbit is. If he seems uninterested in food, offer him a favorite treat. If he is still unwilling to eat, and/or if he is acting oddly, he may be experiencing gastrointestinal stasis– a potentially deadly emergency that requires immediate veterinary attention. If you suspect GI stasis, call your vet ASAP. Educate yourself now on what causes it and how to prevent it (see “Silent Killer,” above). Find a rabbit-savvy vet before—not after— a problem strikes.
A balanced, healthy diet is key to giving your rabbit a long and healthy life. Sometimes illness occurs despite our best efforts, but most GI problems are preventable with a proper diet. Your rabbit may beg for more treats, but learning to kindly say no, by diverting them with cuddles and toys, will help him in the long run.
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