Rabbits are herbivores, and they rely on fibre as an essential part of their diet. They need both digestible (short) and indigestible (long) fibre to provide essential nutrients, maintain the correct level of bacteria in the gut, keep their digestive systems healthy, and keep their teeth worn down. Rabbits can’t extract sufficient nutrition from fibre the first time round, so they need to eat it a second time. This means indulging in the unsavoury (to us) behaviour of caecotrophy. This is the eating of caecotrophs, which are clumps of sticky droppings. Caecotrophy usually occurs at night, and is a normal and important behaviour.
The ideal diet for your rabbit will provide all the nutrition they require for optimum health, whilst keeping them interested and occupied. Feeding a variety of sources of fibre is the best way of achieving this, along with the vitamins and minerals that your rabbit needs. Your rabbit’s diet should be made up of unlimited forage, a commercial balanced rabbit mix containing vitamins and minerals, fresh greens, and occasional fruit and vegetables. A constant supply of fresh, clean water should always be available.
The most common type of forage for rabbits is hay. Hay can be given on an ad lib basis, as rabbits are naturally grazers and are designed to have a constant trickle of food moving through their system. Hay should be good quality, and sweet-smelling. Alfalfa is another forage that can be fed to rabbits. Grass is also a good forage for rabbits, but isn’t reliably nutritious or available all year round. Forage also helps to prevent boredom in rabbits, and foraging behaviour is normal, and vital to their well-being.
Commercial rabbit mixes
Rabbit mixes are available in different forms. A good quality pellet or nugget-based food is preferable to a muesli-style food because all the nutritious ingredients are packed into each pellet, whereas, in a muesli-style diet, the different ingredients are separate. This can lead to selective feeding by your rabbit, often of the sweetest ingredients, and an unbalanced intake of nutrients. Many foods are labelled as ‘complete’, but this is a misleading term.
Many domestic rabbits are overweight and obese. Obese rabbits are more prone to health problems and tumours than are rabbits of a healthy weight. Obesity also limits a rabbit’s ability to perform caecotrophy, which can lead to serious problems. It is easy to feed too much of a commercial rabbit food, as your rabbit will invariably find it appetising. Rather than feeding ad lib, you should refer to the manufacturer’s feeding guidelines, and you will often find that your rabbit needs slightly less than recommended to remain in top condition.
Fruit, vegetables and plants
Small quantities of fresh forage can be a useful and welcome addition to your rabbit’s diet. Only small amounts should be fed at any one time to avoid causing tummy upsets, as rabbits are very sensitive to digestive problems. Vegetables such as carrot leaves, cauliflower and cauliflower leaves, celery, corn on the cob, kale, lettuce leaves, parsley, spinach and string beans can be enjoyed by your rabbit. Fruits are a tasty complement to your rabbit’s normal food, and small amounts of apple, melon, pear, strawberries and tomatoes can be fed to your rabbit. Fruit juices can be acidic though, and may irritate your rabbit’s mouth.
Many wild plants are enjoyed by rabbits and grasses, clover, dandelions, chickweed, poppies, sorrel and wild radish are a few of those that are safe to feed. Any wild plants gathered should be clean, and disease-free. Diseases can be spread from wild rabbits via plants, and pesticide-treated plants from the roadside can be dangerous - take care where you gather your plants, or you can wash them in a mild disinfectant, then rinse and dry before feeding.