A rabbit’s digestive tract is very different from that of a dog or cat. A rabbit has an active cecum that allows it to digest hay. Many nutrients are made available by digestion that occurs in the cecum, which is located at the origin of the large intestine. In order to allow absorption by the small intestine, the rabbit “recycles” these nutrients by eating their own pellets. Rabbits even make a different type of pellet, called a “cecotrope,” that has more nutrients. This behavior usually happens at night and is often unnoticed by the owner.
The balance of bacteria and other organisms in the rabbit’s digestive tract must be just right to maintain normal motility, digestion, absorption, and elimination. We know that fiber is an essential aid to this process. Many cases of diarrhea are due to an adverse change in the balance of organisms in the digestive tract. Proper nutrition plays an important role in this balance.
Older practices of feeding just alfalfa pellets and treats leave a rabbit prone to a variety of ailments such as obesity, foot problems, hairballs, diarrhea, etc. Grass hay is very important to a healthy digestive tract. Alfalfa pellets have too much calcium and the fiber is not coarse enough for a rabbit’s needs, although feeding alfalfa pellets as part of a balanced diet is okay. Even alfalfa hay, though, is not ideal.
An example of a proper diet for a rabbit is:
- Free choice grass hay (oat or timothy; not alfalfa)
- 1/4 cup alfalfa pellets per 5 lbs. of rabbit per day
- 1 cup leafy dark green vegetables per 5 lbs. of rabbit per day (dandelion greens, kale, mustard greens, romaine, endive, carrot tops, parsley, etc.)
- Treats: 1 level teaspoon per 5 lbs. of rabbit per day (banana, apple, carrot, papaya)
- Avoid processed sugars, bread, cookies, etc.
- Free choice water
Salt licks and vitamins are unnecessary. The food should be provided in heavy crocks or hoppers to avoid tipping. Water can be supplied in a clean drip bottle. As you can see, the “treats” are a very small part of a rabbit’s diet.
Hay is available in manageable quantities at many pet stores, feed stores and other locations. It can be stored in a wicker basket or cloth sack. A pillow case works well.
Proper eating habits and exercise will lead to a happy, healthy, and long-lived rabbit.