Diet is vitally important as a means of preventing ill health. A low fibre, high carbohydrate diet (eg rabbit mix) can lead to dental disease, facial abscesses, sore eyes and conjunctivitis, obesity, intestinal upsets such as diarrhoea and furballs. It is vital to feed mainly fresh good quality hay or grass and vegetables as a source of fibre.
The most important part of a rabbit’s diet is good quality hay and/or fresh grass. This is what they eat naturally, so it should make up the bulk of the diet and be offered all the time. Hay and grass provide essential fibre that keeps the teeth and digestive system in good health and nibbling throughout the day will keep your rabbit occupied and prevent boredom. Hay racks or nets can minimise any mess formed. Good quality meadow hay should be sweet smelling and not dusty. A good idea is to try and obtain hay from friends who keep horses, or from a farm – this is much cheaper too. Check that wild rabbits have not had access to stored hay. Dried grass products that retain the green colour and are highly palatable are also now available.
A large number of rabbits will only eat certain components of mixed feeds, risking an insufficient uptake of protein, calcium and phosphoros. This is why high quality dry pellets, where all nutrients are present in each individual pellet is the preferred option. Overfeeding dry foods to adult rabbits is a common cause of diseases such as obesity, heart and liver problems, chronic diarrhoea, dental and kidney disease. Water should be available 24-hours a day and water bottles or bowls should be cleaned daily to prevent the build-up of bacteria and contamination.
You can feed your rabbit limited amounts of fresh vegetables, fruit and greens daily. Wild plants are also greatly enjoyed. If your rabbit is not used to getting fresh foods, then begin by feeding green leafy vegetables, adding a new type of vegetable every two to three days. If the addition of any item leads to diarrhoea in 24-48 hours it should not be fed. These fresh foods should not make up more than 20% of the rabbit’s diet. Items to try are Chinese cabbage, watercress, kale, parsley, spinach, radishes, celery, bramble, raspberry leaves, dandelions, chickweed, plantain, groundsel and clover.
Do not feed your rabbit chocolate, biscuits or other sugary treats like honey sticks, bread, or fatty, salty foods like potato crisps. Be careful with feeding treats generally as they can lead to obesity and digestive upsets. Treats your rabbit may like include strawberries, pineapple chunks, apples, pears, melon slices, banana slices, raspberries, peaches and dried fruits. However, fruits are high in sugar and should only be fed very occasionally as they can lead to dental problems.
For good tooth wear you may provide your rabbit with twigs or tree branches. They will enjoy gnawing and stripping the bark. A general rule is that you can offer branches from any tree that we eat the fruit from. Examples are apple, pear, plum, hawthorn, whitethorn and wild rose. Make sure the tree has not been sprayed with chemicals.