Preventing digestive disorders in your rabbits
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Preventing digestive disorders in your rabbits

Rabbits
Food & Nutrition

In recent years, rabbits have become an extremely popular pet and often enjoy a very high standard of care. Yet there is still a lot of confusion amongst rabbit owners about what to feed. Because of the complexity of the rabbit's digestive system, the wrong diet invariably causes health problems. Unlike digestive disorders in people, which generally result in a bit of mild discomfort or embarrassment and the vow, "I'll never eat that again", these problems in rabbits are usually much more serious - even life-threatening. This article provides you with information about the rabbit's digestive system and what you should be feeding in order to keep your bunnies happy and healthy.

A quick look at the rabbit's digestive system

From a nutritional perspective, rabbits are 'fibrevores', meaning that fibre is a vital part of the diet. Fibre is obtained from plant cell walls and there are two types: indigestible and digestible. Both types are essential for rabbits.

  • Indigestible fibre keeps the guts moving and acts as an appetite stimulant. It is also essential for wearing down rabbits' teeth so they do not become overgrown. Indigestible fibre is excreted as firm, spherical droppings.
  • Digestible fibre enters the rabbit's caecum (a large 'diversion' between the small and large intestines, equivalent to our appendix), where it is broken down by special 'friendly' bacteria. It is then excreted as 'caecotrophs' or 'sticky droppings', which are full of essential nutrients. In order to extract the nutrients, the rabbit eats the sticky droppings directly from his/her bottom and they are re-digested. Eating sticky droppings is vital for the rabbit's health, so shouldn't be discouraged.

Like other animals, rabbits also require the correct balance of proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals in their diet. Excessive levels of carbohydrate in the diet can encourage the growth of 'bad' bacteria and this may be life-threatening.

So, what can go wrong?

Digestive disorders include:

  • Diarrhoea/enteritis
  • Bloat
  • Gut stasis (in which the gut stops moving due to insufficient fibre in the diet, resulting in appetite loss)
  • Hair balls ( also known as trichobezoars)

Just like dogs and cats, rabbits can also develop blockages of the stomach and intestines due to ingestion of foreign bodies. Common culprits include whole dried pulses (e.g. locust beans, dried peas) and pieces of carpet fibre. Symptoms of digestive disorders include:

  • Not eating at all, or suddenly only eating certain foods
  • Producing fewer/no faecal pellets
  • Producing very loose faeces or firm droppings of a different shape (firm droppings should normally be perfectly spherical in shape)
  • A bloated tummy
  • Grinding the teeth (a sign of pain)
  • Dullness/depression

Rabbits are unable to vomit so this is not a symptom seen with digestive disease.Any of these symptoms constitutes an emergency and you should take your rabbit to a vet immediately. Gastrointestinal intestinal disorders are often life-threatening and rabbits may deteriorate within a matter of hours, so your pet will need to be treated straight away. The vast majority of digestive disorders in rabbits are caused by incorrect diet, with relatively few caused by infections or other factors.

What should I feed my rabbits?

If we think about wild rabbits, what do they eat? Grass, grass and more grass! This should give us a clue that grass should constitute an essential part of our pet rabbits' diet. Grass is a fantastic source of both digestible and indigestible fibre and contains many other nutrients. Ideally rabbits should be allowed to graze for several hours a day, but this isn't usually practical, especially for house rabbits. As a substitute, good quality hay (e.g. ryegrass or timothy) should be fed ad lib. Hay should be stored in clean and dry conditions to prevent mould growth. Avoid feeding straw as it is low in nutrients and will lead to deficiencies if eaten in large quantities. Do not feed lawnmower grass clippings as these decay rapidly and can cause digestive disturbances. Hay and grass should make up about 75% of a rabbit's diet.In addition to hay and grass, small amounts of commercial concentrated rabbit food may be given. For most rabbits, this is beneficial as it tops up the levels of important nutrients in the diet. Many modern diets contain 'prebiotics', which encourage the growth of essential 'friendly' bacteria and inhibit the growth of harmful ones. No more than 3% of the rabbit's bodyweight of commercial food should be fed daily, as this otherwise encourages obesity and low fibre intake. Feed only once a day and remove the bowl after a couple of hours. If there is food left then feed less the next day.A note on 'muesli' mixes: Although these diets look highly appealing to our eyes, they can cause problems. These diets tend to encourage selective feeding, whereby rabbits only eat the bits they like, but they are only balanced if all of the components are eaten. In addition, many of these diets have sugar added to make them more palatable, and this can harm the 'friendly' bacteria in the caecum, leading to digestive upsets. It is much better to feed a pelleted or extruded diet, in which each component is the same. It doesn't matter that these look boring to us - rabbits have little colour vision and, due to the position of the eyes, are unable to see what they are eating! The remainder of the diet should consist of small amounts of (safe) wild and cultivated plants such as chickweed, clover, dandelions, cabbage and spring greens. Small amounts of vegetables can be fed on occasion. Fruit should be fed in very limited quantities as it is high in sugars. It is not normally necessary to give your rabbits dietary supplements if you are feeding them correctly.

But my rabbit likes sweet things!

Just like humans, rabbits enjoy a quick sugar fix and will happily eat things (like bread or biscuits) which are no good for them - they know no better! However, these foods can easily disrupt the delicate balance of bacteria crucial for digestion and have devastating consequences. Unfortunately, there are still pet shops which sell 'rabbit treats', such as chews and chocolate, that are high in sugar (and sometimes in fat, which can lead to obesity). Avoid these altogether. Your rabbits will be grateful for it in the long-term! If you still want to give your rabbits a special treat (and let's face it, as owners we all do!), then there are some healthy snacks available from Burgess pet foods, which are recommended by many vets.

Changing your rabbits' diet

Any change in diet should be made gradually, over the course of several days or even weeks, starting with small amounts of the new diet and gradually increasing, whilst making a corresponding decrease in any unwanted items. Your rabbits are much more likely to be accepting of the new diet and are also given time for the digestive system to adapt. In addition, this reduces stress, which can also cause digestive upsets.

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