If you are feeding a muesli type mix, it is better to change this to a complete pelleted food. Rabbits will often pick out the parts of a muesli mix to eat that they enjoy and leave the rest, which can result in nutritional imbalance and even dental problems. A two-year research program at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh established a link between this type of food and life-threatening digestive and dental problems in rabbits. Professor Anna Meredith, who conducted the study, said: “Vets have suspected for a number of years that feeding muesli-style foods could lead to health issues in rabbits, and now we have the proof.”
Stop the muesli type foods, and instead use a small proportion of pelleted food (just 1 tablespoon once a day for rabbits weighing under 3.5kg and a little more for heavier rabbits). At least 80% of a rabbit’s daily calories should come from good quality hay, and free access is recommended to allow grazing throughout the day. A handful of suitable fresh green vegetables morning and evening are also recommended (see No. 5).
If your rabbit is very disinterested in most types of food and it’s not just the case he prefers certain foods over others, the first thing to do is get him examined by your vet. There may be a medical reason for his inappetence. Dental problems are common in rabbits (especially those who eat muesli mix type foods and do not eat enough hay). Rabbits have open ended teeth that grow continuously throughout their lives, and they may require trimming if they are not being worn down sufficiently well through the mechanical grinding when they are eating. Whilst your rabbit is recovering from a dental problem, he will appreciate finely cut or grated vegetables or herbs such as parsley. Offer small amounts little and often and keep encouraging him to eat hay.
It’s very important a rabbit eats sufficient food, because if not, he can develop gastric stasis; a potentially fatal condition where digestive system slows down or stops completely. Harmful bacteria then accumulate within the intestines and release gas and toxins which may cause painful bloating and liver damage.
Yes, rabbits produce a special type of faeces called caecotrophs, which are produced by the friendly intestinal flora from the fermentable fibre in the diet. You won’t normally see evidence as rabbits eat them straight from their bottom, and usually at night or at quiet times. If you see them in the hutch or stuck to your rabbit you need to seek veterinary advice. Rabbits also produce hard, dry droppings which are their true faeces. These are not eaten.
There are many plants that are harmful to rabbits. The best way to ensure that they are not coming into contact with any dangerous species is to provide a large exercise run on the lawn. Harmful common UK plants include amaryllis, bindweed, bracken, foxglove, laburnum, yew, lily-of-the-valley, lupin, oak leaves, privet, ragwort, rhubarb leaves and most evergreens.
Safety tip: Remember that even if your rabbit is exercising within an enclosure that may be free from any toxic plants; leaves, flowers and seeds can drop from trees or be blown in by the wind, so do still exercise caution and check the run daily and make sure it’s not under a laburnum or other poisonous tree.
Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale, mustard greens and chard are the most nutritious for your rabbit. Wild plants such as dandelion and dock leaves are also suitable. Don’t over-feed with veg though, as too much can result in diarrhoea or increased stool production. Make sure veg and salad leaves are pesticide free and well-washed. Carrots are very popular but should only be given in moderation due to their sugar content.
Some fruits are safe for rabbits (e.g. strawberries, apples, pears and plums) but again they should only be given in very small quantities. A little fresh fruit is a healthy treat option, and may often be more nutritionally valuable than many commercially available rabbit treats (although there are some good ones available; look for those which do not contain added sugar or honey).
If your rabbit has diarrhoea, the first thing to do is get him checked over by your vet as rabbits can be very vulnerable to fly-strike (especially in warmer weather). It is important to identify and treat the root cause, rather than simply try to mask the symptoms. Some cases of diarrhoea may simply be due to a little much veg or fruit (or offering a new type of food which perhaps has not agreed), but infection and more serious causes do need to be ruled out.
It is vitally important to prevent a rabbit with diarrhoea from becoming dehydrated. Your vet will be able to recommend a safe and suitable product to rehydrate him and replace lost electrolytes. It’s best to stop greens whilst he is recovering, and instead offer only hay. You can make “hay tea” by pouring boiling water over a handful of hay in a jug and adding it to the water bottle when it has cooled. Your vet may also recommend a suitable probiotic which can be added to the drinking water or sprinkled on food. This will help to restore the friendly bowel flora.
The average normal water intake for rabbits is 50-150 ml/kg body weight daily. The variable range is because a lot depends on how much fresh food (which is rich in moisture) is eaten. Rabbits eating less fresh food may drink more, whilst those with constant access to grass for example might drink less. Increased thirst may sometimes simply be down to decreased intake of moisture-rich foods, increased exercise or warmer weather, but it’s important to rule out more serious issues. Just like cats and dogs, rabbits can be affected by renal dysfunction, liver disease and diabetes. These can all cause increased thirst. A rabbit that drinks more than usual will also urinate more.
First of all, do seek advice from your vet. Rabbits need to lose weight slowly because if their calorie intake is dramatically reduced, they can develop a serious condition called hepatic lipidosis (fatty liver). As with any animal, the way to aid weight loss is to ensure that calorie intake does not exceed energy expenditure. It’s important to try and encourage more activity, and allowing more access to the run and providing interactive toys can be very beneficial.
Take a very close look at your rabbit’s diet. Reduce pelleted food, and if this is alfalfa based then (gradually) change him to a timothy grass based brand. Stop any commercial treats, particularly if they contain sugar, honey, dried legumes, maize or fat rich seeds. Substitute fruits for a little more leafy green veg. Good quality hay should not be restricted.