Rabbits and Hay
Rabbits are attractive pets – they’re friendly, cute, and low maintenance. Rabbits are suitable for many ages, in big cities or the country, for both new pet owners and those dedicated to rabbits. However, rabbits are not the same as cats and dogs. You wouldn’t take care of a horse the same way you’d take care of a dog. You wouldn’t take care of a hamster the same way you’d take care of a goldfish. Similarly, rabbits have some needs that are different than the needs of other types of pets.
One of the most common problems with owning an exotic pet (reptile, rabbit, bird, etc) is that very often is it difficult to find information on proper nutrition. Although caring for a rabbit seems simple, feeding them is not quite as straightforward as buying a bag of dog food at the pet store. Rabbit are strict herbivores. Unlike dogs and cats, rabbits’ digestive systems are built to efficiently digest tough plant material. Their digestive system works more like a horse than like that of other pets. Therefore, it is not surprising that one key food in rabbits’ diets should be hay!
When a happy new rabbit owner goes to the pet store to buy all the necessities for their new pet, often times they are not given detailed information on diet. Many rabbits are put on rabbit pellets as their main source of nutrition. Rabbits need hay! In fact, about 95% of your adult rabbit’s diet should be hay. The remaining 5% should be split between veggies, which are good treats and a source of water, and pellets.
Pellets are essential in diets of certain rabbits, for example growing, pregnant, or lactating rabbits. This is because alfalfa-based pellets are high in calcium and calories. Calcium is needed for bone development in growing rabbits, and for milk production in pregnant and lactating rabbits. A higher calorie diet is useful for these rabbits that have higher energy demands.
However, the same reasons that make pellets ideal for some rabbits also make them less ideal for the average adult rabbit. As herbivores, rabbits rarely have trouble getting enough calcium in their diet. In fact, they tend to be prone to getting too much calcium. One of the major problems with excess calcium in the body is that it may cause the formation of bladder stones, which can block the passage of urine out of the body. This is a life-threatening condition.
For the same reason that you wouldn’t feed someone cheesecake all the time, you should not feed your adult rabbit just pellets. On the other hand, hay is equivalent to a balanced meal, rather than a desert. So, given the choice between pellets and hay, your rabbit will most likely not eat enough hay. Pellets should be given in limited amounts. For example, in a rabbit less than 5 pounds, only about 1/8 cup of pellets should be given. A diet too concentrated in pellets can cause your rabbit to become obese, and also keeps it from getting the other benefits that it needs from a diet of mainly hay. As in humans, obesity is not a healthy state for our pets. In rabbits, obesity can be related to the development of arthritis. To tell if your rabbit is a healthy weight, you should be able to feel the bumps (vertebrae) as you run your finger along the spine. It is not easy to tell the body fat of a rabbit without touching it; the fur coat conceals body shape very well.
Hay has many benefits for rabbits, because, as mentioned before, their digestive system is built to gain the most benefits from a hay-based diet. A rabbit can generally get all the nutrients it needs from good hay. Also, hay is necessary for proper functioning of the digestive system. Hay acts as ‘roughage’, which means it behaves similar to fibre in the human diet. Roughage is essential to keep the digestive system moving properly. Without proper movement of the digestive system, your rabbit can develop ‘gastrointestinal stasis’.
Gastrointestinal stasis is one of the most common reasons for euthanasia of pet rabbits. Lack of roughage is not the only cause for stasis, but it is one common cause. In gastrointestinal stasis, the digestive system begins to have trouble functioning and moving properly. This causes discomfort for the rabbit, who then does not want to eat. Not eating makes the stasis worse, and the problem just builds up on itself. Roughage aids movement of the digestive system, while sugars and carbohydrates (for example pellets and cereals) slow it down.
Hay is also good for your rabbit’s teeth. Like horses, rabbits’ teeth are continuously growing. Chewing on hay helps wear down the teeth to keep them at a proper length. Owners do not often look in a rabbit’s mouth, especially not at the back teeth, which means that many times teeth problems go unnoticed. Overgrowth of teeth causes discomfort and can eventually cause infections and wounds in the mouth.
Feeding an adult rabbit is not much more complicated than any of the other needs that your rabbit has. Understanding what your rabbit needs from its food will help you make the proper decisions on what kind of food to give it. For more information on specific amounts and types of hay, pellets, and treats to feed your rabbit, talk to your local veterinarian.
By Ashley O’driscoll – Pets.ca writer