Feeding your rabbit

This page was originally about how to feed and condition a show rabbit but I have completely changed the information. It is now designed more for the pet bunny owner or first time rabbit owner. Working for a veterinary clinic I have seen first hand the heartbreak of bunny owners bringing their beloved bunny to the clinic with severe diarrhea. Unfortunately, by the time a bunny is so sick it needs to be seen by a veterinarian, it is usually too late to save it. In speaking with the owners I have found most of the time, the illness can be attributed to the way the bunny was being fed or the type of feed used.

 The most important thing you can do for your rabbit is to feed it good quality rabbit pellets. Please purchase your pellets from your local feed store. Supermarket and most pet shop pellets are bad quality and old. Any feed past two months loses its nutritional value. The feed should contain nothing but pellets. Some stores sell what they call 'gourmet rabbit food'. This is pellets with other things added such as dried fruit and other seeds. DO NOT purchase this kind of feed. First of all, the rabbit will go for all the treats and ignore the pellets therefore getting no nutrition. Some of extra 'treats' are very bad for a rabbit and will cause diarrhea, which can quickly lead to death. You want to be the one controlling the amount of treats you give your rabbit.

The amount of pellets you give your bunny each day depends on the size of the rabbit. The smaller breeds like the Netherland Dwarf only require 1/4 cup of pellets each day. Other dwarfed rabbits such as our Jersey Woolys and Holland lops, can have 1/3 to 1/2 cup per day. The larger rabbits will need 3/4 to 1 cup a day.

Some people prefer to 'free feed' their rabbits. This means to keep the bowl full of pellets and let the rabbit eat the amount it wants. This is probably okay to do with pet rabbits. You do risk the possibility of the rabbit getting fat and all the health problems that go along with that. If you are going to use your rabbits for breeding, you want to control the amount they eat. A fat rabbit has a hard time conceiving, carrying and giving birth to live litters. If you are free feeding your rabbit and notice it has wet stool, you might want to try limiting the amount of pellets it gets each day. Sometimes this is all it takes to clear that up. Some rabbits are naturally light eaters and some are real gluttons. It's a matter of knowing your rabbit and what works best for them.

If you need to switch from one brand of feed to another, do so slowly. Mix them together in a 50/50 ration for a couple of weeks before totally switching to the new feed.

What is the one thing every rabbit should have but no one knows it?

Hay. Hay is very important to a rabbit.  When grooming them selves, the ingest some fur. The problem comes in when this fur balls up in the intestines and the rabbit can't pass it. This condition is called Wool Block. The best way to treat Wool block is to prevent it from happening in the first place. The way to do this is give your rabbit a hand full of hay each day. Hay adds roughage and keeps everything moving. Hay is good for a rabbit that is not free fed. It enables them to have something to eat, with out adding extra, unnecessary calories.

Hay is a critical part of a longhaired rabbits diet. Papaya pills and fresh Pineapple are other good ways of keeping the gut moving.

So what treats can you give?

Apples, bananas, dandelion leaves, carrots, most fruits, clover and don't forget things like cheerios and sunflower seeds. Having said that, I can't stress the importance of not over indulging your rabbit with treats. Rabbits have a very delicate digestive system that can be upset very easily. Too many treats, no matter how nutritious they seem, will cause your rabbit to get diarrhea. Severe diarrhea, called enteritis, can kill a rabbit in as little as 24 hours. You can literally kill your rabbit with kindness.

How much is too much?

We like to say no more then twice a week with the treats. Rabbit pellets are designed to give a rabbit all the nutrition it needs. Treats are just for fun, not a necessity. Watch the size of the treat you are giving. A half of a carrot is plenty. 1/4 of an apple, 4 or 5 cheerios, about 2 inches of banana is the correct proportion when giving treats. Sunflower seeds are known as a hot food, they are very high in fat. Use sparingly such as a tablespoon once a week or so.

What about a baby rabbit?

Their digestive systems are even more delicate then an adult rabbit. We never give treats before the age of three and a half months of age. It is just not worth the risk of losing a baby.

We've talked a lot about diarrhea, now I want to go the other direction and talk about a condition called Wool Block. When a rabbit is grooming themselves they ingest their fur. The fur should pass through the digestive system and clear out the other end. A problem can occur when the fur balls up inside the rabbit causing a blockage. Food can not pass this blockage. Rabbits do not have the ability to throw up. The rabbit will stop eating, sit in the corner grinding its teeth with severe pain. If wool block is not cleared out, the rabbit will die.

The best way to treat wool block is to prevent it from happening in the first place by making sure your rabbit has a lot of fiber in their diet. One of the most effective ways to prevent wool block is by giving a handful of hay at least five times a week. Timothy or grass hay is fine.

Another good source of fiber is rolled oats. The kind you purchase in your local grocery store in the oatmeal section. Quaker oats in the round container or a generic brand is fine. Just make sure it is the long cook kind not the quick cook. One tablespoon, uncooked, on your rabbit's food each day does wonders and, as an added bonus, the rabbits love it. We can hardly get it from the spoon their bowls fast enough for them. When we sell a rabbit, we always tell the new owners about the rolled oats, those rabbits would be very disappointed if they didn't get their oats. A little side note here: some people put the oats in a separate bowl rather then on top of the pellets. Some rabbits will dig through their pellets looking for more oats throwing food out of their bowls and wasting it in the pan below.

Papaya pills are a wonderful aid in digestion for a rabbit. You can purchase them in a health food store. We give one pill twice a week or so. The rabbits love these also.

How do we feed our rabbits?

Every morning it's out to the barn to greet everybunny a good morning. Each rabbit gets a handful of hay and water bottles are filled and refreshed. Nursing mothers and young litters are free fed so we make sure those food dishes are full.

Late afternoon is feeding time. All bunnies get 1/3 cup of pellets and a tablespoon of a rolled oat mixture. This mixture contains different things designed to keep our show rabbits in top condition. Twice a week a papaya tablet is added to their bowls. Papaya is a digestive aid, we use it to try and prevent wool block.

Early evening is a time for enjoying the rabbits. Someone may need a brushing or nail clipping. Someone might just want to be held and petted. This is when we might give a treat. It is a very relaxing time in the bunny barn, our favorite time of the day.

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