Your Pet Bunny for a Long Healthy Life
Alexandra Logsdon in consultation with Dr. Ann McDowell, DVM
people think that rabbit pellets were especially formulated for
their pet rabbit, but this is not the case. Pellets were originally
formulated as a convenient and economical way to promote quick growth
and weight gain in commercial rabbits raised for food and
fur. Our rabbits are our friends and companions and we want them
to live long, healthy lives. This is why it is crucial that we learn
about and understand their dietary needs.
Rabbits have a unique and delicate digestive system and it is important
to take this into consideration when planning their meals. It is
a system that is designed to take both energy and nutrients from
food that is low in both, so providing a rabbit with a high fat/high
protein, low fiber diet (pellets alone, for example) is a sure ticket
to bad health and even a shortened life span. A healthy rabbit who
is spayed or neutered, gets a proper diet and lives inside the home
as a part of the family has a life span of eight to thirteen years.
Digestion begins in the mouth. The food is mashed up by the teeth
and mixed with saliva, which contains proteins that begin breaking
down the food. When the food is swallowed it enters the stomach
where it is mixed with stomach acid and digestive enzymes, which
continue the digestion process. It then moves out of the stomach
into the small intestine where nutrients are absorbed into the body,
and then it continues on into the large intestine where the food
particles are sorted by size. The larger particles of indigestible
fiber drive the smaller fragments of digestible fiber backwards
into the cecum, which is a large blind-ended sac located at the
junction of the small and large intestines. The indigestible particles
are then passed out in the fecal pellets (regular poop) and the
cecum begins the fermentation process that will produce what is
commonly referred to as night feces or cecotropes, which a rabbit
will ingest directly from the anus. You can tell the difference
between normal feces and cecotrophes by their soft, shiny clumped
texture and often more pungent odor.
A rabbit's cecum maintains a delicate mix of protozoa, yeast and
good bacteria, which is crucial to keeping your rabbit healthy.
If something upsets the delicate bacterial balance (such as stress;
some oral antibiotics such as penicillin & related drugs; a
high fat, low fiber diet; too many carbohydrates, etc.), bad
bacteria will begin to grow. These bad bacteria produce toxins
that can be harmful or fatal to your rabbit. On the other hand,
the products of good cecal fermentation are crucial to healthy
gut flora, because through coprophagy, the oral re-ingestion of
the cecal pellets produced by this fermentation process, the rabbit
can absorb by normal digestion the special nutrients and vitamins
contained in the cecal pellets. Some evidence suggests that bacteria
from these [re-ingested] cecal pellets help the food digest while
in the stomach (Laura Tessmer, B.Sc. and Susan Smith, Ph.D: Rabbit
Importance of Fiber and a Proper Diet
When your rabbit is fed an improper diet that is, one that does
not contain an adequate amount of [indigestible] fiber or one that
is too high in carbohydrates the Gastro-Intestinal (GI) tract cannot
function properly and it begins to shut down, causing various degrees
of what is called GI stasis. GI stasis, if not taken care
of immediately, can cause your rabbit to die a very painful death.
So what is GI stasis really? When the speed with which material
moves through the GIT is altered it can affect how quickly the stomach
and cecum empty. When this happens we often see a dramatic decrease
in the rabbit's appetite for both food and water, which only furthers
the problem: The body still needs water to function so it takes
it from the stomach and cecum, causing the contents of the entire
GI tract (food, hair from grooming, etc.) to become further dehydrated
and impacted. The bunny is then unable to pass the mass of food/hair
in the stomach, feels full, uncomfortable and often gassy (due to
the build-up of the bad bacteria in the cecum), which only adds
to his "I don't want to eat" mentality! A rabbit in GI
stasis will often stop eating, become anorexic and die. When a rabbit
dies from GI stasis and its related problems it is most often due
to hepatic lipidosis or Fatty Liver Disease, which is caused
by the toxins produced by the bad bacteria in the cecum.
In most cases, especially those caught early-on by observant owners,
GI stasis can be reversed with time, patience and good advice
from your rabbit vet. But our goal is to prevent it from happening
How Will I Know if My Rabbit is Having Problems?
Check the feces while cleaning the litter box. A rabbit's feces
should be plentiful, round like peas and of a uniform size and shape.
No feces or a lot fewer than usual, misshapen feces, or those strung
together with hair ("pearls") may mean bunny needs to
see a vet. If giving your rabbit hairball remedy (malt flavored,
the same used for cats) one inch once or twice a day for three days
doesn't clear up the problem, or if bunny stops eating or drinking
or is in pain consult a vet immediately. If there are no feces for
12-24 hours contact your vet immediately. Never give babies
under six months old hairball remedy without first consulting your
While the use of hairball remedies as preventatives can be helpful,
there is some question as to how helpful or harmful it is to administer
them to rabbits already in GI stasis.
If the intestinal contents are severely dehydrated and brick-hard
(yes, we have seen this!), a coating of vaseline-like substance
over them may merely impede their re-hydration and make it more
difficult for the mass to break up and begin passing. For this reason,
it is probably wise to concentrate on re-hydrating the intestinal
contents before using petroleum-based laxatives, if they are to
be used at all (Krempels, Dana M., PhD and Kelleher, Susan, DVM.
GastroIntestinal Stasis, The Silent Killer. 1997.). And again, if
your rabbit is experiencing GI stasis s/he needs to be seen by a
good rabbit vet right away.
At Zooh Corner, we generally administer one inch of hairball remedy
once or twice a week as a preventative measure; during a
heavy shed we may offer a rabbit a bit more, and we sometimes increase
the daily greens ration a bit and/or
rinse the produce directly before serving it in order to get more
water into the bunny's system. This, in addition to a proper diet
and plenty of fun and exercise, as well as close observation of
the litter box and the general behavior and condition of the rabbits
goes a long away towards keeping bunny GI tracts healthy and happy.
Please take note: This situation, GI Stasis, is often misdiagnosed
as "a hairball." And while the rabbit may indeed have
a hair/food mass in his stomach, it is in fact a result of GI stasis,
not the cause. Vet intervention is always called for when this sort
of situation presents itself. Not all vets know and see rabbits,
however, so it is important that you locate a good rabbit vet in
your area before an emergency arises. Your rabbit-savvy vet will
be able to examine your pet and tell you whether it is indeed GI
stasis, or if there is an obstruction of some sort and s/he will
then be able to present you with the proper course of action.
is Definitely Worth a Pound of Cure: The Basic Rabbit Diet
Pellets and Hay: For rabbits under one year old free feed
(as much as they want) a fresh, plain, high fiber (18-20%), mid-range
protein (14% - 16%) pellet. Adult rabbits should get 1/4 cup of
low protein (10% or lower), high fiber pellets PER DAY, per five
(5) pounds of optimum* body weight. If you have a rabbit that is
difficult to keep weight on or off, consult your vet. Do not
feed your rabbit any of the many commercial pellet mixes that contain
seeds, dried fruit or colored cereals. These commercial treat
foods are geared to look pleasing to us humans, but they are definitely
not in the best health interests of your pet rabbit. Rabbits
are not seed, fruit or cereal eaters by nature and these types of
junk foods are high in sugars and carbohydrates, which as
we talked about earlier can lead to an overgrowth of bad bacteria.
Hay is the most important factor in your rabbit's diet.
It is his prime source of fiber, which is instrumental in keeping
the gut in good working order. Hay has the added benefits of being
good entertainment for your bunny, they love to rearrange it, dig
it up and place it "just so," as well as a great source
of chewing material which is necessary to keeping the teeth healthy.
A rabbit's teeth grow continuously throughout his life and it is
essential that we provide them with safe chewing materials such
as hay and wooden chew
toys to help keep them filed down. A rabbit with tooth problems
is a rabbit on his way to having GI problems as well. Fresh timothy,
oat and other grass
hays should be available to all bunnies all the time. Alfalfa
hay, which is higher in calories as well as calcium (which can
cause kidney or bladder problems(sludge) in older rabbits) is okay
to feed to physically fit bunnies under the age of one, but should
be avoided for the average healthy, mature house rabbit. On the
other hand, feeding alfalfa to younger bunnies may make it more
difficult to switch over to the lower protein/calcium grass hays
when they get older. We start all bunnies off with the grass hays;
as they are getting a healthy alfalfa-based pellet, we don't feel
the alfalfa hay is needed. Some rabbits have higher protein needs
(older or sick rabbits, angoras, etc.) and may also need the alfalfa
hay. Again, consult your vet with all special dietary questions.
At Zooh Corner we feed a mixture of oat and timothy hay, as well
as orchard grass and our seasonal "ZoohMix"
(a blend of oat, wheat and barley hays) to bunnies of all ages,
unless they are on special, vet prescribed diets. We feel that a
variety of tastes encourages the bunnies to eat more hay, and the
variety of nutrients may be beneficial. Certainly no harm is done!
Anything to encourage more fiber consumption!
It is best to avoid purchasing pellets and hays from grocery stores
and pet store chains, as the feed can sit on the shelves or in storage
for months, which makes it stale and lacking in proper nutrient
values. You can usually purchase good quality pellets (OxBow,
Purina High Fiber
) and hays from local feed stores, or online
from our store. Some rabbit
vets also sell high quality pellets, and often, local rabbit rescues
will sell hays and pellets to help supplement the high costs of
rescue (what we do).
and Fruit: It is important to feed your rabbit a daily variety
of fresh vegetables to help balance out the nutritional needs in
his diet. Feed two to four cups of fresh vegetables for each five
pounds of optimum body weight. All vegetables should be fresh, washed
and organic whenever possible. (Note: Carrot tops & radish tops
should be organic. Humans do not generally consume the tops
of these vegetables, so little consideration is given to what pesticides
are sprayed on them and they could be very dangerous or fatal to
your rabbit.) To make sure your rabbit gets the necessary nutrients
offer him at least three different vegetables daily (from our list
of vegetables and fruits at the bottom of this page) and make
sure one or more contain Vitamin A (noted with *).
While you may occasionally feed your rabbit a bit of fruit, it is
extremely important that you limit their intake to no more than
one or two tablespoons of high fiber fruits (pears, apples, tomatoes...)
per five pounds of optimum body weight, one or two times a week
. Never give fruit to dieting bunnies. Too much sugar can make your
bunny fat, because excess energy (a by-product of sugar consumption)
is converted to - fat!
your rabbit a limited amount of high fiber pellets, abundant fresh
grass hays and a daily assortment of fresh vegetables is a key factor
in keeping your rabbit healthy. Keep in mind that time balance is
just as important to your rabbit's diet as is nutritional balance.
It is important to divide the pellets and vegetables between the
morning and evening meals, while having hay and fresh water available
at all times. And remember, exercise is just as important as
diet in keeping the rabbit [gut] functioning and healthy. A
rabbit should get a minimum of 3 - 5 hours out of cage exercise
every day. Take all dietary changes slowly. Quick changes to the
diet can cause diarrhea or an overgrowth of that bad bacteria in
the gut. Also keep in mind that different rabbits have different
dietary needs. Younger rabbits, elderly rabbits, smaller breeds
such as the Netherlands Dwarf, large breeds like the Flemish Giant
and long haired rabbits all have different needs and you should
consult your Rabbit Vet for more specific information.
body weight is how much your rabbit should weigh, not always how
much she does weigh.
(AND FRUITS) THAT ARE GOOD FOR YOUR BUNNY
At least three different vegetables a day are recommended
- any combination of lettuces counts as ONE veggie for that
Radish And Clover Sprouts
Carrots And Tops1
Dandelion Greens (Pesticide Free!)
Grass - Freshly Cut From Your Backyard,
If You Are Sure There Are No Chemicals, Fertilizers, Poisons
(Park Grass Usually Has One Or All Of These)
Pea Pods (A.K.A. Chinese Pea Pods)1
Peppers (green, red, yellow...)
Squash: Zucchini, Yellow, Butternut, Pumpkin
Various Lettuces, Avoid Very Light Hearts: Romaine, Butter,
Green Leaf, Boston, Bibb, Arugula... No Iceberg
Feed only once or twice a week in small amounts - NO seeds
or pits! Sugary fruits, such as bananas and grapes should
be fed only as occasional treats, and NO fruit should be fed
to rabbits who are overweight.
GRAINS, LEGUMES OR NUTS! These are not natural foods for rabbits
and they can be very dangerous to gut function.
1 Good source of vitamin A, feed at least
2 Some bunnies may find this a rather
"gassy" veggie. If diarrhea occurs, remove from diet.
3 These veggies are higher in calcium,
use sparingly, once or twice a week. For older buns, or those with
bladder or kidney problems, avoid, unless otherwise directed by
your rabbit vet.
4 High in either oxalates or goitrogens,
which can cause or exacerbate sludging, and other calcium/kidney
problems. Use sparingly!
Peter R. Rabbit Feeding and Nutrition. Orlando: Academic Press,
Jeffrey R., DVM. Feeding Recommendations for the House Rabbit.
The Veterinary Clinics of North America, 1999.
Dana M., PhD. GastroIntestinal Stasis, The Silent Killer. 1997.
Susan, DVM. Sluggish Motility in the Gastrointestinal Tract. Hand-out.
Midwest Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, Westchester, Ill.
Ann McDowell is a small animal and exotics vet at Chaparral Pet
Hospital in Claremont, California.
I would also like to thank the House Rabbit Society for their invaluable
contributions to rabbit veterinary medicine, as well as for their
endless information on general rabbit care.