The correct diet is crucial in keeping your rabbit happy and healthy. The wrong diet can lead to dental disease, obesity, behaviour problems and potentially fatal intestinal problems. Rabbits are herbivores and rely on eating a lot of long fibrous material which has poor nutritional value to keep them healthy. Whereas ruminants have 4 parts to the stomach in order to digest their food adequately, rabbits rely on a different method to get as much nutrition from their diet as possible – it goes through the whole system twice! This allows them to be small and light.
Many diets which are unfortunately still commercially available were developed as concentrate foods for the rabbit meat industry. They are therefore designed for rabbit weight gain and not longevity. These ‘muesli-style’ diets are very detrimental to a rabbit’s health and a recent study at the University of Edinburgh has shown the severe problems that these diets cause.
At least 85-90% of a rabbit’s diet should be long fibrous material such as hay, dried grass or fresh grass. This is equivalent to the rabbit’s body size each day! The best type of hay to feed is Timothy hay. Many rabbits will prefer this over standard Meadow hay. Other ways you can encourage your rabbit to eat this food is using Readigrass or other dried grass.
The rest of your rabbit’s diet should be made up of fresh leafy greens (e.g. cabbage, cauliflower leaves, broccoli, curly kale, dandelions) and a nugget concentrate food such as Burgess Excel or Supreme Selective. Quantities of concentrate food should be limited to about 1 tablespoon per day for a medium-sized rabbit. If your rabbit is overweight, this food may need to be cut out completely. Encourage your rabbit to exercise by scattering the food, using it as training treats, or hiding the food in toilet roll tubes or a treat ball.
If your rabbit is not on a great diet, it is best to get him or her checked by your vet prior to making any diet changes to ensure that there are no health problems caused by the previous diet (e.g. dental disease) which may make transitioning onto a better diet more difficult (dental spurs will make chewing hay painful). With any changes, make them gradually over a period of several weeks. If your rabbit stops eating at any point, consult your vet immediately.