(c) Gryph- if you repost this article, please post with a link back to my website.
In order to understand rabbit nutrition, you have to understand the function of each of the parts of the digestive system which consists of the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small intestines, cecum, large intestine, rectum and anus. The esophagus functions as a tube for the passage of food from the mouth to the stomach. The simple stomach is where digestion of the food begins. In the small intestines, digestion continues. In the small intestines many of the nutrients from food are absorbed. The cecum is a holding area where bacteria digest portions of the feed not digested in the stomach or small intestines. The cecum provides the ability for rabbits to digest roughage. Water and mineral absorption occurs in the large intestines and this is where the fecal pellets are formed. The fecal pellets are stored in the rectum. Fecal pellets are not always formed. Usually during the night hours, soft stools are passed called cecotropes or cecals. It is thought that essential B vitamins not found in commercial foods are absorbed from the soft stool.
Cecotropes, also called 'night feces' or 'soft feces,' are the material resulting from the fermentation of food in a part of the digestive system called the 'cecum.' Cecotropes are nutrient-rich and are passed out of the body, like feces. These soft stools are caught and eaten by the rabbit and reingested by the animal so the nutrients can be absorbed. Stool eating, coprophagy, is an essential part of rabbit nutrition. Cecotropes have twice the protein, and half of the fiber of the typical hard fecal pellet. They also contain high levels of vitamin K and the B vitamins. Prevention of stool eating can result in malnutrition of rabbits. Rabbits kept in all wire cages still practice coprophagy. They get the soft stools directly from the anus. Cecotropes are smaller, softer, and moister than the hard fecal pellets. They are covered with greenish mucus, which makes them stick together. They look sort of like a cluster of grapes.
You can gauge a rabbit’s condition by its flesh and its fur. The rabbit should feel smooth along the entire length of the body without rough or bony spots. A rabbit is said to be in good condition if its coat looks and feels good since fur is made up of protein. When rabbits get enough protein, they develop good coats of fur if they have the breeding for good fur. Conditioning is partly related to the breed of the rabbit; some breeds can never look and feel as smooth as others.
What- and How Much- to Feed
There are a few primary trains of thought regarding rabbit nutrition. One is feed pellets only, one is feed pellets and hay, one is feeding whole grains and/or fodder (sprouted whole grains), and one is feed mostly foraged plants. Unless you have done your research and understand what plants grow native and are edible and healthy for rabbits, and unless you’re experienced enough to provide an appropriate well-rounded diet for your rabbit, then it’s a wise idea to start with a traditional diet of a complete pellet. Avoid pet store pellets with the dried vegetables and fruits in them. They are not nutritious enough for your rabbits, and cost a lot more in the long run. Don’t buy your hay at the pet store either; you can buy an entire big bale for what you’ll pay for a little package or two.
Pellets are primarily made of alfalfa and are a complete diet for your rabbits, including vitamins and minerals. There are several brands to choose from, some better than others. Ask around and see what other breeders are feeding, and ask what their experience has been with their chosen brand. Most protein levels vary from 15% to 18%. Different breeders have different opinions about what protein percentage they prefer. Be sure to ask what feed your breeder or breeders are using when you purchase your rabbits.
Rabbits should be offered a daily portion of pellets. Each day, a rabbit will eat approximately one fluid ounce of feed per pound of weight. There are 8 fluid ounces in one cup, so an eight pound rabbit will eat about 8 ounces or 1 cup of feed. Pregnant does, does with litters, and growing kits should be free fed at all times. A growing kit will eat the same amount of feed that a senior rabbit does, since they need all the extra fuel to grow. Some breeders free feed their rabbits and offer pellets at all times. If you free feed, watch your rabbits’ conditions closely; overweight rabbits have a hard time conceiving. Your rabbits do not need salt and mineral wheels. Pellets have these things already added into them, so it’s unnecessary to have them unless you do not feed pellets. Treats should be minimal.
Some breeders do not believe in providing hay to their rabbits, especially since pellets are made mostly of hay. This is absolutely acceptable. If you do decide to feed hay, a good gauge of how much hay you should offer your rabbit daily is to offer a rabbit-sized wad of hay. It’s smart to hang the hay on the cage or hutch in a hay rack if possible to prevent your rabbits from soiling it and wasting it. Good quality grass hay is sufficient, since they are getting plenty of alfalfa from their pellets.
Snacks and Treats
Some snacks and treats can be bad for your rabbit! Here are some great ideas for more healthy options. If you are feeding foraged treats, be sure they are not sprayed with pesticides.
Plantain- whole plant, from flower to root
Dandelion- whole plant, from flower to root
Blackberry leaves and tender stems
Carrot chunks fed sparingly- carrots are very high in sugar!
Romaine or leaf lettuce (avoid iceberg) and other leafy greens such as basil, cilantro, watercress
Banana chunks including peels- fed sparingly- bananas are very high in sugar!
Dried Olive Leaves- these make great treats for kids to feed to rabbits!
Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, pineapple, mango, kiwi, papaya, cherries, nectarines, peaches, melons- all fed sparingly- these are very high in sugar!
Apples- entire apple including stem, seeds, etc. Seeds do contain arsenic but a rabbit would have to eat a LOT of seeds for it to affect them. Feed sparingly, as apples are high in sugar
Radishes and radish tops
Pumpkin- peel, meat, seeds, stem, etc
You can also choose to offer herbs from my herb list, here.
Treats to Avoid
Yogurt Drops- rabbits should not eat dairy, this can cause digestive issues
Bread and Pasta- rabbits process these as sugar, which is not good for your rabbit
Avocados- a tiny taste is okay but can be unsafe
Rhubarb- toxic to rabbits and can be fatal in large amounts
Chocolate- poisonous to rabbits
Colorfully-dyed store-bought treats- the dyes are not good for rabbits
Dried fruit- in small amounts this can be okay but too much can swell in your rabbit's gut and cause issues, plus dehydrate your rabbit
Foods/Treats/Snacks to Be Careful Of!
Feed green vegetables and plants sparingly to kits or new rabbits at first, as they can cause bloat. Iceberg lettuce is a no-no; there is no nutritional value in it. Celery should always be cut into pieces, as the strings can choke your rabbits. Never, ever feed your rabbits meat, even though some old wives’ tales suggest feeding does bacon. Just don’t do it.