Hay - HAY IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF THE HOUSE RABBIT DIET. HAY SHOULD BE
PROVIDED AT ALL TIMES IN YOUR PET'S CAGE. Hay provides healthy indigestible
fiber which keeps the digestive tract working normally. In addition hay
contains a variety of other nutrients and calories essential to the good
health of your rabbit. The type of hay preferred is GRASS hay which can
include timothy, prairie, brome, meadow, oat (this is the GRASS not the
oats you buy in the store to eat for cereal), and Bermuda. Often grass
hay is sold as mixed grass which contains several of these types. Alfalfa
hay is not preferred due to its higher calorie and calcium content. However,
in situations where grass hay is not available, alfalfa may be used temporarily.
It is better than no hay at all. We prefer the loose hay as opposed to
hay cubes, but for clients with allergies to loose hay, the cubes can
be an alternative and are better than no hay.
Feeding hay has other health benefits besides
keeping the digestive tract in good shape. Because hay is more abrasive
and takes longer to break down by chewing than a pellet (which is made
of compressed fine particles) there is tremendous benefit to the teeth.
The teeth grow throughout a rabbit's life and overgrown molars and incisors
can be a problem if the rabbit does not have enough abrasive material
to chew on. In addition, the additional time chewing hay and the "full
feeling" to the stomach which hay provides will result in less chewing
on other objects in the house (it doesn't stop electric cord chewing!).
It also decreases the incidence of rabbits chewing on their own or their
We sell flakes of mixed grass hay at our
hospital, but for those that live a great distance away or need more than
a flake you can check with your local pet stores, feed stores and horse
barns for sources of grass hay. If you have several rabbits you may want
to buy a whole bale. If you buy from a horse barn or feed store, make
sure the hay did not come from the top of the stack where is may be contaminated
by animal or bird feces.. Hay should be stored in a cool, dry place, safe
from raccoons and birds with good air circulation (don't close it tightly
in a plastic bag). Discard wet or damp hay, or any hay that does not have
a "fresh" smell. One efficient way to offer the hay is to use
a hay rack on the outside of the cage. Your pet can pull the hay into
the cage through the bars as he or she needs it. This keeps the hay clean
and eliminates much of the waste.
Fresh Foods - Fresh food is the second most important part of the house rabbit diet.
These foods should be given daily. Rabbits in the wild eat a lot of tough,
fibrous plants. Their digestive tract functions best when it has a high
level of fiber which helps to maintain the normal intestinal motility.
If your rabbit has never eaten green foods
before, then it is best to establish it on hay first. If your rabbit is
already eating hay, then there is generally no problem starting right
out with fresh green foods no matter what the age of your pet. Begin sparingly
and increase gradually. There are occasionally greens that cause a harmless
softer stool (notoriously parsley) and these can be eliminated from the
diet if this is the case. When using greens for the first time, start
with something like romaine, kale or mustard greens and then add a new
green food every couple of days. If you find any food that results in
a softer stool the same day it is fed, then temporarily eliminate it from
the diet and try again in a month or so.
As with yourself, make sure to wash all fresh
foods carefully before using and when possible either grow your own or
use organic. Because fresh vegetables are not as concentrated in nutrients
pound per pound as the dry hay, you should not depend on greens only to
maintain your pet's weight. Rabbits must have pellets, hay as well as
greens in the diet!
Here are some examples of food items you
can feed your pet: Carrot tops, beet tops, dandelion greens and flowers
(these are excellent, but no pesticides, please), collard greens, escarole,
romaine lettuce, (don't give light colored leaf lettuce or iceberg lettuce),
chickweed, plantain, endive, Swiss chard, parsley, clover, broccoli (don't
forget the leaves), carrot, pea pods (the flat edible kind), basil, borage,
wheat grass, mescalin greens mixes, peppermint leaves, raspberry leaves,
raddichio, bok choy and escarole.
Rabbit Pellets - Select a low protein feed to maintain a healthy house rabbit. If
possible, check the mill date (the date the pellets were produced at the
factory) on the package and use them within 90 days of this date. Taste
the feed yourself... if it tastes moldy, don't feed it to your rabbit.
The following chart shows maximum daily amounts
to be fed to your bunny. DO NOT REFILL THE BOWL even if the pellets are
all eaten before the next day. OVERFEEDING OF PELLETS IS THE NUMBER ONE
CAUSE OF HEALTH PROBLEMS THAT WE SEE. Keep your rabbit healthy by not
*Rabbits up to 6 months of age can have access
to pellets free choice, because they are still growing rapidly. However,
after 6 months of age they should receive the following maintenance diet.
2-4 Lb. of body
weight - 4 - 6 oz. daily (Tan recommended portions)
Please note that these food amounts are for
the maintenance of the non breeding mature house rabbit. If you intend
to breed your pet, then we suggest increasing the daily pellet amounts
during the breeding season. You will also have to increase the protein
percentage. For does that are nursing babies, the pellets should be increased
over a 4-5 day period to free choice until the babies are weaned. After
the breeding period is over, resume feeding at the maintenance levels
as listed above or remove pellets altogether as recommended by your veterinarian.
Treat Foods - In a total (of combined foods) amount of 2 tablespoons per 2 Lbs of body
weight daily, you can give the following foods: Strawberries, papaya,
pineapple, apple, pear, melon, raspberries, blueberries, apple pear, mango,
cactus fruit, persimmon, peach, pear, or tomato. Bananas and grapes can
be "addicting" and we don't recommend feeding these items unless
it is only a very occasional treat. Dried fruits may be used as an alternative
to the fresh listed above but use half the amount.
*WE DO NOT RECOMMEND GIVING ANY OF THE FOLLOWING
FOODS ROUTINELY BECAUSE OF THEIR POTENTIAL FOR CAUSING INTESTINAL UPSET
AND Obesity: Salty or sugary snacks, nuts, chocolate, breakfast cereals,
legumes (peas and beans) and other grains (including oats, corn, wheat,
and either fresh or cried bread).
Lactobacillus or Acidophilus (Yogurt)
- This is often recommended in some texts
for the diet of the rabbit, but although it is not harmful, it is not
necessary. The touted benefit is that the live bacteria in the yogurt
will replace bacteria that may be killed in the intestinal tract of the
rabbit by disease or drugs. Lactobacillus is NOT a significant normal
part of the rabbit intestinal flora and in addition it will be killed
in the stomach before it even reaches the intestine due to the fact that
the stomach pH is about 1-2. Therefore, it makes no sense to give this
product. The nutrition that may be gained by feeding a dairy product (which
contains animal protein, which rabbits don't really need) could be better
provided by a plant source such as a dark green leafy vegetable.
Water - This should ALWAYS be available, and changed daily. A dirty water container
can be a breeding ground for bacteria that can cause disease. The container
can be either a water bottle or heavy bowl that is weighted or secured
to the side of the cage so that it does not tip over. Avoid the use of
water medications or other additives because your pet may not drink sufficient
quantities of water if the taste is altered. Note that rabbits that are
getting a large portion of greens in the diet get most of their fluid
requirements from these foods and will drink very little other water.
Vitamins - Vitamin supplements are not necessary in the healthy rabbit. Rabbits not
only get these nutrients from the hay and fresh foods, but also produce
their own vitamins, such as vitamins C, B-complex and K in their cecotropes
which they then re-eat and digest. (See the section called Night Droppings).
In fact, the indiscriminate use of vitamins may lead to overdosage and
serious disease. In addition vitamins added to the water can cause the
rabbit to not drink sufficient amounts of water due to the bad taste and
can actually cause more rapid bacterial growth. Use additional vitamins
only under the supervision and advice of your veterinarian.
Salt or Mineral Block - Not necessary for the house pet on the described diet. If you are
concerned about this part of their diet, buy a mineral block. If they
don't need it, they won't use it.
Night Droppings (Cecotropes) - It may seem strange to list this as a part of the diet, but these
"special droppings" known as cecotropes, are an essential part
of your pet's nutrition. During certain times of the day, usually about
4-6 hours after eating, you may observe your pet licking his or her anal
area and actually eating some of the droppings in the process.
Cecotropes are softer, greener, and have
a stronger odor than the normal hard, dry, round waste droppings and they
come directly from the cecum which is the part of the digestive system
where fermentation of food takes place. The cecum is located at the junction
of the small and large intestine. In the cecum the digestible portion
of the diet is broken down by bacteria which then produce fatty acids,
amino acids (proteins), vitamins and minerals. Some of these nutrients
are absorbed directly through the wall of the cecum, but most of the nutrients
are kept inside the bacteria which are excreted in the cecotropes. Your
pet knows when these droppings are being produced and will take care of
eating them himself. After eating these nutrition rich droppings your
pet will redigest the material and extract all the necessary nutrients.
This habit may appear distasteful to us, but it is normal and important
for your pet. In fact, in this way, the rabbit can survive in the wild
on food that other animals might not be able to thrive on because they
could not digest it and extract the vital nutrients. The rabbit actually
does an excellent job producing its own nutritional supplements within
Occasionally a rabbit will drop these cecal
pellets along with the waste pellets instead of eating them. This often
happens when the diet contains excessive amounts of protein or energy.
These droppings will be soft, green to brown, appear clumped and are misshapen,
but formed and have a strong odor. This is not diarrhea, and if it only
occurs occasionally, it is not considered a disease problem. Some rabbits
leave excessive amounts of cecotropes in the cage because they can't reach
the anal area. Conditions such as obesity, flaps of skin over the anal
area, spinal disease, painful abdomen or pain in general can lead to this
condition. A diet that is low in fiber or high in energy may also lead
to a chronic and persistent production of cecotropes that are too soft
and liquid to be eaten and thus are left in little puddles around the
environment mixed with normal waste stools. Your rabbit needs to be examined
by a veterinarian if you see excessive amounts of abnormal stools of cecotropes
in the cage.
Housing - We highly recommend that rabbits not be kept in a cage all the time. Rabbits
that are caged continuously run a higher risk intestinal and urinary disease
and obesity due to lack of exercise. In addition they may develop behavioral
problems such as excessive chewing or aggression (perhaps out of boredom
or "stress''). An excellent set-up is to have a cage or partially
enclosed house area as a comfortable "home-base", which they
can enter and leave as they wish throughout the day, surrounded by a dog
exercise pen for a place to roam. These pens come in all different sizes
and are made up of a number of metal wire panels that can be taken apart
and moved to make the pen area any size or shape you want. We recommend
that it be at least 3 feet high for most rabbits. For some of the larger
breeds use 4 foot high pens. You can purchase a solid piece of no-wax
flooring to cover the floor of the pen so that carpet or other flooring
is protected and it is easy to clean up accidents. Another advantage of
the pen arrangement is that the rabbit is kept out of trouble from chewing
on furniture and electrical cords and the pen can be moved from room to
room or even outdoors as needed.
A metal cage may be used as a "home
base" within the recommended pen area discussed in the previous paragraph.
It may have an open wire floor of 14 gauge wire (1"x 1/ 2" square
openings) with a solid tray underneath. The size of the cage should be
at least 24" x 24" x 18" high for the small and medium
sized breeds and 36" x36" x 24" high for the large breeds.
A solid floored area is necessary to prevent sore hocks and to provide
an area for resting. You can use a towel (unless you have a pet that likes
to eat towels), or piece of carpeting or wood for the solid area. We have
found that the "synthetic fleece' cloth that is sold in fabric stores
(in a variety of colors) works very nicely, as it is washable and if the
pet chews on it, there are no long strands of fabric that can get caught
in the digestive tract. Newspaper or other bedding materials (not pine
or cedar - see suggestions under "Litter Box") can be used under
the wire. Do not use aquariums or solid walled cages because the lack
of sufficient air circulation has been directly linked to an increase
in respiratory disease.
If you are going to have your bunny roaming
the house at any time, make sure that you eliminate areas where your pet
can get trapped or from which it can escape. Protect or remove electrical
cords, on which they like to chew, carpeting, which they like to dig up
and chew, and any toxic materials such as rodent poisons or plants that
your pet could get into. Get on your hands and knees and "bunny-proof'
Litter Box - Rabbits can be litter box trained relatively easily. Initially you need
to keep your pet in a small area, either in a cage or a blocked off section
of the room and place a litter box in the corner (try to pick the corner
your pet has already used for the bathroom. Make sure the sides of the
box are low enough so your pet can get in and out easily. It is helpful
to put some of the droppings in the box. Some people have also found it
useful to put some hay in the box to encourage defecation in the box (they
usually pass stool while they are eating). You can reward your pet with
one of the treat foods listed previously whenever he or she has used the
box successfully. Do not punish your pet while in the litter box. Do not
worry if your pet sits for extended periods in the litter box. Sifting
in the box can be allowed as long as your pet is not soiling itself and
the box is cleaned frequently.
Pelleted paper or other organic products
make the best bedding. These products are non toxic and digestible if
eaten, easier to clean up than shavings or clay litter, control odor better
and are compostable. In addition they draw the moisture away from the
surface of the litter which protects the rabbit's feet from getting wet
if they like to sit in their litter box. Some examples are Cellu-Dri and
Yesterday s News (which are paper products), and Mountain Cat Kitty Litter
or Harvest Litter (pelleted wheat grass products). We carry several of
these products here at the clinic.
Temperature - Rabbits should be kept in the COOLEST and least humid area of the house.
Studies have shown that bunnies kept in warm, humid environments with
poor air circulation, have a dramatic increase in the incidence of respiratory
disease over those animals kept in cool, dry environments with good air
circulation. Damp basements are one of the worst areas to keep your pet.
If your rabbit must be kept in a basement, invest in a dehumidifier and
a fan to keep out dampness and improve air circulation.
The optimum temperature range for a bunny
is 60-70 degrees F. When the temperature gets into the mid 70's, you may
see an increase in drooling, and nasal discharge. If temperatures reach
the upper 80's and beyond, and especially if the humidity is high the
potential for fatal heat stroke is very real. On very hot days, when air
conditioning is not available, it is helpful to leave a plastic milk jug
filled with frozen water in the cage, for a portable "air conditioner".
Please keep fresh, cool water available,
as this will also help to keep the body temperature down. If your pet
should actually experience a heat stress reaction, try holding an icepack
on the ears or gently wet your pet down with cool (not cold) water. If
the heat stroke is severe, veterinary attention will be necessary.
If your bunny is being kept outdoors in either
warm or cold weather, make sure that part of the cage is sheltered from
the wind and the sun. For the winter it is advisable to use straw bedding
in the sheltered area for insulation and make sure that the water bowl
is changed daily, as your pet can dehydrate rapidly if the water is frozen
for more than a day.
There are a number of ways to pick up a rabbit
depending on how calm he is and his size. The main thing to remember is
to always support the hind quarters to prevent serious spinal injuries.
The rabbit backbone is fragile and can easily fracture if the hind legs
are allowed to dangle and the animal then gives a strong kick. Unfortunately
many of these injuries are permanent and may result in the euthanasia
of the pet, so the best policy is prevention. Never pick up a bunny by
it's sensitive ears, it's painful and totally unnecessary! It is better
to grasp the loose skin over the shoulders or scoop up under the chest
and then place your other hand under the back legs to lift your bunny
from the floor. Work near the floor when first learning to handle your
pet so that if he jumps out of your arms he won't have far to go.
It may also be useful to put your bunny on
its back when trying to trim nails and examine the underside of your pet.
Most rabbits will learn to relax in this position and can withstand quite
a bit of handling. Sit on the floor and put the rabbit on its back with
its head just over the edge of your knees so that it hangs down a little.
Restrain the body firmly between your thighs, and place one hand over
the chest to help prevent him from turning over. Talk softly and stroke
his chest and abdomen gently. It may be necessary to have a second person
face you and hold the front legs when first learning to trim nails in
this position. However, many pets become so relaxed that one person can
do all the grooming alone.
Females - A leading cause of death in the female rabbit is a cancer of the uterus
called adenocarcinoma. This is a malignant disease, and unfortunately,
once it is diagnosed, it may have spread to other areas of the body. This
cancer is preventable by having your pet spayed between 5 months and 2
years of age. The spay procedure involves removal of the rabbit's uterus
and ovaries. Spaying a rabbit also prevents the occurrence of breast cancer,
pyometra (infected uterus), uterine aneurysm (life-threatening bleeding
into the uterus) and false pregnancies. In addition, spaying a rabbit
will decrease aggression due to behavior associated with the rabbit being
"in season" (which is nearly constant!)
Males - Some male bunnies may become extremely aggressive when they reach sexual
maturity. There may be excessive biting and spraying of urine outside
of the regular litter box area. The urine may develop a very strong and
unpleasant odor due to the presence of male hormones, and these little
boys may not groom themselves well, developing stained and messy tail
areas. These males may start attacking other rabbits, leading to serious
bite wounds. The best solution to these behavioral problems is castration
(surgical removal of the testicles). This procedure is recommended any
time after 4 months of age.
Dental Disease- All rabbit teeth are open-rooted and grow continuously throughout their
life. Rabbits have this type of arrangement because they are designed
to eat tough fibrous foods throughout their lives that would wear down
teeth such as the type humans, dogs or cats have. The teeth are worn down
not only on the food items but on each other. If the teeth are not lined
up properly of if the diet does not provide sufficient opportunities for
chewing then they do not get worn down which results in overgrowth. Either
or both the front teeth (incisors) and back teeth (molars and premolars)may
develop a variety of problems. Some teeth can grow so long that they penetrate
the soft tissues of the mouth such as the roof, cheek or tongue. Tooth
roots can overgrow and penetrate the jaw bone. These conditions can lead
to extreme pain and in addition can result in abscesses and other signs
such as nasal and eye discharge, drooling and the inability to eat.
If the incisors are overgrown they will need
to be trimmed every 6 to 8 weeks. Do not use pet nail trimmers because
this can result in fractures of the teeth and deep root infections. Your
veterinarian will use a special dental instrument to trim the teeth more
safely. If the molars are involved, or if the animal is very skittish,
a general anesthetic may be required for the teeth trimming procedure.
It also may be recommended to take some head x-rays of your pet to evaluate
more effectively the extent of the tooth root disease. A permanent cure
for overgrown incisors is the complete removal of the incisors under a
general anesthetic. Rabbits are able to eat normally afterwards and teeth
trimming will obviously no longer be necessary. If your pet has dental
problems, please discuss the options with your veterinarian.
Loss of Appetite - There are a variety of reasons why a rabbit will lose its appetite. The
most common cause is pain. This can be anywhere in the body but the two
most frequently encountered causes of pain are dental disease and gastrointestinal
disease. The most common cause for gastrointestinal pain in our experience
is a diet low in fiber and high in calories. This combination can lead
to obesity, fatty liver disease, sluggish movement of the intestinal tract,
accumulation of a dry impacted food ball in the stomach and excessive
gas in the intestines which is uncomfortable. When the rabbit doesn't
eat, then the intestinal tract stops moving and the problem escalates.
Less common, but very serious conditions
that can also lead to appetite loss include uterine infections, abscesses,
respiratory infections, gastrointestinal infections, gastrointestinal
blockage, inner and middle ear infections, strokes, parasitic disease,
eating toxic materials and bladder and kidney infections.
Loss of appetite in a rabbit that
is otherwise acting normally is something that should be investigated
by your veterinarian within 48 hours. Rabbits
rapidly develop a deteriorating condition of the liver when they go without
food for long periods of time. If the liver deteriorates excessively,
there may be no way to reverse the process. Early diagnosis and treatment
of appetite loss is the best way to save your pet's life.
A loss of appetite accompanied by
obvious lethargy or depression should be investigated immediately and
should be considered an emergency. The classic
sign for rabbits developing a gastrointestinal obstruction is that they
are fine one day and then suddenly stop producing stools and are very
depressed the next.
"Hairballs" (Gastric Stasis)
- Hairballs are commonly cited as the reason
for rabbits to stop eating. The problem with rabbits that stop eating
and have an accumulation of food in their stomachs is NOT hair. All rabbits
groom themselves and accumulate some hair in the stomach normally. If
the rabbit is on a high fiber diet and has access to plenty of water (in
the form of fresh foods and water bottle) this condition rarely exists.
The material in the stomach remains fluid and has an "open-lattice-work"
type consistency and can move normally out of the stomach. However, when
a rabbit has any combination of the following: Low fiber diet, small particle
diet (pellets as exclusive diet), not enough water intake, lack of exercise,
or any condition, such as something painful, that causes it to eat or
drink less it results in a gastrointestinal tract that moves much more
slowly. Then what happens is that the food ball in the stomach starts
to dehydrate and compact. The less the rabbit eats or drinks, the more
the food ball becomes compacted until the rabbit stops eating entirely.
On an x-ray the stomach will appear full with a halo of air around the
food ball because the material is so dehydrated. If you looked at the
food ball directly you would see a mixture of hair and dried food present.
The hair is left behind because it is of a larger particle size and stays
in the stomach. Therefore, people have the mistaken idea that the original
problem was hair, when the original problem was a much larger issue such
as diet or other disease.
Pineapple juice or papaya enzymes DO NOT break down hair (which is not the total problem anyway) and are not useful
alone for this problem. Surgery should be avoided unless it is felt that
there is actually an obstruction present of if all medical therapy has
failed. Medical therapy should be aimed at rehydrating the food ball in
the stomach with oral fluids, rehydrating the rabbit with injectable fluids,
getting food orally into the stomach, stimulating the gastrointestinal
tract to move again with various drugs and pain relief. Please consult
your veterinarian for the particulars of the treatment of this disorder.
We prefer to call it gastric stasis (which means the stomach has stopped
moving) as opposed to "hairballs" which are not the problem.
Pasteurellosis - A large percentage of rabbits harbor a bacteria in their upper respiratory
passageways called Pasteurella multocida. This bacteria doesnt
cause a problem in most bunnies with a healthy immune system. However,
under certain stress situations, such as poor diet, high environmental
temperatures, poor air circulation, overcrowding, etc., this bacteria
can reproduce rapidly and cause potentially serious disease.
This bacteria may cause infections of the
upper respiratory tract, uterus, skin, kidney, bladder, tear ducts, middle
ear or lungs. Please have your pet examined if you observe any discharges
around the eyes, nose or anal area, or if there is a loss of appetite,
depression, diarrhea, head tilt, loss of balance, or labored breathing.
NEVER attempt to use antibiotics without veterinary supervision. Your
pet's gastrointestinal tract is an extremely delicate organ, dependent
on large populations of healthy bacteria to digest the food. If inappropriate
antibiotics are given indiscriminately, death may result because the antibiotic
killed the normal bacteria in the gut which led to an overgrowth of deadly
Diarrhea - True diarrhea is not common in the rabbit. This is a situation where all
stool being passed is in a liquid form. This is a very serious condition
and should be seen by your veterinarian immediately. Some gastrointestinal
conditions that result in diarrhea can be fatal in less than 24 hours.
What most people refer to as diarrhea, is
an intermittent passing of soft liquid or pudding-like stools. The rabbit
will also pass normal formed stools. The soft stools may be seen more
frequently at certain times of the day (many times overnight), may have
a strong odor and accumulate on the rabbit's fur. The liquid stools are
actually the cecotropes (see section on Night Droppings) that are unformed.
There are a variety of reasons for this condition, but by far the most
common reason is a lack of sufficient fiber in the diet and obesity. Eliminating
the pellets from the diet and feeding good quality grass hay only for
two weeks to three months may clear up the problem. Consult your veterinarian
if your pet has this condition before making any drastic changes in the
Urinary Disease - The urine color of the pet rabbit can range from light yellow to dark
orange in color. It may be clear to so cloudy as to almost appear white.
These color and clarity changes are due to the production of pigments
in the urine called porphyrins ( which can be related also to plant pigments
and/or the rabbit's emotional state) and calcium precipitate. The calcium
that is taken in through the diet is excreted through the urine, therefore
the urine may appear cloudier if the rabbit is eating a high calcium food
such as some pellets, alfalfa hay or some greens than if it is eating
no pellets or low calcium foods.
Rabbits can also develop urinary tract disease
such as bladder and kidney stones, infections or cancer. Signs of these
diseases may include any of the following weight loss, poor appetite,
frequent small urination, tinged blood and painful urination. It should
be noted that female rabbits with uterine disease may also produce what
appears to be bloody urine which is actually blood being discharged from
the reproductive tract just after urination. Your veterinarian will be
able to help you distinguish between the two. The most important preventatives
to urinary tract disease is a healthy diet, plenty of fresh water available'
exercise and a clean environment.
RETURN TO ABOUT TANS SECTION | RETURN TO MAIN PAGE