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RABBIT NUTRITION

Most common clinical problems that occur in rabbits are related directly or indirectly to diet.  This includes gastrointestinal diseases, respiratory diseases, hairballs,
pregnancy toxemia, abortions and other reproductive problems.  Therefore, special emphasis should be placed on ensuring adequate nutrition for the pet rabbit.

First and foremost, dietary fiber is critical to the rabbit’s gastrointestinal physiology.  Fiber stimulates gut motility, which is essential to digestion (and prevention of hairballs). High fiber diets are low in available carbohydrates, thus protecting the rabbit from overgrowth of harmful intestinal bacteria.  And, high fiber diets prevent obesity in rabbits. The best source of fiber for the rabbit is hay. Grass hay provides the most balanced nutrition for most pet rabbits.  Alfalfa hay can frequently be too high in calcium, leading some rabbits to urinary problems.  Commercially milled
alfalfa pellets also provide some fiber, but the pellet’s fiber content ranges from a low of 10-12% to a high of 20-22%.  The pellet’s protein content ranges from a low of 12-14% to a high of 22-24%.  Feeding a high protein and low fiber pellet may cause diarrhea.  Providing hay also stimulates activity in the rabbit, thereby preventing obesity. Therefore, the pet rabbit’s diet should consist of free choice grass or timothy hay with a vegetable supplement and possibly a measured daily alfalfa meal-based pellet.

Rabbits also practice the behavior of eating their own feces, called coprophagy. The rabbits’ specialized digestion produces two types of fecal pellets, called cecotrophs. Hard, round fecal pellets are excreted during the day, and the rarely observed soft fecal pellets are excreted at night. These night feces have an outer greenish membrane of mucus; the rabbit eats them directly from its anus.  This process helps in the absorption of previously undigested nutrients and reinoculates the gut with essential nutrients.  Therefore, it is essential that the rabbit not be placed in an
enclosure in which access to its feces is limited (such as wire cages).  

Rabbits need access to water at all times.  In our hot Arizona summers, rabbits are especially susceptible to heat exhaustion, if left outdoors. Therefore, inspect watering devices daily to ensure proper operation and availability of water. Ensure the pet rabbit knows how to use the lixit-type devices. A rabbit may be trained to use the lixit by applying molasses or corn syrup to the surface of the water delivery system.  If using a water bowl, be sure it is heavy and stable enough to prevent tipping, and be sure to clean it daily.  

Finally, some rabbits are especially susceptible to stress, which may cause
anorexia and a decreased immunity.  When frightened, rabbits seek hiding places.  Always be sure the rabbit has access to a hide cage or box.  

 

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