The rabbit is different from other species of domesticated
animals in many aspects, but particularly so in its
digestion and alimentary process. This difference
is mainly in the development of specific roles for
the caecum,involving a large microbial flora and a
complex caecal wall, and in the practice of caecotrophy.
Patricia Gaskin describes how to maintain this non-stop
eating machine in peak condition.
Ask any successful exhibitor and they will declare
that rabbits are “made in the nest”. Rabbit
milk has a high nutritive value providing a complete
food during the entire suckling period. A doe will
feed her young only once in twenty-four hoursand suckling
lasts two to three minutes; this is sufficient because
of the extraordinary richness of rabbit milk which
contains more than twice as much total solids as cow’s
milk and four times the protein and fat.
It follows therefore that if the youngsters are to
thrive then the doe at the time of mating and up to
the birth should be at the peak of nutritional health,
and here’s where feeding plays a very significant
role. Today’s fanciers have a large and perhaps
bewildering choice of feeds. It is estimated that
at least seventy per cent of the fancier’s budget
is spent on feedstuffs, so it is essential that this
outlay provides optimum results.
Ensure there is a correct balance between protein,
fats, fibre and carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins,
and remember that some rabbit feeds also contain additives
such as coccidiostats and probiotics. Manufacturers
also provide specific feed to cover different sizes
and age groups, and pellet-only to pellets mixed with
cereals: what benefits one rabbit may not satisfy
another so it is important to study the small-print
on the bag label or study the manufacturer’s
Newly purchased stock should be fed on the diet that
it is used to while the new owner decides whether
to continue this feed or to introduce another. (Rabbits
can be very fussy and may even starve rather than
accept a different product.) Don’t cut corners.
Using a cheaper substitute feed – i.e. one that
is designed for horses and cattle – should be
avoided as the more expensive rabbit foods include
high biological value proteins which are not present
in other feeds.
The doe’s feeding routine during the pregnancy
varies greatly. From about the 25th day her appetite
lessens and she may refuse solid food just prior to
kindling. She will still continue to drink water and
this should be provided ad lib at the time of kindling.
After the birth her appetite rises quite sharply and
she should never be without fresh water. A shortage
of water in early life can have a quite serious effect
in retarding growth.
The kits will begin to explore the hutch from around
three weeks of age and may drink a little water in
addition to mother’s milk. Small amounts of
good quality hay should be introduced and within days
the young will be gathering at their mother’s
The babies will be eating almost a quarter of their
mother’s daily ration at four weeks, increasing
to 62 per cent at eight weeks and 100 per cent at
16 weeks. Mother and young are non-stop eating machines,
feeding as many as thirty snacks per day although
these decrease as they gain in weight. For this reason
a good quality hay should always be available during
the weaning process.
Any sudden change – from irregular feeding,
insufficient water or being taken away from the mother
before they are fully weaned – is stressful
and can lead to many of the dietary problems encountered
at this critical stage in their development.
Composition of rabbit feeds
Fibre is the most important component of any rabbit’s
diet, and should comprise as much as 20%. So it is
essential that if a rabbit is fed on pellets or mixed
cereals alone, good quality hay should supplement
the daily ration. Without adequate fibre, especially
if feeding antibiotics or at weaning time, the gastrointestinal
system is severely stressed and may lead to gut problems
such as mucoid enteritis.
The rabbit’s diet can be grouped into the following
(a) Roughages - straw, hay and other similar materials.
The rabbit requires high levels of fibre in its diet
to keep its gut working efficiently and trim the constantly-growing
teeth. Ad lib nibbling of hay prevents boredom and
behavioural problems. See section on feeding hay.
(b) Concentrates - cereals and their by-products,
etc. A wide selection of ingredients include wheat
and barley, vitamins and dried fruits, nuts and seeds,
etc. Rabbit Mix - a muesli-type concotion of cereals,
dried vegetables, pellets etc. Can lead to selection
feeding (i.e the rabbit picks out the bits it likes
best hoping its owner will “top up” the
bowl - if this is done on a regular basis it will
lead to a dietary imbalance. Rabbit pellets; Extruded
(c) Succulents - greenfoods, grass and roots. Grass
is an ideal rabbit food as it has very high fibre
level (around 20%) and around 14% protein. Chewing
grass will keep the teeth in good order.
During the BRC’s early years fanciers fed their
stock on bran mashes, corn etc. plus hay and a variety
of greenfoods from grasses to root vegetables. With
more leisure time in those pre-TV days it didn’t
matter that the collecting and feeding of greenstuffs
took up an hour or more at the end of the working
day. All was to change in the 1950’s when BOCM
introduced a revolutionary new feeding product: the
complete “rabbit pellet”. All one had
to do was add water and hay.
Overnight the feeding habits of fanciers changed.
Pellet feeding was fast, clean and cost effective.
Feed manufacturers introduced supplements of vitamins,
medicinal additives, minerals and growth promoters.
Supreme Petfoods was the first manufacturer to prepare
a muesli type mix and this colourful new cereal and
veggie diet was taken up by many fanciers but also
by pet owners who were attracted to its bright cartoonstyle
packaging. By the 1990’s there were dozens of
firms manufacturing rabbit feeds and treats. In May
1998 Burgess introduced an extruded nutritionally
balanced pellet called “Excel”.
Following a new type of rabbit disease in 1999 which
became known throughout the pet trade as “pet
shop syndrome” and described in modern textbooks
as “Mucoid Enteropathy” many breeders
suffered the kind of severe losses in weanling stock
that fanciers had experienced in the early days of
Fur & Feather published a health supplement “Gut
Reaction” in which one well known British vet
offered the suggestion that fanciers were seeing the
latest version of an old disease. The rabbit’s
biggest enemy is coccidiosis produced by the single
celled parasite Eimeria steidae. (Cocci is known to
kill around forty per cent of wild rabbits between
the age of six to ten and a half weeks.)
Following successful trials of feeds containing probiotics,
or were GM free, more products joined the shelves.
Among them was a pellet produced by a northern feed
mill containing the antiobiotic Aurofac (tetracycline).
Fanciers we have spoken to who turned to this medicated
pellet as a “last resort” in preventing
gut-related diseases report an encouraging success
rate, with virtually no losses in their weanling stock.
However, it should be stressed that the long-term
effects of using this pellet have yet to be evaluated
– the medication is licensed for use in cattle,
pigs and poultry – and it can only be purchased
on production of a veterinary prescription.
Jackie Rimmer of Masseys told Fur & Feather:
”There seems to be a lot of mystery for some
breeders surrounding the prescriptions and we would
like to outline how it works.
“Either the feed company or the customer will
order the prescription with the vet. On receiving
it the customer then has 3 months before they can
take any feed from it, but once they have activated
the script it is only valid for 31 days or until the
tonnage has been used up, whichever comes first. “Please
note that a prescription is a legal document and we
will not supply anyone this product without one”.
Tetracycline can also be administered in the drinking
water although when treating rabbits suffering from
ME this treatment is “unlikely to be effective”
Look at the Labels!
All animal feed manufacturers are legally required
to inform the purchaser of the contents of the bag
or box. If buying in large quantities, note the date
of purchase and when each bag is opened.
Labelling should state whether the food is “complete”,
“complementary” or a “food supplement”
and include directions for use and a “sell by”
date – check the date on purchase and never
buy feed that is near or past its sell-by date. Bag
should also list ingredients used and print the batch
number. It should give directions for use and recommended
quantities. There should also be a contact address
(if contacting the manufacturer, quote the batch number).
Dry Feed: The ideal diet for domestic rabbits is
hay, concentrates (pellets or mixes), greens and water.
Pet rabbits fed ad lib on greens and hay will avoid
obesity and digestive problems such as “sticky
bottom” (which can lead to fly strike.)
Some cavy feeds can be given to rabbits, (but not
the other way around as cavies need Vitamin C in their
daily diet.) Most hamster and mouse pellets sold in
pet shops are unsuitable for rabbits.
It is considered that the daily feed consumption
(dry rabbit pellets) should be about 5% of body weight.
One disadvantage of pellet feeding is that unless
the amounts are restricted the stock can get overweight
and exhibitors are advised to feed supplementary roughages.
Check that you are feeding the correct amount by weighing
it and use a suitably sized container.
If the pellets are excessively dusty they should be
sieved before feeding.
Hay: There are a number of types of hay and all vary
in their composition. Hay should smell sweet (not
musty), have been harvested in correct weather conditions
from young grasses and have plenty of leaf.
Ryegrass, meadowgrass, timothy, clover, lucerne or
alfalfa are all ideal. Sun dried lucerne (or alfalfa
as it is known in America and Australia) is rich in
protein, calcium and vitamin A , the lucerne I feed
comes from South Africa and distributed by Simple
Timothy is higher in crude fibre and much relished
by house rabbits .
Another good product is Readigrass (Spillers), a
pure dried grass which has a 15% protein and 32% fibre.
A useful guide to hay can be found in VirginiaRichardson's
Rabbits Health, Husbandry & Diseases and includes
A nutritious hay can be made for free from nettles.
John Sandford described it in his book as "the
best of all hays" see harvesting instructions
on page 9.
Water: The rabbit¡¯s daily water consumption
is about 10% of its body weight (except in lactating
does who will consume more than 1 litre per day so
water should be supplied ad lib).
If using bottles check frequently for leakages as
apart from anything else this can lead to a type of
moist dermatitis. A rabbit that is used to a drinking
bowl may refuse to drink from a bottle and become
dehydrated, so it is important to check that any new
rabbit is drinking adequately.
Treats: Hard baked bread is relished, also pieces
of fresh fruit and some vegetable peelings. Most types
of wild greens. Bark and leaves (from trees like willow)
are particularly enjoyed; Chocolate biscuits and other
types of sweet "treats" do more harm than
good and are an absolute no-no.
Vitamins A & B are found in greenfoods and fish
liver oils. A deficiency may cause reproductive failures,
poor growth and a susceptibility to certain diseases
and nervous disorders, although this is rare.
Vitamin C: a valuable nutrient found in most greenfoods
and sythensised by the rabbit itself.
Vitamin D: once the scourge of rabbit keepers being
responsible for cases of rickets, the modern healthy
rabbit that has access to sunlight and produces the
Vitamin E: present in greenfoods and cereal grains.
In 1882 a French veterinary scientist (Charles Morot)
published a paper showing that rabbits produced two
kinds of faecal pellets, one of which they reingest.
One is the hard pellet that is seen on the floor of
the hutch, and the other is a soft pellet - called
caecotrophes - which is rarely seen as it is taken
from the anus and reingested. The significance of
this discovery was not realised until many years later.
Morot had realised that food eaten by the rabbit
rapidly reaches the stomach where it remains for several
hours before being gradually introduced into the small
intestine, where the particles that have not been
broken down by enzymatic action pass into the caecum.
The content of the caecum - bacteria and large and
small food particles that have not been broken down
- gradually enters the colon where the particles become
surrounded by mucus and form into a string of soft
pellets known as caecotrophes.
So the rabbit's colon contains two types of excrement:
the hard pellets that are expelled from the anus onto
the hutch floor - and the soft pellets which are sucked
from the anus and swallowed by the rabbit. Within
several hours large numbers of these reingested pellets
remain in the stomach, a process that from beginning
to end can last for around twenty-four hours.
It is rare to see caecotrophs on the hutch floor
- if you do it may be that the diet is unsuitable
or that the rabbit is over-eating.
The golden rule to caring for this nonstop eating
machine is to feed "little and often".
If the food or water pot is full at the end of the
day immediate action should be taken to find out why.
It goes without saying that rabbits that are kept
in unsanitary housing, under or over fed, fed irregularly
or with the wrong food will quickly lose condition,
or succumb to illness.