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Feeding

Rabbit Feeding & Nutrition

Part 1

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 leaflet.

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 feed pot.

Part 2

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 categories:

(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 Pellets.

(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.

History

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 the fancy.

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” (Harcourt-Brown).

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).

Daily Requirements

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.

Part 3

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 Systems www.simplesystem.co.uk)

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 this chart:

Hay type Protein Fibre Calcium
Lucerne

16%

28%

1.5%

Grass Hay

14%

31%

0.4%

Timothy

8%

30%

0.5%

Wheat straw

3%

35%

0.2%

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

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 itself.

Vitamin E: present in greenfoods and cereal grains.

Caecotrophy Explained

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.

Good Stockmanship

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.