Jeff Kahler: With rabbits, it’s all in the way they’re fed

Rabbits are becoming increasingly popular as companion pets and deservedly so. These fabulous creatures are highly intelligent, interactive animals that can live indoors and out and are quite adept at teaching their caretakers how they want to live their lives. That last remark is a bit “tongue-in-cheek,” however there is some truth in those words, as rabbits are very capable of understanding their people.

In choosing a rabbit as a companion, the first thing that must be understood is that they are not a dog or a cat. I know this is an obvious truth, but rabbits have a very specialized digestive tract, nothing like what is found in a dog or cat, designed to digest primarily grasses. They should never be fed foods containing simple carbohydrates (read “sugar”). They require a diet with a minimum of 25 percent fiber, which, incidentally, many of the pellet rabbit feeds do not contain. Frankly I prefer to feed my rabbits, and recommend the same to my rabbit caretakers as well, a diet consisting of at least 80 percent hay, more specifically, Timothy hay. Here’s why.

Rabbits are in a group of animals called cecal fermenters. These types of animals eat foods that are actually indigestible except for the fact that they have special little friends that break down this otherwise indigestible food into digestible food. These friends are bacteria and it is the rabbit’s job in this relationship to take care of these bacteria so the rabbit can use its food for what it is intended. Plant fiber is not otherwise a digestible food.

This process in rabbits occurs in a digestive organ known as a cecum. Incidentally, horses are members of the cecal fermenter group too, so are iguanas. Think of the cecum as a large vat of fluid and bacteria within the rabbit’s digestive tract designed to nurture the bacteria, which, in turn, break down the fibrous meal into products that the rabbit uses. These include carbohydrates, proteins in amino acid segments and a small amount of fat. This relationship is called symbiosis and it works beautifully as long as the rabbit eats the proper items. When this is not the case, the rabbit can be in grave danger.

If a rabbit does not eat for a period of time even as short as 12 hours, changes can occur in the types of bacteria that dominate the cecal environment. The “good” bacteria have not been fed and therefore “bad” bacteria can take over. These bad bacteria can produce toxins that can be fatal to the rabbit. This process can be devastatingly quick no matter what the reason for the rabbit not eating. This can also occur when the rabbit is given foods that are not proper, such as foods with simple carbohydrates. The “good” bacteria do not do well with these sugars but the bad bacteria do. This then can lead to the scenario I mentioned above.

The bottom line in this nutritional discussion is that rabbits need to eat a high-fiber diet based on hay. Pelleted diets can be used in small amounts daily to go with the hay, the key term here being “small.” I recommend 1/4 cup maximum. I mentioned Timothy hay as the hay I recommend for rabbits. This type of hay is not too rich in calories and not too high in calcium when compared with alfalfa hay. Alfalfa should not be fed to rabbits, period. This also goes for the pellets. Use pellets that are Timothy-hay based. The pellets should also be contain a minimum of 25 percent fiber.

In my veterinary experience working with rabbit patients over the last – and I hesitate to share this big number – 27 years, I would venture a guess that greater than 75 percent of the problems I deal with in these wonderful creatures occur as a result of improper feeding. Feeding a Timothy hay-based diet with a small amount of pellets, if desired, along with clean water is the best way to prevent many potential problems for your rabbit.