Rabbit Nutrition: What
rabbits eat could be crucial to their health. If you know WHAT rabbit food
ingredients are essential for health, you can more easily provide healthy rabbit food.
Here are some categories of nutrition, reasons why they are important, and amounts and percentages that will result in healthy rabbits.
Not into the technical stuff?
Skip the nutrition lesson
and go straight to What
Do Rabbits Eat for guidelines on feeding your
rabbits, especially your pet and house rabbits, so they will stay healthy and
happy. Or, check out our e-book, Feeding Your Rabbits, which covers the gamut from pelleted feeds to do-it-yourself feeds without pellets.
We list fiber first,
because it is so crucially important for rabbit nutrition and health. Rabbits need lots of fiber, both soluble and
insoluble. Their guts need the fiber to keep
the contents moving along. Should the intestinal transit time slow down, a couple
problems could happen.
Complex sugars could break down too completely into simple sugars, creating a
bloom of bacteria in the gut. Result?
Potentially fatal enterotoxemia.
Transit slow-down can also result in an impaction. The rabbit can no longer eat or drink, and may starve to death if the blockage cannot resolve itself.
That’s why fiber -
both soluble and insoluble fiber - is crucial for rabbit nutrition:
Water is another
essential ingredient in rabbit nutrition.
A rabbit can go many days without feed, but only 3 or so days without
Ideally, your rabbit
will have access to an unlimited source of fresh water every
Winter may pose
understandable challenges, due to frozen water tubing, valves, nozzles and
crocks. In wintertime when our water
lines are frozen, we carry fresh water to our rabbits several times a day.
We also heat the water. It will stay 'wet' longer if it starts out at a high temperature.
If winter lasts for
many long months in your area, you might consider warmers for your watering
system and tubing.
Actually, of more than 50 identified nutrients a rabbit needs, just a few are critical to pay attention to, because the rest are plentiful in a normal rabbit diet. If you feed commercial rabbit pellets, the feed company has taken the worry out of supplying your rabbit’s dietary needs.
Protein: A rock-bottom minimum protein requirement for rabbit survival is approximately 8% protein however non-producing adult rabbits should receive at least 12 to 14 percent protein. Lactating does should receive 17 to 18% of their diet in protein. Commercial pellets meet the rabbit diet protein needs with alfalfa and soybean meal, among other forages.
If you can only find pellets with 16% protein and want to provide your rabbit with less protein, simply feed a little less pellets and increase the grass hay portion of the diet.
Carbohydrates: Readily digestible (starches and soluble fibers) in low quantities and relatively indigestible, such as cellulose, in a greater percentage than the protein levels. Carbs are for energy, and some boost immune system communication and function (beta-glucans). But carbohydrate overload can cause an explosion of bacteria in the gut, and if this includes toxin-producing bacteria, the rabbit can die quickly of enterotoxemia. Simple carbs have value, they just need to be balanced with fiber.
Rabbit Condition Enhancers: BOSS, Whole Oats
Fats: Fat is easily digested in the small intestine. Fat levels as high as
25% have had no ill effects on the rabbit. Normally however, you can expect a
2-5% fat level in pelleted feeds. Show rabbit breeders may add a little oil to
feed top-dressings in order to enhance rabbit coat condition.
Adding fats to a lactating doe's rations will quickly boost her milk production. Top her pellets with whole black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS), 0.75 - 2 tablespoons depending on the size of the doe.
Interestingly, rabbit nutrition supplied by commercial pellets is likely to be very low in fats. This is because fats tend to make the pellets more crumbly if careful attention is not paid to the mixing process. It takes longer to do a good job.
Your adult rabbits will probably benefit from a pinch of BOSS each day. Give more to the youngsters.
Vitamins: Dietary vitamin requirements are quite low in rabbits. Fat-soluble
vitamins A, D, and E are usually supplemented in dry pellets, as are Thiamin
(B1), Riboflavin (B2) and cobalamin (B12).
vitamins doesn't seem to be a main concern. As a breeder of
show rabbits, I used to feed calf manna, an extra high protein
with vitamins and minerals, to our brood does during gestation and the
weeks of lactation. But, then I discovered that supplementing their fat
intake augmented their milk production, which was result I was looking for.
The need for an external source of vitamins and
minerals (other than what is supplied by the rabbit's pellets) is low due to coprophagy.
Eating the soft contents of the cecum directly from the anus runs their food through a second time, so they can absorb a second
helping of nutrients. In tests that prevented rabbits from access to
their cecotropes, the rabbits' nutritional health declined significantly.
Minerals: Rabbits absorb calcium very efficiently, and excrete the excess in the urine, leaving behind white deposits in and below their cages. Mixing legumes and alfalfa offers a balanced supply of calcium and phosphorus. Pelleted feeds also include mineral additives: Magnesium, sodium, potassium, chlorine, sulfur, iron, copper, cobalt, manganese, zinc, iodine and selenium. Deficiency diseases for most of these minerals is unknown.
A note about cobalt: Cobalt's only known role in rabbit nutrition is to make up a part of vitamin B12 (cobalamin). Additionally, no specific nutritional requirement has been identified. The practice of coprophagy in rabbits ensures that they consume a large excess of B12, supplied by the huge bacterial population in their hindgut.
Commercial pellets ensure the rabbit will receive all these minerals in correct balance. If for some reason you feed minimal to no pellets, you will need to find a way to add salt to the rabbit’s diet. We haven't used salt licks in years, however if necessary, you can hang a mineralized salt spool in the rabbit's cage.
Most mineralized salt licks guarantee the following minerals in various quantities:
Currently the best commercial rabbit food available in the USA:
Age, moisture and
light zap the vitamins in feed.
Old feed can mess
with your rabbit nutrition! After a few
months, commercial pellets lose their nutritional zing. Pellets older than 3 months old may not be able to keep your rabbits healthy for very long.
Keep feeding the old stuff, and your rabbits will lose their conditioning (overall
flesh condition and vitality) due to nutrient loss (oxidation). The animal may also go off
its feed and get diarrhea, possibly due to mold growth in old
Why? First, because no adequate safety studies have been performed, and
second, the scientists performing the tests have been in the payroll of
those who stand to profit (Monsanto, et al). This is a HUGE conflict of interest. Additionally, Monsanto has a
track record of intimidation against any unbiased scientists running studies that don't produce the desired results.
The only third-party long-term published safety study
uncovered damning evidence of a health disaster with GMO forages; this
study will soon be withdrawn, as the publication hired a new editor - an
See Fetus Images for our brief experience with a cheap feed containing a double whammy of GMO - both corn and soy. The story is only anecdotal, to be sure...
Corn and soy are almost certainly GMO in the USA. Unfortunately, organic
feeds are usually extremely pricy. You would do well to find a feed
without either ingredient, or at minimum, just one. Check the label or
ask the feed mill whether your brand contains corn and/or soy.
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