To help promote normal dental wear and provide the high-fibre diet which is essential, rabbits should have access to ‘graze’ for 4-6 hours a day – this should include hay, grass and wild plants. This is the best way to help ensure that your pet stays healthy and happy.
What’s in grass? Grass provides a balanced source of protein, digestible and indigestible fibre, vitamins and minerals. It is highly abrasive and is vital in providing correct dental wear. As rabbits teeth are open routed, and so grow continuously (approx 2-3 mm per week) throughout their life, chewing grass is essential for even tooth wear and to help prevent dental problems such as malocclusion.
Grass is 20-40% crude fibre with a protein content varying from 3% (very mature grass) to 30% (young, well-fertilised grass) although the range is generally 15-19%. Fibre content generally increases as protein content decreases. The fibre is essential to help to keep the gastrointestinal tract moving and thus prevent gastrointestinal stasis which can be serious and even fatal for the rabbit.
How much grass should be provided? Ideally, a pet rabbit should be allowed to graze for several hours a day – mimicking the lifestyle of wild rabbits. However for a variety of reasons, this can be impractical for many rabbits kept as pets, and especially house rabbits.
Grass should be grazed or fed fresh cut. Lawnmower clippings must never be fed as they ferment rapidly and cause digestive disturbances.
How much to feed? An unlimited amount of hay is an essential part of the pet rabbit’s diet – it can also be used as a substitute for grass, if this isn’t available, or fed in addition.
What’s in hay? Species of grass used for hay in the UK are ryegrass, timothy, fescues, meadow grass, and Cocksfoot (orchard grass). These are generally referred to as meadow hay, and often contain a mixture of species, including some clover. Fibre content of grass hays varies from 29.8% (meadow grass) to 35.6% (orchard grass) with a protein content of 6.3-16.7%. Quality will vary depending on the time of year, the conditions the hay was grown in (such as the type of soil) and other environmental factors.
The best hay? Cutting hay before flowering gives the best quality but opinion varies as to the best age of hay to feed. Some rabbit owners recommend feeding hay that is at least 4 months old as young hay may lead to scours, but others feed new hay with apparently no problems. Prolonged storage of hay can lead to loss of nutrients, in particular vitamins A and D, and especially if the temperature is warm.
Good hay is sweet-smelling and with no mustiness. Hay should never be black, mouldy, dusty or wet, and ideally should be stored out of direct sunlight. Ideally hay should not be stored in plastic bags.
Haycakes are another option if you own a houserabbit and would prefer not to keep finding pieces of hay strewn across your home! These come in both alfalfa and timothy varieties. Can Lucerne be used?
Lucerne is used widely in the USA and other parts of the world for haymaking but is not common the UK. High in protein (16.5%) and calcium (1.5%), lucerne is very useful for young, growing rabbits or pregnant does who require higher calcium and protein levels, but has been pinpointed as being a cause of obesity and urolithiasis in mature rabbits, so is best not fed to adult rabbits. Other legume hays, e.g. clover, are similarly high in protein, calcium and energy, and for the same reasons are not recommended for the adult pet rabbit.
What if my rabbit won't eat hay or grass?
Often a common problem, as unless hay is eaten from an early age, a lot of rabbits don’t seem to associate hay as being edible and wont eat it. On top of this, if they are bombarded with a selection of other foods, they will rarely opt for the hay. You can try and incorporate eating hay into a game, to try to encourage them to eat hay. Putting hay in a toy may tempt them to nibble on it and you can also try chopping hay into small piece (approximately 1 inch long) and mixing this in with their dried or fresh food.
Make sure that you aren’t feeding your rabbit too much dried food and it may also be worth getting your vet to perform a thorough dental check, as sometimes teeth problems may be making it uncomfortable or even painful for the rabbit to eat hay.
Straw is not recommended as, although eaten by rabbits, it is low in nutrients and will lead to deficiencies if it forms a major part of the diet. The feeding of silage is generally not practical – a study indicated that the high moisture content restricted dry matter intake and lower growth rate in farmed animals.
Anecdotal reports on the use of artificially dried grass have indicated that rabbits seem to find it very palatable. Nutrient content is often superior to sun-dried hay, although Vitamin D content will be low. Some of the newer rabbit foods do provide a good level of fibre and protein but do try to encourage your rabbit to eat grass and hay.
And finally another important reason to feed hay and grass: Eating hay will keep a rabbit occupied for hours so no more bored and destructive rabbits, just happy, healthy bunnies!