These are some of the most common questions asked by someone who has just gotten a rabbit or is considering getting one.
Rabbits are herbivores,and are classified as hindgut (cecum and colon) fermentors (Cheeke, 1987;McNitt etal1996). That means that they break down their food mostly in their intestines, not their stomach. They have microbes that break down and digest their food for them.
In rabbits this microbal flora is located in the cecum. The cecum is very large compared with the rest of the gut and it forms a spiral that fills the abdominal cavity. The rabbits cecum is 10 times the size of their stomach!
This is important information that every rabbit owner should know. You need to understand how their digestive system works in order to keep them healty.
The rabbits digestive system is a factor in everything from their diet to what kinds of medicine you should (or should not!) use to treat them.
Disruption of the digestive process, or harming the gut flora of a rabbit can be a life threatining problem.
Food and treats heavy with starch or sugar can cause an imbalance, or 'Bloom" in the microbes in your rabbits gut, which could be fatal. This is why a proper diet and minimal treats are important. I reccomend limiting treats to around a teaspoon in volume daily, like one grape or one (small) slice of bananna.
Clean Water: Available at all times. It's that simple, you rabbit must have water available to maintain it's digestive processes.
Dehydration slows, then stops digestion and can cause impaction, a dense plug in the digestive system that stops the digestive process and can be fatal.
A water bottle or automatic watering system is much more dependable and sanitary than a water crock. Your rabbit can't knock it over or poop in it.
A rabbits diet should consist mainly of a high quality alfalfa based pellet. These pellets have been developed over many years to supply (when fed at a proper, measured amount) the complete dietary needs of the domestic rabbit. Many also feed hay, usually a grass hay or a grass/alfalfa mix. However it should be noted that many breeders with very large herds, some numbering in the hundreds, feed no hay at all.
The discussion over the need for hay is constant and ongoing. Many sources state that hay is needed to create constant chewing to wear down the teeth, which grow throughout the rabbits life. Many sources disagree with this (myself included) due to the fact that malocclusion is a genetic trait. Normal everyday chewing of their pelleted ration is sufficient if a rabbits teeth are properly aligned.
The other argument for hay supplementation is that the long fiber is needed to aid in digestion. A high quality pellet is made with the ingredients not too finely ground to contain enough long fiber to maintain a rabbits gut motility.
According to the Louisiana Veterinary Medical Association "Rabbits should be fed a commercial pelleted rabbit diet; water should be provided ad lib. Diets such as these are nutritionally complete and do not require supplementation."
A Penn State paper on Rabbit Production states "Pellets meet all of a rabbit's nutritional requirements and are more convenient than formulating a hay and grain ration."
If you choose to feed hay it should be a grass hay. Orchard and Timothy are two of the most common grass hays available. Some will feed a grass/Alfalfa mix, which is ok as long as it contains more grass than Alfalfa.
Let me explain the reason for feeding grass hay instead of alfalfa. First of all let me say that ALFALFA IS NOT BAD FOR RABBITS (before commercially available pellets most rabbit breeders fed Alfalfa and a mixture of grains). It is however a legume, not a grass. It has more calcium and protein and calories than a grass hay.
Most rabbit pellets are alfalfa based, and from all the sources listed above, if fed in the proper amount, contain all the fiber, protein, fat and minerals that are the building blocks of rabbit nutrition. So now if you feed your rabbit Alfalfa hay in addition to the pelleted diet, you are unbalancing the diet by supplying too much protein, calcium, calories, etc. The extra calories can cause a rabbit to moult its coat, become overweight, etc. the same as if you ate too much. This fact has created the myth that alfalfa is harmful to your bunny. It simply must be understood how it works with the rest of the diet.
Grass Hay, being made up mostly or completely of dried grass is muck lower in protein, nutrients and calories. So it won't over supply your rabbit with protein and minerals. Feeding grass hay will reduce the amount of pellets you need to feed, so it can be more economical, as long as you are buying bales of hay, and not those bags of hay in the pet store. A bale of Timothy hay usually sells for $4-$8 dollars in most parts of the United States and weighs 40 or 60 pounds depending on the size. I have seen bread-bag sized amounts of hay sold for twice that! WoW!
If you want to feed hay and don't live in a rural area, do yourself a favor and do an internet search and find a source near you. Check on CraigsList or stop in someplace near you that boards horses or gives riding lessons. Horses require a good quality grass hay or a grass/alfalfa mix and most horse owners are pretty picky about their hay. They may be willing to sell you a bale or tell you where you can get some. Some states have a Hay Board, part of that states Farm or Ag Department that will list a lot of producers of hay. Buy from the farmer, not the pet store and both you and your rabbit will benefit!
If you are producing rabbits for meat, be aware that feeding hay will result in a slower grow-out rate. The room in their diet taken up by lower calorie, lower nutrient and lower protein hay results in less calories and protien to speed growth.
When it comes to knowing about a rabbits diet, what to feed rabbits and rabbit nutrition, why not listen to people that are doing it every day? The opinion of people that maintain large herds of rabbits is a valuable resource of information on rabbit nutrition. When you care daily for 50 or a hundred or more rabbits, and have done so successfully for decades, you have a wealth of knowledge.
So I want to present the opinions of people that maintain herds of rabbits. Their decades of rabbit raising and knowledge should be available for those new to rabbits to learn from. These breeders have been raising rabbits for years and everyone does it a little differently. Remember that what counts is the results. Healthy, thriving rabbits.
Here are the opinions and practices of some long time rabbit breeders.
Rick and Alice Zinn from Zinn's Rabbit Farm in Wilhoit, AZ are breeders of quality Holland Lops, Fuzzy Lops and Lionheads. They maintain a heard of 200 rabbits and here is what they feed their rabbits.
Cathy LaReau of LaReau Lops & Cavies offers up her years of experience, thoughts on rabbit nutrition and diet along with other challenges facing breeders today. It's a really good read, an I reccomend it highly!
All rabbits are individuals and you need to feed your rabbit to maintain it's body condition properly. What is body condition? Run your hands over the rabbit. Can you feel every vertebrae? Too skinny, feed a little more. Is the back and rump of the rabbit a solid pad of fat that you can't feel any backbone or hip? Too fat, feed a little less. A rabbits weight changes pretty quickly when you alter the amount of feed. You really need a good scale to monitor your rabbits weight properly.
Here are some basic guidelines.
These are maintenance rations for bucks and does without litters.
I feed Kent Feed, here is a nutrition statement from a bag.
A general rule is one ounce of feed per pound of body weight.
Dwarf breeds weighing 2-3 pounds get one-quarter to one-third of a cup per day.
Large breeds weighing 8-12 pounds get three-quarters to one and one-half cups per day.
Most of my adult rabbits get 3/4 cup of pellets daily and maintain their weight just perfectly on this, which is bucks 8 to 10 pounds and does 9 to 11 pounds for my Blanc de Hotots. Some get 1 full cup, and some don't even finish all of their 3/4 cup. This is where record keeping and that scale I mentioned earlier come in to play. You can't guess, you have to know.
A card on the feeder is a great place for making notes on how much feed each rabbit gets every day. It will help you remember, and if you have to have someone else feed you bunz for a day or two, it will make things easier for them too. My adult (Senior show or breeder) rabbits have a piece of gray duct tape on their feeder with their ear number and how much they get fed. I have found the duct tape doesn't fall or blow out like a paper card, so I like it better.
Does with litters:
Normal feed the first day, her milk doesen't come in right away and the kits really aren't much of a burden the first few days.
Days 2-7 gradually feed a little more each day untill she is on a free feed diet. This means there are allways pellets in the feeder. You want the pellets to last just 24 hours, so that there is just a small amount of pellets in the feeder when you re-fill it the next day. This keeps the pellets fresh and prevents mold from sitting too long in the feeder.
A product called Calf Manna is often added to boost milk production in lactating does. I have found it very effective and helps the doe feed the hungry kits, and the increased milk production means bigger, healthier kits that grow faster. If you have a doe that routinly has litters of over 8, you really should give Calf Manna a try. I add about a tablespoon daily as a top dressing on the feed up to about day 21. About then, if not sooner, the kits will be out nibbleing on the feed and the Calf Manna is pretty rich for young kits. I used to feed 18% protein feed to does with litters, but by using the Calf Manna, I only have to keep one type of feed (min 16% protein) on hand and can boost it to give the nursing doe all the extra protein she needs.
I keep the kits on free-feed up to about 8 - 12 weeks, they then go into individual cages and will get more (1.5 to 2 times an adult ration) than a normal adult ration untill about 8-10 months, or when they should make their senior weight. They then go on a maintenance ration that keeps them at the right weight. Some larger breeds may not make Sr. weight for a year or more, smaller ones much sooner.
About 10-12 weeks is when the hormone level begins to rise, it's rabbit puberty. Keeping kits together past this leads to fighting, chunks missing from ears and chewed off tails. Worst case is a dead kit. Which brings us to...
I find that my kits are out of the nest by 15 days or so and nibbling on the pellets just a little, and by 4 weeks are pretty much on a solid diet. I clean nest boxes on day 10 and remove them from the cage on day 21 in nice weather. I feel there is no place nastier than a nest box so I like it out ASAP. In colder weather, if the nest box has to stay in a little longer, I'll clean it in day 20 and every 5 days after that 'till it is removed.
I now pull my does out and put them in a fresh cage at 5-6 weeks. I have no problem with them being too full of milk or getting mastitis, since the nursing is down to almost nothing by then. Of course you must check and make sure the doe is dry enough to be pulled. If she is still heavy with milk, pull the doe to her new cage with 2 or 3 kits for a couple (3 or 4) days so the milk production slows down by itself, then pull the rest of the kits and place them back in their original cage to grow out.
They should not fight with the other kits still in the cage at this age. If they do, just move all the kits to a new cage. All of them being placed into a new space should eliminate the territoriality problem, since they are now all newcomers. Remember this if you want to combine rabbits from 2 or more litters into a common "grow out" cage. Never move kits from their cage into that of another litter. Move everybody into a new clean cage at the same time. Some breeders will separate them by sexes at this point too, as that can reduce fighting. But by 10-11 weeks, the ones you haven't sold need to be in individual cages. Rabbits are territorial. Don't think that your rabbits are different. That they are loving and cute and would never hurt each other. You will come out and find a bloody mess one morning that will break your heart and throw months of work (yours and the doe's) out the window.
At Crystal Creek Rabbitry we feed Kent Rabbit Ration which is a (min)16% Protein feed from Kent Feeds. I've used Nutrena and Purina also. Another popular feed is Pen Pals, which I have no experience with.
There are hundreds of feed mills across rural America making rabbit feed. Some are great, and I'm sure some aren't.
If you have a local feed mill and are having good results with and would like it listed here, let me know. I'd like to put together a list of mills making rabbit feed across the country.
Again, there are as many opinions on rabbit food as there are rabbit owners.There are some facts you should know.
Rabbit food is manufactured pretty much locally, even if you are buying a national brand. Feed mills across the country manufactuer the pellets according to the "recipe" set down by the company whose name is on the bag. Sometimes there are regional mills that could cover 3 or 5 states, or there could be 3 mills in the same state, unless you investigate it you don't know. Because of this, quality and ingredients can and do vary. Someone buying "brand X" in Ohio is not getting exactly the same "brand X" that the person buying it in Wyoming, or possibly even as close as Indiana.
This is one of the reasons I ended up using the Kent Feeds. They have a list of the mills they use on their website. How nice to have that information presented openly, and to not have to make 20 phone calls to find out where you rabbit food comes from. I have called and talked to the mill Manager a few times and he has always been helpfull and informative.
Age is very important with rabbit food. I won't buy any thing over 3 months old. It will draw moisture, mold and spoil. Mold in your rabbit food can produce mycotoxins which can kill your rabbits. Always store you feed in the bag, laying flat, off the ground in a dry place. Once I open a bag, it is kept in Galvanized Garbage Cans. This helps prevent a mess and keeps the mice/rats/chipmunks from also being on the payroll.
The bottom line. You will need to find rabbit feed that is; available near you, healthy and nutritious for your rabbits, affordable and works. Results are what matter, if your rabbits thrive, breed and grow well and are healthy, it works. Ask people in your area that raise rabbits what they feed. You can do this at a rabbit show or in an online rabbit group.
OK, so you don't have to supplement your rabbits basic diet, but I just know you want to give your bunny some treats that they can nibble out of your hand, don't you? Of course you do, we all do. If you are keeping a rabbit as a pet, you want to hold them on you lap while you watch TV an give them a treat. Let's just make sure that treat doesn't turn out to be your rabbit's last meal! And for a 10 pound rabbit, treats should be kept to about 2 teaspoons in volume a day, so just a little!
What are good treats?
Treat info coming soon!
It's not uncommon for the new rabbit owner to panic when they see the litter pan or ground under their rabbit stained a bright red! Or the urine can be thicker than normal and whiteish.
These color variations are normal and not cause for alarm. They are caused by the differences in the way individual animals process calcium and protein.
All the comments and opinions you will find here are based on my experience, personal study, research, and raising my rabbits! What works for me may not work for others.
The information here is based on my experience with my herd of Blanc de Hotot and Silver Fox rabbits. I have a few dwarf rabbits, but I don't really talk about the dwarfs, as they are not my main focus. I have NO experience with the GIANT breeds and am not addressing them here.