A lot of pet health revolves around feeding and this is especially the case for rabbits. While rabbits have a few breed related disorders (dwarfs can have altered head shape resulting in dental issues), infectious diseases (calicivirus and myxomatosis ) and husbandry issues (flystrike and heat stroke for example), alot of the problems we see are directly or indirectly related to the food they eat.
European rabbits are originally from South Western Europe and North Western Africa. Think hot and dry - like Australia. Left to their own devices, rabbits thrive in these environments, living on a low nutrient, high fibre grass diet. The low nutrients keep them trim and the high fibre does 2 things;
- Wears their constantly growing teeth, preventing overgrowth
- Keeps their intestines constantly working, maintaining optimum gastro-intestinal health.
The problems often start when caring owners feed their pet rabbits pre-mixed rabbit food and treats.
Most commercial rabbit mixes were originally designed for rabbit farms - looking for fast growth and rapid turn over. The long term problems of these diet were not an issue in this situation, as even breeding rabbits are not kept for long on rabbit farms. Pet rabbits fed on these foods will get fat on the excess nutrients and the lower fibre will affect the wear of the teeth and passage of their digestion. This can lead to diarrhoea, which when combined with an overweight rabbit who is unable to groom properly, will predispose to fly strike and maggot infestation.
Similarly treats (fruits and corn for example) are higher in carbohydrates and lower in fibre, resulting in excess fat and can lead to a shutdown of the intestines. Ileus (when the intestines completely stop working) is a life threatening situation for a rabbit.
The key to rabbit feeding then is fairly simple, a low nutrient, high fibre diet - GRASS and HAY!
Grass hay (Like Timothy, not the richer Lucerne) is a great, complete food for healthy rabbits. Correctly balanced pet rabbit pellets can be added as a supplement, as can teeny, tiny (and only if you must) treats like dried banana or apple once in a while.