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SMALL MAMMAL HEALTH SERIES
By Susan Brown, DVM
http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx

  Rabbits require a large percentage of fiber in their diet to maintain normal gastrointestinal motility. Rabbits have a large cecum, which is a blind pouch located at the junction of the small intestine and the large intestine, where the digestible portions of the intestinal contents enter and are broken down by bacteria. Some nutrients are absorbed through the wall of the cecum, but most nutrients are locked up in the bacteria. The rabbit then produces bacteria-rich droppings called cecotropes, which are softer, stickier, greener and have a stronger odor than the regular waste droppings. These cecotropes are eaten directly from the anus as soon as they are produced. The cecotropes are then passed through the digestive tract of the rabbit and nutrients such as vitamins, amino acids and fatty acids are released from the bacteria and absorbed into the rabbit's body. In this way, rabbits are very efficient at producing their own vitamin, protein and fat supply from food that for some animals, such as ourselves, would be totally useless.

 

 

 

The biggest mistake people make when feeding rabbits is overfeeding high calorie foods such as commercial pellets and grains and underfeeding high fiber foods such as hay and greens. This pattern of feeding can lead to obesity and gastrointestinal disease. The most important part of the house rabbit diet is an unlimited supply of grass hay which provides essential fiber as well as proteins, vitamins, minerals and carbohydrates. In addition, because of the high fiber content of the hay, it is the best preventative for stomach and intestinal problems such as 'hairballs' and chronic soft stools making it unnecessary to routinely use hairball laxatives or anti-diarrheal products. Hay should be provided for your pet in a box or hay rack and should always be available. Grass hay is preferred over alfalfa hay because grass hay it is lower in calories and calcium. (Commercial pellets already contain a large portion of alfalfa hay). There are several types of grass hays available such as mixed grass, timothy or oat. Hays vary depending on the area of the country and the time of the year. Sources of hay include pet stores, feed stores and horse barns. If you have several rabbits, it may be beneficial to buy an entire bale of hay as it will be gobbled up quickly! Hay should be stored in a cool, dry area in an open bag to allow for good air circulation. Hay should have a fresh smell. Damp hay can become moldy and should be discarded. Rabbits of any age can be introduced to hay without any special preparation.

 

Another important part of the house rabbit diet is fresh, leafy greens. These food provide not only fiber, but a variety of vitamins, such as A and C, minerals, proteins, and carbohydrates. Most rabbits really enjoy their greens. The old stories about greens causing 'diarrhea' are usually referring to rabbits that have been on a low fiber or high calorie diet, such as a commercial pellet or a high grain diet, that are suddenly introduced to greens. On commercial pellets or grains, the gastrointestinal tract may become a bit sluggish due to the high calorie content and lower fiber content, then a diet high in grass hay and greens. When greens are introduced to these rabbits, the intestinal tract 'speeds up' to a more normal rate and some of the bacteria in the cecum may change, resulting in a temporary 'diarrhea' which usually stabilizes within a week. For recently weaned rabbits or rabbits that have never been exposed to hay or greens before, first introduce hay to the diet for two weeks and then introduce greens gradually and the transition should go smoothly.

 

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Feed at least three different types of greens daily so that you provide a variety of nutrients. Greens should be washed thoroughly, to remove dangerous pesticides. Uneaten fresh foods should be removed from the cage after 3 to 4 hours to prevent spoilage. The amount to feed is a minimum of 1 heaping cup of greens per day per 4 lbs of body weight. You can double or triple this amount as your pet becomes used to these great foods. Some examples of nutritious greens are: dandelion greens (and flowers), raspberry leaves, kale, mustard greens, escarole, endive, raddichio, collard greens, beet greens, carrot tops, parsley, turnip tops, romaine, Swiss chard, bok choy, mint leaves, cabbage (red and green), etc. Use dark, tough, leafy greens as opposed to light colored thin-leafed greens such as bibb lettuce and iceberg lettuce. Other vegetables and fruits that can be fed in the amount of 1 heaping Tablespoon per 4 lbs body weight daily (total volume of all these foods fed combined) are pea pods (not the peas), carrots, apples, pears, peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, squash, tomatoes, papayas and mangos. Stay away from starchy and high sugar content foods such as bananas, peas, corn, beans, grapes, white and sweet potatoes. Cereal grains and cereal products can cause digestive upsets due to their high starch content, are high in calories and in general should not be used for the house rabbit. These foods include: bread, cookies, crackers, rolled oats, breakfast cereals and other grain products. Although many people feed these treat foods because their rabbits love them (like candy!) if they are fed in too large an amount, they can create obesity and chronic soft stools. Don't introduce these 'candy' items to the diet and your pet will only know good nutrition and never know about the 'junk food' he or she is missing!

 

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Commercial rabbit pellets were originally designed to promote rapid growth, weight gain, and ease of feeding for production rabbits (meat and fur) and laboratory rabbits. They are very efficient at what they are designed to do, but for the house rabbit that is to live out a full life, the unlimited feeding of a commercial pellet may be a problem. Once rabbits are full grown, they don't need to put on more weight. Feed your pet a commercial pellet that is designed for the maintenance of the adult rabbit, with a fiber content of 18% or higher, a protein content at around 13-14% and fat content at no more than 3%. Once a young bunny has reached its adult size (4-8 months depending on the breed) we recommend cutting back the pellets to 1/8-1/4 cup per 5 lbs body weight per day as a MAXIMUM. Remember, there is always hay available so your pet will never go hungry. Pellets should be bought in amounts that will be used within 3 months and kept in a closed container in a cool dry place to prevent spoilage. Do not use pellet mixes that contain grains and seeds along with the pellets. The addition of the grains and seeds only add to the calorie and fat content which can result in obesity, liver and intestinal disease. Some rabbits that are obese and have difficulty losing weight on pellets may have to have them removed from the diet altogether, but this should be done only under your veterinarian's supervision. 


Additional supplements are not needed for rabbits on a diet that is rich in hay, greens and limited pellets. 


SMALL MAMMAL HEALTH SERIES
By Susan Brown, DVM
http://www.veterinarypartner.com/Content.plx

 

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