Rabbits in the wild have access to unlimited fresh grass, dried grass, leaves, bark and other things they need to stay healthy. Though domesticated (pet) rabbits have been genetically altered from the wild species, they are still rabbits. When we accept the responsibility of pet ownership, we must remember that our rabbits no longer have access to nature’s vast outdoor garden. They rely on us to make sure their dietary needs are met.
The Majority of Diet Should Be Hay
Young and adult rabbits should have unlimited access to hay. Some experts say that 75%-85% of a rabbit’s diet should consist of long-strand, fibrous, natural, chemical-free hay. Others say hay should make up as much as 90% of daily diet, especially if the animal has no other source of course fiber (sticks, dried leaves, et cetera). Think of the size of your rabbit. The amount of hay it eats every day should closely compare to the mass of his body (rather than weight). Sometimes a rabbit owner will say, “My rabbit has never eaten hay and he is fine”. This should never be used as the standard for rabbits. It is well documented that rabbits need hay and course fiber foods to sustain overall health, including the teeth.
Types of Hay
Most rabbit owners feed Timothy Hay, oat hay, brome, orchard grass hay or a combination of such varieties. Rabbits also eat fresh grasses that have not been sprayed or exposed to chemicals. (Tip: Do not cut fresh grass from the yard or a field and then let it sit before feeding. Grass starts rotting when it is cut, so you want to feed fresh grass to your rabbit immediately after it is cut.)
Rabbits like the taste of alfalfa. Even so, it should not be an adult’s main source of hay. Alfalfa is a legume hay which is too high in calcium and protein. Adult rabbits need primarily grass hays which have increased fiber, less protein and less calcium. If fed too much alfalfa, the absorption of extra calcium can cause kidney stones, urinary tract and other serious problems for your rabbit. Young rabbits can have more alfalfa than adults but it is advisable to mix it with Timothy hay about three or four months of age.
For most breeds, alfalfa should be phased out of the diet at about six months old. Sadly, outdated information that some veterinarians access still say that alfalfa should be a primary hay source up to a year or older. This is not consistent with best care practices and likely due to the fact that formal education about rabbits is still not comprehensive. Alfalfa should be phased out of a rabbit’s diet at about six months of age.
Always Phase In New Food (Including Hay)
To safely phase alfalfa (or any food) out of the diet, mix in Timothy hay (more and more over a few weeks). While adding more Timothy hay, decrease the amount of alfalfa. This should take a few weeks and then, the rabbit should not be eating anymore alfalfa. Phasing out one type of food (including hay) and replacing it with another allows your rabbit’s digestive system and gut “flora” to adjust slowly and properly. It is not good to make sudden changes to a rabbit’s diet. Abrupt changes can cause diarrhea and other dangerous problems. Phasing one food out while phasing another in at the same time also allows the rabbit to acquire a taste for the new food/hay.
Strong Gut Muscles Keeps The Digestive System Moving
One of the most important reasons to establish proper hay feeding habits is a rabbit’s digestive system. Timothy (and other such hays) have long fibers that the rabbit’s gut must have in order to keep food moving through properly. There is a great deal of scientific evidence to support this fact.
Think of it this way. You exercise to keep your body in shape. Exercise helps keeps muscles strong which allows you to keep moving (walking, running, picking up items, et cetera). Rabbits must have strong gut muscles in order to digest food properly. That means, they need to constantly “exercise” the digestive system. Rabbits do this by eating long-strand hay and other very course fibers. If rabbits go too long without hay or other course fibers, their gut slows down and gets weak. It is only a matter of time before the digestive tract is not strong enough to properly digest food.
A slow-moving (or stopped) gut causes Gastrointestinal Stasis (called GI Stasis). This is a very painful condition commonly known as the silent killer. While some medications or other factors can also cause GI Stasis, this condition is most often caused by improper feeding or improper care (like not brushing your rabbit during heavy shedding). A big part of properly caring for your rabbit is checking their feces (poop) morning and night. If you notice that your pet has not been eliminating waste normally, call a veterinarian.
Rabbits Need Long-Strand Hay to Maintain Teeth
Rabbits have 28 teeth in the front and back of their mouth. Unlike most other animals, rabbit teeth grow constantly throughout their lifetime – 10 to 12 cm per year. If a rabbit cannot keep his teeth properly worn down with chewing course fibers (including wood), his teeth will quickly get too long. This prevents them from eating. A rabbit that cannot eat will not survive long. Long-strand fibrous hay (such as Timothy hay) will ensure your rabbit’s teeth stay at a proper length. In addition to unlimited access to hay each day, make sure your rabbit has clean tree branches, pine cones, bark and other hard woods which are safe for them to chew on. Safe chew items should not be a once-in-awhile occurrence. They are a basic need of rabbits.
Be Careful With Cardboard
Rabbits will also chew on cardboard (paper towel or toilet paper rolls), though we offer this caution. While some rabbits do okay with thin cardboard, many do not. Some rabbits eat it, rather than just chew on it.
If you notice your rabbit eats cardboard or other paper products, take it away and do not allow access in the future. Plenty of rabbits have died due to severe blockages in the digestive system because of consuming cardboard and similar items.
Let Them Forage
Rabbits are natural foragers. They like to dig and search for food. Keeping a lot of hay around allows them a more natural experience while they eat. Have several places where fresh hay is at mouth-level (secured to a wall or placed in small boxes around the house, et cetera). Make sure to refresh hay every day and keep it clean (rabbits often poop or pee in boxes of hay that are ground-level).
Most rabbits like to eat hay while they are going potty. Building them a hay feeder which is at mouth-level and is a permanent part of their litter box area ensures more hay consumption and a more natural experience for them. Also, covering primary litter with hay (that your rabbit will chew on while in the litter box) helps keep urine and poop off the rabbit’s delicate paws.
Rabbit Won’t Eat Hay? Try These Tricks
- Keep your rabbit on a feeding schedule. Long story short, there should be long periods of time between feedings so that your bun is forced to eat hay. Unlimited access to pellets or other foods means that good hay-eating habits will not be established. The best way to ensure your rabbit visits the hay feeder when he should is to stick to a strict feeding (meal) schedule. A 7-pound rabbit should have no more than about 1/3 cup of high-quality pellets in a 24 hour period. Divide this amount in two and give 1/2 the pellets in the morning with some fresh, organic greens and the other half at night (same meals, twice each day). To learn about proper food amounts and other best care practices, please get a copy of Bunny Conversations (CLICK HERE).
- Add a sweet smell to hay. Take a raisin or a dried cranberry and break it open. Rub the soft inside on fresh hay strands. Not too much – just enough to draw them to the hay and convince them to eat it. Rabbits have a strong sense of smell, so attracting them to their hay by using sweetness works very well. A very small amount of banana, apple or other “treat” is also very effective. Sit down with the rabbit and hand-feed him the hay until he starts eating it on his own. This takes patience and time, but is necessary and well worth it in the long run. Put less and less “sweet taste” on the hay over a the next few days or week. Eventually, your bun will start eating hay without the sweet taste added.
- Try Timothy Hay cubes. In a pinch, hay cubes are better than no hay at all. At Love Your Rabbit, we give hay cubes only as an occasional treat. There are rabbit owners out there who claim that these cubes (about 1-inch in diameter) are an adequate replacement for long-strand hay. For the reasons stated above (which are based on the biology of a rabbit and the science to support it), we disagree. Cubes should not permanently replace long-strand hay in a rabbit’s diet unless it is short-term. The cubes are useful, however, for phasing in regular hay and in situations where the rabbit is refusing regular hay. Phase in hay once the rabbit gets a taste for hay in the cube form.
Buy compressed hay bales (without dried carrots or fruits added). The smaller hay bales which are made long-strand hay (and typically 4-6 inches cubed) encourage rabbits to forage, which is a natural activity for them. With all that work, they often eat the hay they separate from the compressed hay bale. Compressed hay bales are just that – hay. Generally, nothing is added, nor removed, in the compression process.
- Add hay in the litter box. Hay can be stacked up against the side of a normal litter box to ensure the rabbit has access when he goes potty. Make sure you keep the litter box clean and the hay refreshed.
- Put a hay feeder at mouth-level beside the litter box. Attach a hay feeder to the wall next to a rabbit’s litter box. Make sure it is at mouth-height so the rabbit can comfortably eat while going potty. Eating hay while going potty is natural for rabbits
- Put hay in toys or cardboard rolls. Again, be certain your bun does not eat cardboard or paper products. Rabbits are curious and playful. They will often eat hay out of a tube or a rabbit-safe toy before they start eating it from a hay feeder.
- Hide several food pellets beneath the hay. Take a small handful of hay and sprinkle a few pellets so that the pellets fall through. The rabbit will forage through the hay to get the pellets. Foraging for pellets is fun for rabbits and encourages more hay consumption.
- A best practice (trick) is to grind up a few pellets (5 or 6) and then “dust” the hay with the pellet grindings (“dusting the hay”). This is highly effective because most rabbits love pellets and will be attracted to their scent and taste. Since the pellet grindings/dust will stick onto the hay strands, the rabbit eventually eats it.
Emergency Care – Don’t Wait!
If your rabbit stops eating hay, you must act immediately to avoid serious digestive problems which can quickly lead to death of your companion. If at any time your rabbit shows signs of diarrhea, discontinue all foods except for hay and other high-fiber foods (no treats!) and see a qualified veterinarian immediately.
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