Written by Dr Koba Heyns
The Digestive System of Your Rabbit
Rabbits can make adorable pets, but their needs are very different from dogs and cats. Most ill rabbits are due to food related illnesses, so hopefully this article will help you look after your bunny the best you can.
Rabbit’s digestive tracts are unique and are similar to horse’s. They need to eat primarily high-fibre grass-based diets. Because grass is so low in nutrients they need to be able to digest it in a special and very efficient way.
They have a very large colon and caecum (appendix) and these organs act as a large “fermentation tank” where grass is digested by special microbes and nutrients can be absorbed. Sometimes grass needs to be digested even further and something rather unique happens. Bunnies produce caecotrophs which look like droppings but softer and mulberry shaped. They will eat these caecotrophs after passing them because they still contains a lot of nutrients. Baby bunnies will eat these from the mother to ingest the essential microbes and nutrients needed for digestion.
The Ideal Diet for your Bunny
Rabbits can be picky eaters and they should be started on the right diet from the very beginning. Provide fresh food and water daily. Dried grass is the most important component of a rabbit’s diet. The roughage in the grass will help to move the food through the gut and it also helps to keep the teeth worn down. As a rule the diet should consist of 80% grass, that is, a bunch approximately the size of your bunny, each day.
You can buy teff at most pet shops, or horse food stores. You can also buy special grass hay for example the Burgess Excel range or Timothy hay which is the best! Other types of hay you can buy is oat hay or alfalfa (lucern). Lucern can be dangerous for adult rabbits because it is so high in protein and calcium and should be given as treats only. Your bunny can also eat lots of fresh kikuyu, but they must be introduced to this grass slowly because too much too fast can cause tummy upsets.
10% of the diet can be fresh veggies, but it is important to introduce this slowly as lots of fresh greens at once will lead to diarrhoea and stomach upsets. Examples of safe greens to give include celery, broccoli, spinach, carrot leaves, cabbage leaves, kale, basil, parsley, fennel leaves, mint and coriander. You should avoid veggies from bulbs like onions, leeks, potatoes and also legumes like peas, beans etc. Giving your bunny a varied diet will make them less picky and they will get essential vitamins and minerals.
5% of the diet can be pellets and should by no means be the staple of the diet. You will often see pet shops sell muesli type food which can be very bad for your bunny and should be avoided. The best is to find a pellet that is high in fibre and low in carbohydrate and protein. If your budget allows, Burgess have a great range available in South Africa.
5% of the diet can consist of treats. Contrary to the popular belief that rabbits should eat carrots, they can be very high in sugar and should be fed in very small amounts. The same goes for other fruits like apples and berries which should only be fed in very very small amounts. Keep in mind that some parts of a plant may be safe to eat but other parts not, for example apples are safe, but the pips contain cyanide which is toxic. Remember that human type food is bad for them so no nuts, mielies, or other foods high in fat, protein and sugars!
To keep your bunnies teeth short and also to prevent behavioural problems you should give them things to gnaw on. Untreated pine blocks or willow sticks (without the leaves!) make good toys and they can happily gnaw on them. You can also buy special apple sticks that they love to gnaw the bark off. They can also gnaw on hard cardboard as long as they don’t ingest too much of it.
Problems with the digestive tract
Bunnies have very sensitive tummies and often get problems with their digestive tract. Lets go through some common problems, what to look out for and what to do about it:
Caused by stress, dehydration, pain due to other illness, intestinal blockage and low fibre diet. Signs include: not eating, depression, not producing stools or small faecal pellets, yellow mucous around faecal pellets and a swollen tummy. This is an EMERGENCY! Get your bunny to the vet ASAP! They can die very quickly, and it is unbelievably painful for them.
If your bunny is showing these symptoms, please call us immediately: 021 856 2746.
This is caused by sudden change in diet, too many leafy veggies (especially lettuce) and the wrong type of diet with too little fibre. The signs are similar to gut stasis: clumping of stool around the backside, swollen tummy and runny stools.
Take all treats and pellets away and only provide fresh dried grass for 24 hours and then introduce treats and veggies very slowly. If your bunny is depressed and doesn’t want to eat, take it to the vet ASAP.
Abnormal tooth wear
This can be due to lack of chewing/gnawing on hard objects, can also be genetic or when bunnies are on a pellet only diet. You will see cuts in the mouth and tongue, difficulty chewing and weight loss. It is important to take your bunny for regular checkups to check the teeth in particularly. We may need to trim the teeth if ther are too long or too short.
Low fibre diets or gut stasis can cause hairballs. The signs are similar to gastric stasis with diarrhoea or very little stool produced. You can sometimes feel a hard ball just behind the ribs on the tummy. Get your bunny to the vet, it might need surgery to remove the hairball.
Muesli-style diets are too high in energy. Unlimited pellet diet and too little exercise contribute to obesity. Remember that it is normal to feel your bunnies bones and ribs, fat rabbits will have difficulty grooming and can get infections between skin folds. Daily exercise is very important! Let your bunny out of its cage 2-3 times per day.