Hay and grass should form a huge 85% of your rabbit’s diet. The remainder should be made up of 10% leafy green veg or safe wild plants (i.e. dandelion, cleavers , blackberry leaves) and only 5% of the diet should be made of commercial rabbit pellets – that’s roughly an egg cup full per day. Muesli is not recommended as it can encourage selective feeding.
What happens if they don’t eat hay?
Without enough hay or grass rabbits can develop several conditions that can potentially be fatal. These include dental disease, gastrointestinal problems, and obesity.
How can I encourage my rabbit to eat more hay?
Not all hay is the same. There are many different types of hay and dried grasses, and your rabbit may have a preference. There are oat, orchard, and mountain varieties but good ones to start with include timothy and meadow hay. You may also see Alfalfa hay, but this should only be used for young rabbits as it is higher in protein and calcium than the other types mentioned.
Some hay comes infused with dried herbs or flowers, which may encourage fussy rabbits to eat them. Another way to encourage eating is to put the hay in their litter tray. They like to eat hay while they go to the toilet!
The freshness of hay is important too. Some hay is simply sold as bedding, rather than for eating purposes. Cheap, older, brown hay will be nutrient deficient and not as tasty. Try to buy fresh, green hay that smells fragrant and always avoid dusty or mouldy hay as feeding this can make your rabbit extremely poorly.
Remember – if you are feeding too many pellets this will prevent your rabbit from wanting to eat hay or grass.
Rabbit teeth grow throughout their lifetime. The incisors (front top and bottom teeth) grow at an incredible rate of up to 2mm per week. The teeth are worn by the act of chewing grass or hay. Chewing pellets or muesli does not wear the teeth down, as it doesn’t take as long and does not promote the sideways chewing action of the jaw.
Without grass and hay to wear down the teeth, they can grow painful spurs that can cut the tongue or side of their mouth. Teeth roots also continue to grow and can grow into the jawbone or back of the eye. This is extremely painful and often ends up in euthanasia. Regular check-ups are essential as although it is easy to see the incisors, the cheek teeth at the back of the skull also need to be checked by your vet.
Unfortunately, small dwarf breeds or brachycephalic (flat faced) rabbits, such as lop-eared breeds can have a higher incidence of dental problems because their teeth are squashed into a shorter skull and don’t line up properly with each other (malocclusion). This means there isn’t the contact between them, needed to wear them down when chewing grass or hay.
Rabbits are like conveyer belts that are never switched off. They need to eat regularly and poo regularly (up to 300 poops per day!). Fibre in the form of hay or grass helps to keep the gut moving normally, it also feeds the healthy bacteria in the gut. If the diet is too high in pellets (carbohydrates) and too low in hay (fibre) the gastrointestinal system can slow down, the wrong type of bacteria can grow, and gas builds up. This is known as gastrointestinal or GI stasis.
If your rabbit stops eating or pooing it is an emergency, and you must contact your vet immediately. Once they stop eating, they can go downhill within a few hours and die.
In conjunction with a small living space, lack of exercise and the wrong diet rabbits like cats and dogs can become obese. A fibre deficient diet, high in sweet or starchy foods like pellets, fruit or commercial treats can lead to weight gain. Being obese predisposes rabbits to osteoarthritis, pododermatitis (painful sore feet), respiratory disease and the often-fatal condition flystrike.
The PFMA have produced a handy guide to see if your rabbit is the correct weight: https://www.pfma.org.uk/rabbit-size-o-meter
To summarise, the bulk of your rabbit’s diet should be grass and hay. Ideally, they should be eating a ball of hay equivalent to their body size! And don’t forget the water – rabbits eating a diet high in hay need to drink more.
If you have any concerns about the health of your rabbits, please get in touch.