Rabbits have a unique and delicate digestive system and to keep them healthy for longer lives, it is essential to take this into consideration while planning their food and nutrition requirements. Their system is designed to take both energy and nutrients from food that is low in fat and proteins. Also, only a low fiber diet (pellets alone, for example) is also sure to cause bad health and even a shortened life span to your rabbit.
Rabbits are herbivores with specialized feeding needs. They are selective eaters and choose nutrient-rich leaves and new plant shoots over mature plant material that is higher in fiber. Rabbits are therefore considered concentrate selectors, because they naturally pick and choose foods higher in energy density, which predisposes them to obesity in captivity. Hence it is important to understand the basic requirements in a diet for a rabbit. The basic nutrients to be included for your bunny are protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water.
Proteins: Proteins are required for performing all cellular functions. They make the muscle, hair, toenails, and skin. Rabbits require proteins in the diet for both essential and nonessential amino acids. Examples of essential amino acids for rabbits are lysine, methionine, valine, leucine, and isoleucine. Non-essential amino acids can be synthesized in the rabbit’s body.
Pet rabbits need 12% to 16% protein, which may increase during times of growth, pregnancy, or lactation (milk production). Excessive levels of proteins may be detrimental to long-term health and may allow the growth of Clostridium spp, possibly leading to enteritis.
Carbohydrate and Fiber: Most of the carbohydrate requirements in rabbits is met through fiber. Rabbits require high amounts of fiber in their diet to prevent gastrointestinal disease and to provide a substrate for fermentation in the cecum to produce bacterial cells as a source of protein and B vitamins. Rabbit diets should contain a minimum of 14 percent fiber. The fiber amount may be higher in the diet of adult rabbits.
Fat: Rabbits use fat for energy and to absorb fat-soluble vitamins. Most foods contain 2% to 5% DM fat (which increases slightly during lactation), which rabbits can get from a vegetable diet.
Vitamins: Rabbits require a number of fat-soluble vitamins ( like A, D, E, and K) and non-fat soluble vitamins (like B complex and C) in their diet. Meeting the rabbit’s vitamin needs is relatively easy with a good quality diet. Lack of any one vitamin in the diet can cause deficiency symptoms or illness, while excesses of some vitamins can also be toxic.
Minerals: Calcium and phosphorus are important minerals to consider in your rabbit’s diet. The ideal levels of these minerals are affected by the life stage of your rabbit. During growth and development and pregnancy, rabbits need higher levels of calcium and phosphorus to allow for bone development. Adult rabbits at maintenance require lower levels of calcium and phosphorus than at other life stages.
Water: The water requirements change depending on environmental temperature, humidity, and activity level, among other factors. A typical rabbit may consume approximately 10 milliliters of water per 100 grams of body weight. Nursing rabbits require an even higher water intake to meet the needs for milk production.
Freshwater is essential for all body functions. It should be available to your pet at all times. Also, try to ensure the water hygiene by changing the water in the dish or water bottle with fresh water. On a weekly basis, sanitize the water dish/bottle with a mild dish detergent and rinse thoroughly before adding drinking water.
A good rabbit diet is a combination of quality pellets, fresh hay, water, and fresh vegetables. Anything other than these basics should be considered a “treat” (including fruits) and be given in limited quantities because of their high-calorie content that rabbits cannot digest.
Pellets are highly concentrated in nutrients and help to ensure proper weight gain. A quality pelleted food should be high in fiber (18% minimum) and nutritionally balanced. These are given in higher quantities in young rabbits which can gradually be replaced with hay and other vegetables as the rabbit matures.
Hay is essential to a rabbit’s good health, providing the roughage that helps reduce the danger of hairballs and other blockages.
Vegetables provide valuable roughage, as well as essential vitamins
Hay and vegetables are also essential to your rabbit’s dental health so that there is an even tooth wear for all teeth else rabbits suffer from a serious problem of overgrown teeth. One can also use chew sticks or gnaw “bones” of untreated wood of various sizes and shapes for the same purpose.
Feeding Frequency and Quantity:
Rabbits need to be fed differently at different stages of their growth to ensure healthy development, digestion, and weight. Throughout a rabbit’s life, new foods should always be introduced gradually to avoid any issues related to digestion.
Baby Rabbits: For the first 3 weeks, baby rabbits are solely dependent on their mother’s milk. After three weeks, the kit can be given alfalfa hay and pellets for nibbling. By 7 weeks of age, baby rabbits can handle unlimited access to pellets and hay in addition to mother’s milk. Kits are usually weaned from their mother’s milk by 8 weeks of age, depending on the breed.
Juveniles: Between weaning and 7 months of age, the young rabbit can have an unlimited amount of pellets and alfalfa hay. At 3 months of age, start introducing small amounts of vegetables into your rabbit’s diet. Introduce one vegetable at a time. If any vegetable seems to cause digestive problems, avoid feeding it in the future.
Young Adults: Rabbits from age 7 months to 1 year should be introduced to timothy, grass hays, and/or oat hay, and it should be available all day long. At this point, they will require little alfalfa hay, as well as fewer pellets. Alfalfa hay has more calories and calcium than rabbits need at this stage of development, and the high-calorie content of pellets can also begin to cause weight problems. Instead of offering unlimited pellets, a good rule of thumb is 1/2 cup of pellets per 6 lbs. of body weight daily. To make up for the nutritional loss, you must increase your rabbit’s intake of vegetables and hay. You can feed your rabbit some fruits during this stage, but because of calories, limit them to no more than 1-2 ounces per 6 pounds of body weight daily.
Mature Adults: Mature adult rabbits should be fed unlimited timothy, grass hay, and oat hay and reduce the pellet portion of the diet. Usually, 1/4 cup of pellets per 6 lbs. of body weight per day is considered to be ideal. This can be supplemented with a variety of vegetables (2 cups per 6 pounds of body weight daily). Make sure to choose dark, leafy greens, and feed at least three different kinds daily (prefer dark yellow and orange vegetables). Treats, including fruits, must be fed sparingly.
Seniors: Senior rabbits over 6 years of age can be fed the same diet as mature adults if they do not have weight loss problems. You may need to increase pellet intake if your pet is not able to maintain his or her weight. Alfalfa can also be given to underweight rabbits, but only if calcium levels are normal. Annual blood workups are highly recommended for senior rabbits to determine the level of calcium and other components of the blood.
Pregnant/Lactating: They require nutrient requirements just as baby rabbits and juvenile rabbits due to the body requirements for self and the growing baby inside. These foods suffice the need for calcium and multivitamin that are required at this stage. One can consult a veterinarian to help you out with formulating the diet chart.
Rabbits, when given a proper diet, generally do not require any supplements in their diet. You can consult a veterinarian to discuss the health of your bunny before supervising any additional enzyme or nutrients into his diet.
Small rodents (Mice, Guinea Pigs and Hamsters)
Hamsters are omnivores in nature. They graze on grasses, grains as well as eat insects. When kept as pets, most vets advise feeding them grains and seeds. They need higher proteins and fats than mice and also, they have a high requirement of fiber in their diet. A lot of commercial products are available that are fortified blends of fruits, nuts, and grains. While vegetables and fresh fruits make great snacks, it should only comprise 20% of their daily food to prevent overconsumption and obesity.
Hamsters, using special pouches in their cheeks, will hoard food and store it in their hiding/sleeping place. This practice allows them to store food for later. Because they hide their food, it is important to limit the amount of fresh fruits and vegetables to what they can consume when provided. If those fresh products are hoarded, they could mold and make your pet sick.
Mice and Rats are omnivores and have diets similar to other rodent friends. Pet mice and rats’ food should consist of primarily dry pellets, seeds, and grains. One should pay attention to the content of the commercial foods as mice need a minimum level of fiber (18%) and protein (16%) to stay healthy. Additionally, fat content should be limited to a maximum of 4%. Their food bowls should be filled at all times as they prefer to have small frequent meals throughout the day and they have a fast metabolism. Fresh vegetables and fruits can be given as treats occasionally.It is important to limit their intake to prevent them from preferring the treats and not consuming the pelleted diet. In addition, too many treats can cause nutritionally related diseases. One can opt for healthier treats like peas, cauliflower, carrots, broccoli, apples, or bananas.
Guinea Pigs are herbivores and they have specific nutritional needs. As with rabbits, they have a higher fiber requirement. It is best to feed these animals a commercial pellet diet that is supplemented with a high-quality hay, such as Timothy hay. Fresh forages should be avoided because of their high moisture content and can lead to softer feces and even to diarrhea if the forage is very young in maturity. If you want to feed fresh forages, it is recommended to let them sit and dry for 24 hrs after cutting them.
Just like humans, they cannot synthesize vitamin C so it is crucial to incorporate it into their daily diet. Fresh fruits, such as Oranges, Yellow, and Red Bell Pepper and fortified blends that already contain vitamin C are recommended by most vets for nutrition.