This year’s RABBIT AWARENESS WEEK runs from 2nd to 10th June, with the key message to rabbit owners and healthcare providers to “MOVE AWAY FROM MUESLI!”.
Rabbits require extremely high levels of fibre in their diet in order for their digestive systems to work correctly and keep their gut in constant motion (known as peristalsis) to prevent a life-threatening condition called gut stasis or ileus.
Rabbits’ teeth are “open-rooted” – they are designed to grow continuously as they get worn down by the fibrous grasses they feed on in the wild. If our pet rabbits do not get enough abrasive foods, then their teeth will become overgrown and maloccluded, causing sharp spurs to develop on the crown, and making it highly painful for them to eat.
MOVE AWAY FROM MUESLI
Selective feeding occurs when rabbits pick out some components of the muesli diet in preference to others. Rabbits will naturally select the higher energy (sugary and starchy) elements whist rejecting the pellets, resulting in an unbalanced diet as the fibre-rich pellets that are discarded are often supplemented with vitamins and minerals also.
Muesli type diets have been shown to increase the risk of obesity, as the rabbit will selectively feed and consume more easily digestible carbohydrates and fats over the high-fibre components. Rabbits fed muesli type diet also tend to be less active, contributing to the risk of obesity.
Muesli type diets have been shown to increase the risk of dental disease, causing pain and suffering. As mentioned above, a high-fibre diet is vital to correctly wear down rabbits’ teeth; if a rabbit is unable to eat properly due to pain and discomfort, then serious digestive issues can follow. Dental disease is the most common health problem found in rabbits, and sadly we still see pet rabbits with dental concerns on an almost daily basis.
Muesli type diets have been shown to reduce the faecal output and dropping size of rabbits, when fed alone or alongside hay. This “slowing down” of the digestive system can result in a painful build-up of gas and toxins in a condition known as gut stasis and can be life threatening without prompt medical intervention.
Muesli type diets have been shown to increase the amount of uneaten caecotrophs (sticky droppings usually produced at night), This can lead to soiled fur predisposing rabbits to flystrike – a potentially fatal and very distressing condition, where flies lay their eggs in the soiled fur which quickly hatch into maggots and chew their way into the rabbit’s skin.
REDUCED HAY INTAKE
Hay and fresh grass should make up 85-90% of a rabbit’s diet. Muesli type diets have been shown to reduce the amount of hay that rabbits eat, increasing the risk of dental disease and gut stasis as previously mentioned. Reduced hay intake means a reduction in normal foraging behaviour and can lead to abnormal behaviour in rabbits such as chewing of fur and other materials, inactivity and stereotypies.
REDUCED WATER INTAKE
Muesli type diets have been shown to reduce water intake in rabbits when fed alone or alongside hay. Reduced water intake increases the risk of urinary tract problems such as stones, cystitis, blockages and urine scalding.
85-90% OF A RABBIT’S DIET SHOULD BE FEEDING HAY AND FRESH GRASS!!
These high-fibre sources are not only essential for dental and digestive health, but also behavioural health. In the wild, rabbits spend 70% of their time foraging, so a constant supply of good quality feeding hay and fresh grass is essential to allow them to express this normal behaviour.
The confusing part is that not all hays are the same, and offer different levels of nutritional value for your rabbit. BEDDING HAY is often cheaply manufactured and can remain packaged for long periods and has an unknown nutritional value. It is comfy to sleep on, providing insulation, but is less tasty and so will not be consumed to a sufficient level to support dental and digestive health. Alfalfa-based hay is high in protein and calcium, which can lead to urinary tract problems and obesity.
FEEDING HAY is grown specifically for the purpose of feeding and is cut at full bloom when it is lush, green and long, making it ideal for foraging and enrichment. It is rich in nutrients, tasty and high in fibre to promote a healthy gut and teeth, whilst remaining low in sugar. Timothy hay is a high quality feeding hay. Also check that packaged hay has been dust-extracted to reduce the risk of respiratory problems. As a guide, a bundle of hay at least as big as your rabbit should be fed every day.
NUGGETS & PELLETS
Extruded diets in the form of nuggets or pellets, prevent your rabbit from selective feeding. This is because each piece is exactly the same in terms of how it looks, feels, tastes, and its nutritional value. Be sure to check the feeding guidelines though to avoid over-feeding – just a tablespoon of nuggets once daily is sufficient for an average adult rabbit!
A handful of safe, washed leafy greens e.g. broccoli, kale, mint, dandelion leaves, spring greens, can be fed on a daily basis. Carrots and apples are very sugary and should only be fed in small amounts as an occasional treat.
Fresh water should always be available, ideally offered in both a sturdy ceramic bowl as well as a bottle. Water should be changed daily and checked that it hasn’t frozen during the winter months if your rabbit is kept outdoors.
Remember, a rabbit’s diet should be changed slowly over a period of 14-28 days. This can be done by gradually reducing the amount of muesli and increasing the proportion of nuggets / pellets in your rabbit’s food until the muesli has been completely replaced.
The 2017 PDSA PAW Report showed that 25% of owners still feed muesli as part of their rabbit’s main diet. Alarmingly this equates to 280,000 pet rabbits being fed a harmful diet. With the “need for a suitable diet” being one of the five welfare needs of pet animals under Section 9 of the Animal Welfare Act 2006, it is vital that we act to educate rabbit owners and the pet food industry that it is time to MOVE AWAY FROM MUESLI !
For further information on rabbit health and welfare, visit the RAW website.