Diet & Exercise Basics
Bunnies that spend most of their lives indoors need more attention paid to their diet than outdoor rabbits that forage, feed, drink, gnaw and run about outside. The main diet staples and exercise principles are still the same for all rabbits, but I created this page to emphasize certain areas of importance pertaining to the diet and exercise criteria of the indoor rabbit.
Because the following concerns have been expressed by Vets and staff at rescue centers all over the world. Their observations confirmed that almost all the rabbit health problems were caused by incorrect nutrition. An incorrect rabbit diet being the most common cause of illness and disease in house rabbits. The most common and deadliest of all is a condition known as GI stasis or ileus.
So, because of this fact, this page deals with the main focus areas of concern with the indoor rabbit diet. Indoor rabbits rely on you, their food source, their water source and comfort giver, as their complete health and well-being provider. They can’t help themselves as most outdoor rabbits do, they wait for you and take what they are given.
Indoor Rabbit Diet – Basic Requirements
There are 5 vital requirements for a healthy house rabbit. The first 3 below cover the elements needed for a healthy indoor rabbit diet. The last two points, 4 and 5, are also fundamental to health and happiness.
Be sure your rabbit gets plenty of fiber from fresh grass and hay. The indoor rabbit diet should be high in fiber pellets (22% or higher crude fiber) and hay.
Be sure your rabbit is drinking enough water. Since they mostly eat dry hay and pellets, they need to hydrate their food internally and keep their digestive system moving along smoothly. Water is crucial to the indoor rabbit diet.
Indoor rabbits can’t forage outside so it helps to offer at least 4 cups of fresh, wet leafy greens per 5 lbs of rabbit daily.
Don’t forget that regular exercise keeps the muscles strong and keeps the smooth muscles of the intestines active. This is vital to the health of all house rabbits.
5. Dental Health Checks
Regular visits to your veterinarian will ensure that your rabbit doesn’t develop problems that go undetected, but good dental care starts at home and with your rabbit’s diet.
Fiber – Good for the Gut
When living with any rabbits it is important to understand how their body works, to keep them healthy and happy.
I’ve seen friends of mine give their pet rabbits pizza, bread, sweets and too many treats to mention. The sad thing is that although you can offer advice, it’s hard to break an unhealthy habit. Dog and cat owners do exactly the same thing.
The sad and more annoying thing here is, they are, without question, shortening the life of their pet, and with rabbits, it can be immediate death.
“My rabbit stopped eating, and then it just died.”
I’ve seen this statement and similar all over the Internet, in forums, websites, social media, and blog posts. Keep reading and you’ll soon discover why!
Our digestive system and even that of a dog or a cat can handle a much higher calorie intake. Our guts are capable of managing an imbalance of fat, sugar, and protein in our diet – a rabbit’s can not. Rabbits are strict herbivores and only eat plants. Wild rabbits only eat plants and a domestic rabbit’s digestive system is exactly the same.
Wild rabbits prefer grass and leaves, they can digest more fibrous foods and are able to survive on sparse vegetation. They do NOT need a high-calorie diet, as their digestive system has evolved to use bacterial fermentation to break down fiber and form nutrients.
A really good way of keeping a check on your rabbit is to look at their poop. If your rabbit has been producing extremely small or no fecal droppings at all or even showed symptoms of ‘runny poop’, then that would be a time to speak to your vet.
Note: True diarrhea is uncommon in rabbits. The “runny stool” is composed of unformed, almost-liquid cecotropes.
Two Types of Poop
Rabbits produce two types of pellets: fecal pellets (left in the litter box) and cecotropes (soft, pungent, normally shaped like a cluster of grapes and reingested by the rabbit to obtain essential nutrients). Liquid or mushy cecotropes can be caused by an imbalance in the bacteria of the intestine. This imbalance can be caused by a number of factors, such as the wrong antibiotic (oral penicillins and lincosamide antibiotics can be very dangerous to rabbits for this reason!) or a diet too rich in digestible carbohydrates and too low in crude fiber.
Often, however, it is caused by a slowing of the normal muscular movement of the intestines, called peristalsis. The slowdown or cessation of peristalsis of the intestine is known as gastrointestinal (GI) stasis or ileus.
So, why does your rabbit need to eat the cecotropes?
Any undigested food that reaches the colon is split into large and small particles and sent in opposite directions. The small particles pass into the cecum which is the fermentation chamber full of bacteria. These bacteria break down the particles to form volatile fatty acids, amino acids, vitamins, and other nutrients. Large particles that are difficult to break down pass rapidly through the colon, are compressed and are excreted as hard fecal pellets.
Once or twice a day, the motility of the colon changes and the cecum (fermentation chamber) contracts to expel its contents as slightly larger, softer fecal pellets. These are known as cecotropes. Rabbits eat these pellets of feces, the cecotropes. They are often consumed as they come out of the anus and are a rich source of nutrients. If this cycle is broken, it disrupts the healthy bacteria that live in the rabbits’ digestive tract.
In very young rabbits, this can cause death by enterotoxemia, i.e. overproduction of toxins by a population of bacteria that is unbalanced and out of control. It can take a while for a rabbit to achieve a stable healthy gut flora (bacterial population), hence why young rabbits are so susceptible.
The Importance of Water
Water is a vital nutrient in any rabbit diet; they require more than any comparable species.
An outdoor rabbit might find their extra water from the hollows of leaves or garden pots and tubs that have collected rainwater.
An indoor rabbit, however, is completely dependent on you for their water source. So it is vital you understand why it is an important part of the indoor rabbit diet and, more importantly, how much they need.
In one day, a 5lb pound rabbit can drink as much water as a 24lb dog!
Because this is so important and you may not have realized, let’s just repeat that…
In one day, a 5lb pound rabbit can drink as much water as a 24lb dog! In fact, the average rabbit consumes between 50 and 150 milliliters of water per 2.2 pounds of body weight per day. Please bear this in mind when you put water out for your rabbits. Think of each rabbit as a mid-sized dog and you’ll be about right!
A rabbit not drinking sufficient water will gradually suffer desiccation of the intestinal contents. Skin tenting, a common method used by veterinarians to gauge the state of hydration in many animals, is not a good gauge of hydration in rabbits. It seems that even when the tissues of the rabbit appear to be well-hydrated, the intestinal contents may not be, perhaps because the rabbit is so efficient at sequestering necessary fluids from its own intestine.
When this happens, the ingested food in the stomach and intestine becomes dry and difficult for the normal muscular motions to push through. This can start a downhill cascade into the condition, previously mentioned, known as ileus, or GI stasis, which can be life-threatening if not recognized and treated.
Bottle It or Bowl It!
A water bottle with a metal spout is the best and most house rabbits pick up how to use it quite quickly. You can encourage them with some jam on the end to get them started though. Make sure you check the spout every day to make sure it’s working properly.
A water bowl can be susceptible to contamination from poop or urine. Also, some rabbit breeds have large dewlaps and if this is getting wet when they lean over to drink, they could get a skin infection. However, if you do use a bowl, make sure it’s one that’s heavy and won’t get knocked over. Having said that, you may want to provide water in both a bowl and a bottle on hot days. Strangely enough, studies have shown that rabbits may drink more water if it is provided in a bowl rather than a bottle.
The best foods for rabbits are grass and leafy greens as they are palatable, low in calories, high in fiber and wear the teeth down. Leafy green vegetables are very good, such as romaine lettuce, kale and carrot tops. When introducing a new type of food, it can cause a flurry of cecotropes, which must not be interpreted as diarrhea. On the contrary, it is perfectly normal and healthy!
- Low calorie, high-fiber foods are GOOD
- High calorie, low-fiber foods are BAD
Rabbits on a low-fiber diet tend to produce softer cecotropes which can stick to the fur around the anus, especially if the fur is fluffy. If this same diet is high in calories, as many of the commercial ones often are, then the rabbit is more likely to be fat and unable to reach their anus to eat the cecotropes. The end result is that a foul-smelling mass of matted fecal material accumulates under the tail which is unpleasant for both the rabbit and the owner.
Moreover, the skin under the matted feces becomes sore and the smelly, moist area attracts flies. This then leads to flystrike, which is very distressing and often fatal.
Get Your Bunny Eating
If your rabbit is ill and not eating or eating very little, the fiber and moisture in fresh vegetables will help stimulate the intestine. Kale is a good choice. If the rabbit refuses to eat, try offering fresh herbs like mint, basil, dill, sage, parsley, cilantro, fennel, tarragon, and others. Sometimes it helps to nip off the ends of the stems and wave the fresh, juicy stems under the rabbit’s nose or even gently insert the stem into the corner of the bunny’s mouth. You can even lightly pat the herbs against the bunny’s face until she gets annoyed with you and grabs the offending sprig. Sometimes, it just takes a small taste to get the bunny eating. Try a variety until one of them gets the bunny to eat. You never know which herb will stimulate the appetite, so it’s best to have a variety on hand.
Exercise for the House Rabbit
Daily exercise is still essential for indoor rabbits, so make sure your rabbits have opportunities to exercise every day to stay fit and healthy. Rabbits are most active in the morning and late afternoon. This is when they are most likely to benefit from access to exercise areas and be most sociable.
There are lots of ways to allow your house rabbits to exercise:
- Free Range Rabbits
Rabbits that enjoy the freedom of your whole house, the same luxury that is afforded to cats and dogs, will get plenty of exercise.
Keeping your rabbits in your home can be a great way to ensure they get lots of attention and human companionship, meaning any health problems are quickly spotted but also those lucky house rabbits will be constantly running around your home, digging at your carpets, nibbling everything left on the floor, probably doing ‘binkys’ and jumping on all your furniture – they’ll be well and truly puffed out at bedtime!
Of course, cover any electrical wires with protective tubing as rabbits may chew wires, and block off areas that are hazardous or that you do not wish your rabbits to have access to.
- Confined Play Areas
If your house rabbits are confined to an indoor cage, you must also provide an exercise area with at least as many hiding places as there are rabbits. Provide toys such as cardboard boxes with entrance holes cut out, cardboard toilet tubes filled with hay and vegetables and boxes filled with hay or shredded paper, to encourage your rabbits to exercise and explore.
Ensure that your rabbits’ area is away from drafts and if you have central heating, make sure that they are not too close to radiators as rabbits can suffer from heat stress and become very ill if exposed to high temperatures.
Artificial lights can bother the very sensitive eyes of a rabbit so make sure your indoor rabbits have a darkened sleeping area that they can go to whenever they wish.
An indoor pen or free access to a ‘bunny-proofed’ room in your home may help to ensure that your indoor rabbits get enough exercise, stimulation, and companionship each day.
- Permanent Outdoor Access
Did you know rabbits can be trained to use pet doors? The giant breeds will probably need the small to medium-sized dog door but an average rabbit will fit through one of the larger makes of a cat door.
If your indoor rabbits do have access to the outdoors at all times, and it’s ideal if they do, they will probably get wet and cold on days when the weather isn’t so nice. If your rabbits get wet from being outside in the rain or snow, rub them dry with a towel and ensure they have plenty of warm bedding to rest in when they come back in.
- Part-time Outdoor Access
Some owners will put their bunnies outside while they are away at work. This is fine as long as all the fundamentals mentioned earlier are seen to, such as access to food, hay, and water, etc.
If your grass is prone to being very wet more often than not, consider moving your rabbits’ exercise area onto a paved area or into an outhouse or unused garage, but make sure they have access to hay and grass at all times.
One vital thing to consider for this type of exercise option is shelter. Rabbits that are outside for any length of time need hiding places. There are more things to fear lurking around outdoors, such as birds of prey, dogs, cats, and foxes, etc.
Also, indoor rabbits will not have developed a thick winter coat, so as well as ensuring there are shelters filled with bedding in the exercise area, do not put them outside if it is very cold and monitor how long they are outside for. Cover part of the run with plastic sheeting or tarpaulin, to give some protection from rain and wind.
Bad Rabbit Diet = Bad Rabbit Teeth
Are teeth problems related to rabbit diet?
Yes – Dental problems are possibly the most common reason why vets see rabbits.
Say ‘No’ to Muesli. There is universal agreement amongst experts that mixed muesli-type diets are at least partly responsible for these teeth problems. Although these types of rabbit food are cheap, tasty and convenient, they are totally unsuitable for rabbits. They are high in calories and low in fiber, and even if the manufacturer claims to have a balanced mixture of ingredients, many rabbits will cherry-pick certain bits from the bowl. This means that certain tasty components such as peas or maize, which are not beneficial to a rabbit’s diet, are selectively eaten while less palatable ingredients are ignored.
Importance of Good Teeth
The continual growth of the rabbits’ teeth is reliant on proper nutrition. So when the rabbit diet is deficient, this disrupts the tooth structure and can lead to wonky teeth, abscesses, blocked tear ducts, osteoporosis, and spinal problems.
In addition, rabbits with poor teeth can’t groom themselves properly and so can get mite infestations, leading to scaling and itchy skin.
Poor teeth also make the rabbit unable to eat hay, so the proportion of fiber in the rabbits’ diet decreases and causes digestive problems. By and large, if a rabbit is eating large amounts of hay it is an indicator that it has healthy teeth.
Dental disease or malocclusion in rabbits, referring to the misalignment of teeth, is by far the most common problem seen in domestic rabbits today.
Indoor Rabbit Diet Top Tips
- Grass seeds can be grown in trays and given to give to your bunnies daily, keep the trays watered with plenty of light and sunshine and grass can be included in your indoor rabbit diet every day.
- Never feed greens or vegetables that are frosty or frozen, these could harm your rabbits.
- Provide plenty of fresh grass hay, such as timothy.
- If your rabbit won’t eat timothy, oat, brome or other grass hays, try Readigrass or fresh grass from outside.
- Avoid offering alfalfa hay. Alfalfa is too high in protein and calcium to be a healthy part of the rabbit diet. It also is more likely to cause bloat, and more likely to harbor the parasitic fungi that produce potentially deadly mycotoxins than grass hays.
- Do not be tempted to over-feed your rabbits and only offer fruit and root vegetables like carrots, in small amounts as a treat. An indoor rabbit diet full of high sugars will not be nice to clean up and make your rabbits poorly.
- House rabbits kept in warm ambient temperatures may require less energy than outdoor rabbits, depending on their level of activity.
- Your vet will be able to give dietary advice specific to your individual rabbits.
Rabbit Diet Problems?
If your rabbit is not acting as they normally do, ask yourself these important rabbit diet questions:
- Is your rabbit getting insufficient fiber in their diet?
- Are you giving them too many starchy treats?
- Can your rabbit physically eat, do they have overgrown molars or an abscessed tooth?
- Have there been major changes in the house, especially with the type or brand of food you are giving your rabbits? But also look at psychological stress, (loss of the bunny’s bonded partner, a new pet in the house, visitors, construction, etc.)
- And finally and probably the most overlooked –
Has your rabbit access to any houseplants?
This is often not even considered as a problem and sometimes toxic and poisonous plants are a major killer for house rabbits.