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Feeding Rabbits
Feeding Rabbits


Rabbits are small herbivores with specialized feeding and digestive strategies. They are selective eaters and choose nutrient-rich leaves and new plant shoots over mature plant material that is higher in fiber. They have a high metabolic rate and only by selecting the most nutritious plant parts can they meet their requirements.

Rabbits are nonruminant herbivores with an enlarged hindgut. The large cecum supports a population of microorganisms that uses nutrients not digested in the small intestine. Separation of digesta on the basis of particle size occurs in the hindgut. Peristaltic action rapidly moves large particles, primarily lignocellulose, through the colon and excretes them as hard fecal pellets. Antiperistaltic action moves small particles and soluble material into the cecum, where they undergo fermentation. At intervals, the cecal contents are expelled as “soft feces” and consumed by the rabbit directly from the anus. This reingested material provides microbial protein, vitamins (including all the B vitamins needed), and small quantities of volatile fatty acids, which are essential in rabbit nutrition. However, because amino acids obtained in this manner make only a minor contribution to the rabbits' protein needs (particularly young, growing rabbits), the diet must supply the additional amino acids, although the requirements for essential amino acids in rabbits have not yet been defined.

Rabbits digest fiber poorly because of the selective separation and rapid excretion of large particles in the hindgut. A generous amount of fiber in the diet (∼15% crude fiber) is needed to promote intestinal motility and minimize intestinal disease. Fiber may also absorb bacterial toxins and eliminate them via the hard feces. Diets low in fiber promote an increased incidence of intestinal problems, eg, enterotoxemia. This may be a result of the higher starch content of low-fiber diets. Starch is a substrate for the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria such as Clostridium spiroforme, which produce a potent toxin. High-fiber diets (>20% crude fiber) may result in an increased incidence of cecal impaction and mucoid enteritis. Volatile fatty acids produced in the cecum are important metabolites because they aid in the control of pathogenic organisms by helping to maintain a low pH in the cecum.

A dietary supply of vitamins A, D, and E is necessary. Bacteria in the gut synthesize B vitamins and vitamin K in adequate quantities; thus, dietary supplements are unnecessary. Disease and stress may increase the daily vitamin requirements. Feed preparation and storage must be done in a manner that will reduce losses from oxidation, which destroys vitamins A and E more readily than other vitamins. Diets containing ≥30% of alfalfa meal generally provide sufficient vitamin A. Levels of vitamin A in the diet must be >5,000 IU/kg and <75,000 IU/kg. Levels out of this range may cause abortion, resorbed litters, and fetal hydrocephalus. Vitamin E deficiency has been associated with infertility, muscular dystrophy, and fetal and neonatal death. Pet rabbit diets sold in pet stores or even in bulk at feed stores may not have adequate turnover, which may result in nutritional deficiency. Hay packaged for small mammals may have been sitting on the shelf for an extended period.

All the components of the basic diet (ie, protein, fiber, fat, and energy) should be managed in consideration of the life stage (growth, gestation, lactation, maintenance), breed, condition, and lifestyle of the rabbit. Ratios should meet the nutrient requirements of the National Research Council (see Rabbits: Nutrient Requirements of RabbitsTables).

Pelleted rabbit feeds provide good nutrition at reasonable cost. Fresh, clean water should always be available. Rabbits fed hay (alfalfa or clover) and grain (corn, oats, barley) should be provided with a trace mineral salt block. Prolonged intake of typical commercial diets containing alfalfa meal by laboratory or pet rabbits kept for extended periods under maintenance conditions may lead to kidney damage and calcium carbonate deposits in the urinary tract. Reducing the calcium level to 0.4–0.5% of the diet for nonlactating rabbits helps reduce these problems. This can be accomplished by feeding pelleted diets with a timothy hay base. Adult pet rabbits not intended for breeding should be fed a high-fiber pelleted diet, restricted to ¼ cup/5 lb body wt/day to prevent obesity and maintain GI health. At this level of restriction, ad lib hay is necessary to avoid trichobezoars and general gut stasis.

Rabbits are efficient converters of poorly digestible materials to meat. Therefore, it is easy to overfeed or underfeed does and growing, adolescent rabbits (fryers). The amount to feed depends on the age of the fryers or on the stage of pregnancy or lactation of the does. A general rule in feeding fryers is to feed all that can be consumed in 20 hr, with the feed hopper empty ∼4 hr/day. Does are usually fed ad lib once they kindle. The general practice is to bring the doe from restricted to full feed slowly during the first week of lactation. Does that are bred to kindle 5 times during the year generally have their feed restricted between litters; those bred intensively should be on full feed continuously once they begin the first lactation. [1]

Nutrient Requirements

Nutrient Requirements of Rabbits
Protein (%) Total Protein (%) Digestible Fat (%) Fiber (%) Digestible Carbohydrates (NFE,%)a Total Digestible Nutrients (%)
Maintenance 12 9 1.5–2 14–20 40–45 50–60
Growth and finishing 16 12 2–4 14–16 45–50 60–70
Gestation 15 11 2–3 14–16 45–50 55–65
Lactation (with litter of 7–8) 17 13 2.5–3.5 12–14 45–50 65–75

a NFE = nitrogen-free extract

How Much to Feed

I believe one of the toughest livestock management principles, is learning to feed an animal. Rabbits may be one of the more difficult animals to feed to achieve maximum performance.
Each development stage of a rabbit has different nutrient requirements, including maintenance, growth, fitting, lactation and reproduction. The different stages must receive sufficient feed to furnish the necessary quantity of energy (carbohydrates & fats), protein, minerals and vitamins.
All animals will fulfill their nutrient requirement for maintenance before all other stages of development. Maintenance requirements may be defined as the combination of nutrients which are needed by the animal to keep its body functioning without any gain or loss in body weight or any productive activity. These requirements are essential for life itself. A mature animal must have (1) heat to maintain body temperature, (2) sufficient energy to keep vital body processes functional, (3) energy for minimal movement, and (4) the necessary nutrients to repair damaged cells and tissues and to replace those which have become nonfunctional.
There are several Factors affecting maintenance requirements, among them, (1) exercise (2) weather (3) stress (4) health (5) body size (6) age (7) temperament (8) individual variation (9) level of production, and (10) lactation.
So how do we put this in practical terms for our rabbits?
Rabbits require about .5 ounces of feed for every one pound of body weight.
So, a four pound fryer will need approximately 2 ounces of feed per day to meet its maintenance requirement.
This young rabbit also has a nutrient requirement for growth on top of its maintenance requirement.
So a four pound fryer will need an additional .5 ounces of feed per pound of body weight to meet its’ growth requirement.
Gestating and lactating rabbit’s nutrient requirements go well beyond their maintenance requirements. How do I know if my rabbits are getting enough feed to eat? The best management tool available to us is to evaluate the body condition of the animal in addition to weight gain. Body condition refers to the amount of external fat cover or bloom an animal carries on its body. If an animal is thin, then additional feed is necessary to correct the problem or if an animal is too fat then a reduction in calories is necessary to maintain production.
Conditioning rabbits for show is more of an art than science. The most successful breeders have worked out systems of their own through years of past experience and close observation – they do not follow rules. The beginner will profit by the experience of successful fitters (conditioners). The basics of nutrition are still relevant but the process and management are very unique. During the conditioning process, how fast an animal grows is not as important as how well an animal grows. Conditioning rabbits for show begins prior to weaning. Establishing the right eating habits in young rabbits is essential for successful conditioning. Hand feeding only what the rabbit will consume from one feeding to the next is preferred over full feeding. A well conditioned rabbit is trim, firm in flesh with just enough bloom (finish) to give it that smooth touch and appearance. DO NOT GET THE RABBIT FAT! Once a rabbit gets fat and soft to the touch, it is impossible to regroup and start over. When conditioning rabbits for show, they must be fed on an individual basis. Just like people, every rabbit is different each responding a little differently to the conditioning process. You may ask yourself, how I remember from one day to the next what to feed. I have found, using different color clothes pins to mark each pen, allows me to keep track of my feeding regiment and maintain consistency in my conditioning program. Write down in a notebook what color clothes pin corresponds to the amount or kind of feed you are feeding. Finally, feeding small amounts multiple times each day is better than feeding one time each day. Establish a daily routine but allow flexibility in your conditioning program to meet the individual requirements of your rabbits.
How much do I feed my rabbit? Keep the basics in mind, (1) feed a balanced diet (2) identify the stage of development (3) recognize factors affecting maintenance requirements, and (4) use body condition as a guide to determine how much to feed your rabbit.
David A. Mangione Associate Professor The Ohio State University

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External Links


  1. Merck Veterinary Manual

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