Rabbits are quite popular as pets. After all, who can resist those fuzzy bundles of cuteness that baby bunnies are. They all have unique personalities and they make great indoor pets. My rabbit owners are every bit as attached to their pets as my dog and cat owners are. There are some things about rabbits, however, that are quite different from dogs and cats, so if you are considering a rabbit as a pet--or if you already have one-- here are some things to keep in mind.
The primary difference between rabbits and dogs and cats is their nutritional needs. Rabbits are strict herbivores, like horses. In fact the digestive tract of a rabbit and a horse are nearly indistinguishable except by size. Rabbits are designed to spend the day moving around browsing on any plant material that comes within reach. It may seem that the leaves, stems, and dry plant material that they regularly ingest would not contain much nutrition, but rabbits have a special trick for getting more out of what they eat. Rabbits have large holding compartments in their intestines that are like a mixing vat for the food they ingest and a complex host of bacteria that live inside there. The bacteria in the intestines have the ability to break down the normally indigestible fiber into components that the rabbit can then absorb for nutrition. Rabbits rely almost completely on the activity of the bacteria they are hosting to provide them with the nutrition they need. This is why we must be very careful with the use of antibiotics in rabbits. Antibiotics can indiscriminately kill large portions of necessary bacteria in the intestines of rabbits an cause potentially life threatening consequences.
Keeping a rabbit’s gastrointestinal tract happy is key to keeping your rabbit healthy. Rabbits will eat just about anything, and particularly like sweet treats (and the occasional electrical cord or corner of the carpet), but just because a rabbit will cheerfully ingest just about anything doesn’t mean it should. A rabbit’s intestinal bacterial balance tends to become upset when it is presented with large doses of sugars or fats, and unhappy bacteria mean unhappy rabbits. Most people who love their rabbits want to spoil them, just remember that treats are fine, but try to keep them to less than 10% of the diet, and keep electrical cords and carpet sections to an even lower percentage.
The thing that makes a rabbit’s guts happier than anything else you can give is grass hay. You can find mini bales in most pet stores. Timothy and orchard grass are the most common type of grass hays found in this area. Not only do Grass hays provide a very good balance of nutrition for rabbits, they also are the best source for long fibers that are necessary for good dental health and for stimulating normal gastrointestinal movement. Alfalfa hay is also readily available in this area. Alfalfa is a clover-like plant that makes a lush, leafy looking hay. It looks tastier and more inviting than plain old grass hay, and your rabbit is likely to think it tastes great too. Unfortunately alfalfa lacks the long fibers and has a much higher protein level and an unusual calcium to phosphorus ratio that ends up causing dental, kidney, and bladder problems for rabbits in the long run.
Pelleted diets are a common staple of rabbit feeding. Most pellets are made from compressed alfalfa. Not only does all that alfalfa lead to nutritional imbalances, but it contributes greatly to the tendency toward obesity in relatively sedentary pet rabbits. The best thing you could do for your rabbit if you are feeding a pelleted diet is to find pellets that are made from timothy hay instead of alfalfa and don’t contain grains or dried fruits. Timothy pellets can be difficult to find, but there is a company called Oxbow that makes great rabbit diets that you could find online.
Rabbits need to be able to eat constantly. If they are deprived of food, or if they stop eating because they aren’t feeling good, their intestines have a tendency to stop moving. When things aren’t moving through the big bag of bacteria inside the intestines the contents stagnate and produce toxic substances. Rabbits can and do die from this combination of problems, so if your rabbit is not eating for even a day you need to seek help right away. Often after several days it is too late to help them.