Proverbially, rabbits will eat almost anything and thrive on kitchen scraps and left-overs from the table. This is true and implies that a pet rabbit (or even several) need not be expensive to keep. However, one must be sensible and ensure that the animal receives a variety of different foods and those which may be considered to be the best.
The idea, for example, that a rabbit should be fed lettuce and dandelion leaves and little more is wrong because the diet would be unbalanced. Though the animal may not die, he may not be in best of condition (i.e. he may be lean and thin—rather than plump) and he may not display the boundless energy which is typical of a fully healthy rabbit.
A rabbit’s diet falls into three parts : dry food, green food and hay. Each complements the other to provide a satisfying and health-giving diet. Two meals a day is sufficient, one early in the morning and one during the evening, but a mid-day meal of hay may also be given if one wishes, particularly for a doe with a litter. Where perishable foods are concerned, only enough should be given at each meal so that little remains uneaten by the time of the next. This saves waste but it also ensures that no food which is likely to “go off” is left hanging around. More food will have to be given in the evening because of the longer interval to the meal of the next morning. Try to maintain regular feeding times. The rabbit soon learns when it is feeding time and will be scratching at the cage door eager to greet its owner.
The dry foods are cereal grains and their by-products. This includes bread scraps, stale loaves, biscuits and the simple kinds of cake. These can be fed as they are or baked hard in an oven. Baked husks of bread give the animal something solid to chew and are good for the teeth. A traditional grain food is crushed or rolled oats. Whole oats, wheat, barley and maize may also be fed, preferred as a mixture. It may be that the rabbit will not eat some kinds of grain and these need not be given in future mixtures.
The rabbit keeper is fortunate in having a specially formulated diet which is stocked by most pet shops—rabbit pellets. These are a complete diet and, in theory, a rabbit will thrive on these alone, with the addition of hay and water. It is not proposed that this method of feeding should be followed since the diet would be monotonous and most rabbits like variety. On the other hand, rabbit pellets are a first-class food and may be given either alone or as part of the grain mixture.
Mashes can be made up from a variety of meals, such as barley, bran, maize and middlings. A recommendable mixture would be two parts bran, one part middlings and one part maize, all by bulk. Other mixtures can be made, of course, depending upon what is available. There is no reason why the constituents should not vary since some rabbits like some mixtures better than others. All meals will keep for months in a dry atmosphere (even better in an air-tight container). A quantity may be ready mixed dry but only sufficient be made-up for each meal. The mash is prepared by adding either warm or cold water to the mixture, just enough to produce a crumbly texture.
Too wet a mash should be definitely avoided. A different kind of mash may be made with boiled potatoes, drained of water and dried by mixing in bran to a crumbly texture. This mash is useful because it is nutritious and may be fed during the winter, should green food or roots be scarce.
Youngsters and nursing mothers enjoy a mash made with milk but this would be fattening for an ordinary adult. No more mash should be given for any meal than can be eaten. Mashes do not keep well and any uneaten should be promptly discarded. Both grains and mashes should be fed in shallow pans, preferably of the heavy glaze earthenware sort which cannot be easily overturned. Metal pans, china plates or saucers may be used but these can be upset too easily to be really serviceable.
Rabbits enjoy all sorts of green food (”green stuff”) and the greater the variety, the better they like it. The great stand-by are the outside leaves or trimmings from cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and lettuce. A request of your greengrocer will often result in a parcel of succulent leaves. All yellow or badly damaged leaves should be thrown away. Dirty leaves should be rinsed in water and laid out to dry before feeding. Kitchen scraps, such as carrot or celery tops, peelings of apple and pear, etc., can be fed. Bruised apples, for example, – can have the bad parts removed and the good saved for the rabbit—if you are not above eating it yourself!
If you have a kitchen garden, a few extra cabbage, Brussels sprouts and lettuce can be grown. An excellent plant which can be especially grown for the rabbit is chicory. This is a strong growing vegetable which yields masses of green tasty leaves. For a continuou, supply, a short row of chicory seeds should be sown cad spring.
There are many kinds of weeds which may be safely fed. The most common are the various clovers, chickweed, colts-foot, dandelion, dead nettle, groundsel, hedge parsley, plantain (broad and narrow leaved), shepherd’s purse, sow thistle, trefoil, vetch and yarrow. All of these may be given freely. Alas, there are a few poisonous plants which must be avoided, of which blue-bells, buttercups, hemlock, nightshade, ragwort, scarlet pimpernel and speedwell should be noted. Hemlock resembles hedge parsley rather closely but has a smooth round stem (often spotted with purple) whereas the stem of hedge parsley is slightly grooved. Wild green stuff should always be fed as a mixture, then, if a poisonous weed has been accidentally included, insufficient would be eaten to cause harm. Wild foliage should never be gathered from land fouled by dogs because of the risk of tape-worm infestation.
Grass clippings are acceptable to rabbits, particularly those of fresh young grass, not old coarse tufts. By the same token, fresh lawn mowings may be given (in fact, they are highly nutritious). Lawn cuttings which have turned yellow or have become “heated” due to being left in a heap can be injurious and should never be fed. Nor should mowings be given from a lawn which has been recently treated with selective weedkiller or fertilizer.
While on the "don’ts," never feed very wet green stuff whether this be cabbage, etc., or wild weeds. Wet green stuff has a tendency to cause stomach upsets and diarrhoea, possibly because the animal takes in more water than usual. Wet green stuff can always be dried to avoid this sort of trouble. In the meantime, feed apple, carrot or swede. A few days without green food will do no harm. In fact rabbit pellets contain either grass or lucerne meal and if an extra quantity of these is provided, the animal in effect is receiving green food.
Green stuff can be in short supply during the winter months. One has to be on guard not to feed frosty leaves or those which have thawed out from being frosted. These may be recognised by their darker colouring and limp appearance, sometimes smelly. These can be a major cause of stomach upsets.
When green stuff is of poor quality or impossible to obtain, one can turn to the feeding of pellets or vegetable roots. These latter are beetroot, carrot, kolh-rabi, parsnip, swede and turnips; also mangolds (if obtainable) for feeding after Christmas. Swede and carrots should be regarded as the basic roots but the greater the mixture, the better the rabbit will like them. Again, no frosty roots must be given. In this respect, do not overlook that green stuff and roots can freeze in the rabbit’s hutch, hence these should only be given for the morning feed on frosty days. Mash and pellets for the evening meal. The green stuff and roots should be stored under frost-proof conditions.
Rabbits require a good supply of clean and fresh meadow hay. This gives bulk to the diet and helps to digest other food. Never use hay which has become musty because this can cause stomach upsets. Good hay always smells “nice”, whereas musty hay smells mildewy and is dusty when handled.
Fresh hay should be given daily, usually at the evening meal. Straw can also be fed but some rabbits do not care for it and all seem to prefer meadow hay. Both straw and woodwool are good for bedding and this is their main use, largely because they last longer than hay. Damp meadow hay deteriorates rapidly and can become soggy and messy in no time if the hutch is not cleaned regularly.
A habit which often causes alarm is that of the rabbit eating its own droppings. However, no concern need be felt for the habit is quite normal. It does not mean that the animal is not receiving enough or adequate food.
The rabbit actually produces two sorts of droppings; hard round pellets and a softer type which is taken directly from the vent. The hard pellets are the true waste products of the body. The softer type contains food which has been only partially digested and the second passage through the intestines is a means by which the rabbit makes the fullest use of its diet. The soft pellets are said to be rich in vitamins manufactured by the intestinal bacteria.
To give or not to give water is a vexed question.’ Some people say always provide water while others disapprove. When a rabbit receives plenty of fresh green stuff and roots, he will in fact drink little water (though this is not always true) and he can forego it. However, if water is provided, a drink can be taken whenever the need is felt. Should little green stuff be fed, water should undoubtedly be given. Water can be provided in a heavy glazed dish (otherwise it may get tipped over and cause dampness) or as a large-size water bottle. These latter fix on the outside of the hutch door, with the nozzle poking through the wire at a height convenient for the rabbit.
Rabbits eat so much food that it is impractical to leave them unattended during holidays. Perhaps you can take your pet with you but, if this is impossible, a friendly neighbour might be persuaded to feed him. A school chum might be willing to help, especially if he or she has pets and you offer to look after these in exchange. The rabbit may have to put up with a simpler diet than usual but this should do no harm. A friend who is helping out cannot be expected to necessarily prepare mashes—he simply may not be able to spare the time. Alternatively, some pet shops undertake to care for pets over holiday periods and these could be approached.