Summer is well on its way, and no doubt you have seen the Spring-born rabbits running around the fields and chomping on grass. Perhaps you’ve been thinking about your own rabbit’s diet as you watch the wild ones play? Though a rabbit’s love of carrots is well known (thanks Bugs Bunny!), it seems that many UK owners prefer to feed their bunny muesli-type feed. However, while this mix of dried food might sound great, there is more and more evidence that it is actually very unhealthy for rabbits. With Rabbit Awareness Week (2nd-10th June) and the focus on healthier rabbit diets, is it time to change your rabbit’s diet and ‘Move Away from Muesli’?
What is rabbit muesli?
Rabbit muesli varies depending on what brand is bought, but tends to include ingredients such as dried maize, wheat, peas, oats, grasses, fruit, sunflower meal, linseed, straw, beans, oils, and added minerals and vitamins. A long list of healthy sounding stuff? Perhaps, but a lot of these components are actually very high in fat and sugar, which is not good for rabbit digestion. To make matters worse, many rabbits learn which bits are tastiest (unhealthiest!), and leave the healthier fibre-filled parts. Rabbits acting like this will basically be eating a high fat, high sugar, low fibre diet! The main reason why this kind of diet is not good for rabbits is related to their anatomy.
A rabbit’s digestive system is actually quite complex – they are hind-gut fermenters, meaning food is digested in a sac near the large intestine, called the caecum (this is actually the same organ as the human appendix, but many times larger proportionally). In the caecum, food is broken down by bacteria, to produce protein, amino acids, and vitamins. These combine into a kind of dropping called a caecotroph. Caecotrophs will be excreted and eaten, so that the nutrients can be absorbed in the stomach. After all that is left is indigestible fibre, it is excreted again as a normal poo-pellet.
The problems with muesli
Rabbit digestion needs a high fibre diet – just like in humans, fibre helps the digestive system move food in the right direction. This is why a muesli diet is not good for rabbits; although it contains fibre, often this portion is not eaten, meaning the rabbit’s digestive system is not able to move food properly. It will slow down or even stop, which can be fatal to rabbits.
As well as this issue, fibre is also important for rabbits to help grind down their teeth – a rabbit’s teeth grow constantly, and must be frequently used to avoid overgrowth and dental problems. A diet with lots of soft, high sugar items, like muesli, will not be tough enough to grind down rabbit teeth. It is true that if a rabbit has plenty of toys to chew on, it may manage to avoid or reduce dental problems. This still does not mean muesli is appropriate, however.
Furthermore, a high sugar diet can lead to obesity. This has many related problems, including heart disease, bad skin and flystrike, and foot inflammation. Finally, though the gut eventually stops, low fibre diets will initially lead to excessive soft caecotrophs that the rabbit will not eat – the fur around their back end will become matted and dirty, which can lead to flystrike if not treated. This can be a good early indication of a digestive problem.
The perfect diet
So after that long list of problems related to muesli, you may be wondering what you should feed your rabbit. For a clue, look to our wild friends again – grass. Wild rabbits eat mostly grass, which is high in fibre whilst containing the nutrients they need. Fresh grass can be appropriate, but the best thing for a pet rabbit is hay. This cheap, dried grass will contain almost everything your rabbit needs, while also maintaining their dental and digestive health. It is available from pretty much every pet shop, and should be the main component of their diet. Rabbit nuggets (again, mostly fibre) contain any extra minerals and vitamins that might be lacking in the hay, so can be given alongside in smaller quantities. On top of this, treats can be given – these should be mainly fresh greens, such as pepper, some types of dark-leafed lettuce (avoid iceberg and pale, watery varieties), celery, kale, and so on. And though Bugs Bunny may have sworn by them, carrots (and other non-green fruit and veg) are still quite sugary, so should only be given occasionally.
For a rabbit accustomed to muesli, it is not a good idea to suddenly switch to hay and nuggets – instead, gradually swap out the muesli for hay, over about a month. Every day, add more and more hay, and less and less muesli, until it is completely phased out. While you may not notice any immediate changes to your rabbit, its future will be much brighter. Non-muesli diets will definitely lead to a much healthier, happier bunny. If only human dieting was so easy!