Hay - Ideally, it should form 90% of your rabbit's diet -
but which do you choose and why?
but which do you choose and why?
More and more rabbits are requiring dental burring in the UK. Vets have reported that three quarters of all pet rabbits they treat are diagnosed with dental health problems, this causes pain and stress and can prove fatal. Dental problems occur when rabbits do not eat enough forage and hay as they would in the wild, these naturally abrasive fibre rich foods are extremely important to a rabbit’s diet because they wear down the teeth. A rabbits will teeth grow an incredible 2mm every week, and 10-12cms every year, so it is vital that they eat the forage they need or problems can quickly develop.
While some of these numbers can be attributed to a genetic predisposition, so many rabbits need dentals because they do not eat enough of the food that is supposed to make up 90% of their diet, and that’s hay. The PDSA PAW report (2011) stated 42% of rabbits eat less than their body size in hay or grass each day, with a further 3% not eating any forage at all. The report also stressed the concern that 9% of owners did not know how much of these foods their rabbits were eating. A staggering estimation that around 750,000 rabbits are not eating the recommended daily amount of hay or grass is something of great concern, because of this vital it is to a rabbits health and wellbeing.
But why is hay so important?
Hay is crucial to a rabbit’s diet for its high fibrous qualities, and is essential for dental health simply because it is so abrasive. The grinding motion that comes from eating hay wears down rabbit’s teeth, which grow constantly. If the grinding movement is lost and the mouth remains closed then the teeth can start to grow backwards into the jaw. In addition to this the teeth can cause abscesses, tear duct problems, and mouth and tongue ulcers from the spikes. Subsequently, this can easily lead to anorexia, gut stasis, weight loss and overall a very unhealthy and unhappy rabbit.
How do I know if my rabbit is eating enough hay?
Hay should be available constantly, and you should see your rabbit eating hay, grass and other abrasive foods throughout the day. Often rabbits will choose to eat whilst sat in their litter trays so ensure they have a supply close by. Another way to ensure that they are eating enough hay is to actually look at their droppings.
A rabbit that does not eat enough hay will produce small, dark coloured and often misshapen droppings; where as a healthy rabbit’s droppings will be lighter, round and much larger. Droppings should be dry and crumble easily if pressed. Hard or moist droppings are indicative of a digestive system that is under stress.
A diet high in fibre is the foundation for a rabbits health, aside from the dental issues that can occur, fibre is an vital ingredient of the rabbit’s complex digestive system. Amongst other things, a rabbit that has a poor digestive system is much more likely to become a victim of fly strike in the hot summer months, because softer, stickier droppings have a higher chance of sticking to the rabbit’s fur, thus attracting the flies. Rabbits that are fed a larger amount of solid feed (pellets or muesli type mixes) will quickly fill up on these rich foods and not feel the need to eat large amounts of hay.
It is recommended that hay should ideally make up 90% of the rabbit’s diet, and owners should aim for at least 70%; therefore in reality the amount of solid food rabbits need is actually very small. Some rabbits are extremely fussy when it comes to hay, and like any pet product the choice can be overwhelming. The type of hay that you buy your rabbit can make the difference as to whether or not they even eat it.
So how do you decide what hay is best... Can one hay really better than another?
The problem is that what is good for one rabbit, may not be for another. Members of Happy Hoppers forum discussed the topic. “Well for me it’s just been a case of finding a hay that Luna will eat”, (LilyGrace).
Many rabbits can be known to be quite fussy, and this can cause owners a lot of stress when trying to find the right sort of hay for them. Some owners purchase their hay as a bale; this is cost effective as most hay bales retail around £3.50-£7 depending on your area. Although bales would be sourced from different areas, generally the hay is good quality as the hay is very course. The downside to purchasing hay from a bale is that you have be very thorough with checking through it before giving it to your rabbits in case there is anything inside that shouldn’t be there, but you can’t protect against everything and fur mites are a common resident in bales of hay, less so in bags. Bales of hay can be known to be quite dusty, which can create problems for house rabbit owners, or people with allergies. Another potential problem is storage, but some places will store the bales for you, so it is worth enquiring about. If you are unsure if your rabbit will eat the bale hay, ask for sample bag!
Some rabbit owners purchase their hay from pet shops, both on the high street and online, the prices can vary but members of Happy Hoppers Forum believe you get what you pay for in terms of quality. Oxbow organic hay is at the higher end of the price range, however rabbit owner KatieB says it is the only hay her dental rabbit, Daisy, will eat.”It’s rather pricey at £6.47 for a 425g bag! Thing is with Daisy’s teeth he really must eat lots of hay, so I guess it’s a small price to pay really!”.
That being said some rabbits will turn up their noses at the most luxurious hay, and opt for the cheaper variety. Some rabbit owners switch between hay types, just to offer some variation to the diet and to maintain their hay interest, which can be beneficial because of the varying texture each hay brand can have. “Oat, wheat and barley hay is also a favourite, and we’ve tried a few other ‘special’ hays too. But luckily he is quite happy with ordinary hay for the most part” (RosieRabbit).
If your rabbit is not eating the hay you are buying, check its quality. Substandard hay will often be brown and quite limp and soft, where as good quality hay will be yellow/green in colour, and have thick course stalks essential for the grinding motion required to keep the teeth in good condition. Some rabbits simply prefer one type of hay to another, so if your rabbit isn’t eating the hay you have bought – it’s time to try another!
Aunt Sally's 'Rainbow Mix'
This article was first published in Hopping Mad! Bunny Magazine, June 2011. The original article can be read HERE
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