Grass and Hay
The main component of every rabbit's diet should be fresh grass or hay (dried grass). Its high fibre content is the single most important thing in maintaining good dental and intestinal health. Without fibre, the digestive system cannot move food through the gut and your rabbit's teeth, which grow continually, will not wear down and could grow painfully long.
Grass is the most natural food for a rabbit to eat. The ideal set up would be a secure exercise pen on grass that allowed your rabbit to graze freely, but that is not always practical. If your rabbit does not have free access to grass, you can simulate natural grazing by growing grass from seed in a pot or tray. You can also cut grass for your rabbit and scatter it around their pen. If you do this, use scissors not lawn mower clippings, the cutting action of the mower crushes the grass, which causes it to begin to fermenting, and could upset your rabbit's stomach. If you've a lot of grass, you could even try making your own hay.
You should introduce grass gradually if you rabbit is not used to eating it, so initially limit the time spent grazing or the amount of grass you feed. You can build up the amount you feed until you rabbit has free access with as much as they want to eat.
Because of the large quantity of grass a rabbit eats each day, it is rarely practical to provide enough fresh grass to meet all your rabbit's needs. The solution to this is to supplement or substitute grass with hay, which is readily available and easily stored. Hay is just grass that has been cut and left to dry out. It has the same health and digestive benefits that fresh grass does.
There are many different hays available; popular types include meadow, timothy, and orchard grass. Any of these hays will provide a suitable basis for your rabbit's diet, but you don't need to pick just one type. Mixing several different hays will provide your rabbit with a wider variety of flavours and even out differences in nutritional values.
Oat and barley are types of grass which are usually grown for their cereal grain. When harvested before the seed heads have ripened they can also be fed as any other grass hay. Once the grain has ripen and the plant has turned from green to golden brown, the stems loose their nutritional value and are used instead as beeding in the form of straw. It's easy to tell the difference by the colour, straw is yellow and hay is green.
Sometimes the drying of cut grass is artificially sped up. This reduces the loss of nutrients giving it a higher nutritional value than hay. Grass dried in this way is usually labelled as 'barn dried hay' or 'dried grass'.
Alfalfa (Lucerne), a legume not grass, is also grown as animal feed. Alfalfa hay has a higher protein level than grass hay, which makes it too fattening to feed as the main diet for the average adult rabbit, although it can be good for growing youngsters or putting weight on an underweight rabbit.
Once you start shopping for hay, you will see there is a lot of variation in colour and texture. Both the appearance and nutritional value of hay varies depending on the type of grass it is cut from, when it was cut, and how long it has been stored.
Good hay should be green, smell sweet not mouldy, and not contain a lot of dust. The greener hay is, the closer it is nutritionally to grass. Hay on the browner end of the scale will contain plenty of fibre but will have less nutrients.
You may need to shop around to find good quality hay as some pre-packaged pet shop hay can be quite poor quality. If you have a farm, stables or feed store near you these can be a good source of hay. If you have room to store it or many rabbits to feed, buying hay by the bale is generally much cheaper.
Rabbits should have access to grass or hay all day, every day. You'll need to monitor your rabbit's eating habits to work out exactly how much hay you need to provide daily so they have a constant supply. As a rough guide, your rabbit should eat a portion of grass or hay approximately equal to the size of its body each day.
Encouraging Hay Eating
Despite the importance of hay, many rabbits are reluctant to eat it. This often stems from the availability of tasty but less healthy food, which can develop bad eating habits in young rabbits that can be difficult to change in later life. Not eating hay is a major factor in dental disease and illnesses relating to the gut, so putting in some hard work to encourage your rabbit to eat more has real health benefits. Here are some tips to encourage your rabbit to eat more hay:
- Reduce the dry food you feed. Some foods are tastier than hay but, like humans, rabbits need to eat a balanced diet not just the foods that taste best. If your rabbit always has dry food available, it has no reason to eat hay. It's like sitting a child down with a free choice between cake and vegetables.
- Feed tastier hay. Not all hay is the same; it comes in different varieties and flavours. Try different types of hay to see which your rabbit likes best. Make sure the hay is good quality and stored well. If your rabbit doesn't like hay, try fresh grass.
- Rabbits are more likely to eat hay if it is near them at times they feel like eating. Rabbit's often like to eat whilst they are using their litter tray or resting so place hay in these areas. You may need to experiment to work out where your rabbit prefers the hay left.
- Incorporate hay into toys and games. Some rabbits do not think of hay as food. Incorporating hay in to play activities that encourage your rabbit to pull, bite, and chew at the hay can help them to start tasting and nibbling on it. For example, try blocking a tunnel or box with hay so your rabbit has to remove the hay to get through.
- Associate hay with food your rabbit likes. Try mixing dry food, vegetables, fresh grass, or herbs (dry or fresh) in to the hay so your rabbit has to dig through the hay to find food. Whilst searching through the hay your rabbit may accidently eat some and realise hay doesn't taste so bad after all.