Dry Food (Concentrates)
Ready mixed dry food might seem like a convenient way to feed your rabbit but, in reality, it should only make up a small portion of your rabbits diet. The problem with dry food is that it is a very concentrated form of nutrition (it packs a lot of nutrients into a small volume of food), the exact opposite of a rabbit's natural diet (a high volume of low nutrient food). This has several potential issues:
- A small amount of dry food will meet your rabbit's nutrient requirements but not provide a high enough volume of indigestible fibre to keep food moving correctly through the digestive system. Feeding additional dry food to increase the fibre volume will provide too many nutrients making your rabbit overweight.
- Eating less food reduces the wear on rabbit's continually growing teeth, so they may grow too long and require dental treatment. Dry food is also less good at wearing down teeth, as it does not require the same chopping and grinding motion that eating grass does.
- Rabbits naturally spend over two-thirds of each day moving around their territory grazing. When pet rabbits are fed too much concentrated food, which is quick to eat, they often become bored and develop behaviour problems because they do not have any activities to fill the hours that would usually be spent feeding.
For these reason dry food on its own cannot meet a rabbits dietary needs. However, when fed in moderation alongside other foods it can play a part in creating a balanced diet for your rabbit. So, think of dry food as a supplement to fresh foods and definitely not as a replacement for hay and grass. If you are able to provide a varied selection of fresh foods daily, so your rabbit receives a full range of vitamins and minerals, dry food is not strictly necessary all!
Mixes v. Pellets
There are two main dry food formats sold for rabbits: muesli-style mixes and pellets. In general, rabbit mixes are cereal based; they contain brightly coloured processed pieces and a variety of whole ingredients including corn, flaked peas, and locust beans. Rabbit pellets are usually grass based, and the ingredients processed into uniform pellets or 'nuggets'.
Left: rabbit mix, right: rabbit pellets.
The colours and variety in mixes makes them very visually appealing to humans. However, they tend to be lower in fibre and higher in protein than grass based pellets. Feeding a mix also allows your rabbit to select only the tastiest parts to eat. If your rabbit does not eat all the ingredients, it will not receive a balanced diet and may miss out on important nutrients. For these reasons, pellets are generally the most appropriate type of food for you rabbit, and most rabbits find them quite tasty despite their boring appearance to us humans.
Choosing a Brand
At first glance, choosing a brand of pellets can be a little overwhelming. Pet shops stock their shelves with foods that promise to be "gourmet", "premium", "fortified with vitamins", or contain "all natural ingredients". Don't be tempted by this advertising; to get an accurate idea of how good a food is look at the nutritional analysis and ingredients list on the back of the packets instead.
The most important part of the nutritional information is the fibre and protein levels. The higher the fibre content (look for a minimum of 18%) generally the better the food will be for your rabbit's digestion. A healthy adult rabbit needs a protein level of 12-14%. Young rabbits (under five months) need a higher protein level of around 16% to support their rapid growth.
The ingredients list will be in the order of the proportion included; with the ingredient the food contains most of listed first. Look for brands that list grass (e.g. timothy, alfalfa, fescue, or 'forage') ahead of cereals (e.g. wheat, oats, corn, or maize). As grass is higher in fibre and lower in protein than cereals, foods that are grass-based generally also have a more suitable nutritional balance.
Good quality high fibre pellets can be more expensive than cheap mix, but the good news is you don't need a lot of them.
Amount of FoodThe recommended amount of pellets for a rabbit has decreased in the past few years as those that study rabbit welfare realise the benefits of a more natural diet in reducing health problems.
Most adult pet rabbits need a maximum of 25g of high fibre/low protein dry food per 1kg of body weight. If you feed a good variety of vegetables daily, your rabbit may need as little as 10g per kg. This may seem like a very small amount but remember pellets are very concentrated. You can monitor your rabbit's weight to ensure that the quantity you feed is meeting their nutritional needs and adjust as necessary.
Your rabbit will eat the pellets quickly, but do not be tempted to refill the bowl once the daily ration is gone. The bowl should be empty the majority of the day so your rabbit will top up on hay instead.
Baby rabbits (under five months) are growing rapidly and need higher protein levels than adults to support their muscle and bone development. You can increase the protein level in your rabbit's diet by feeding higher protein dry food aimed at juveniles or a larger amount of dry food. Generally, you can allow baby rabbits (less than 12 weeks) food ad lib. However, it is important rabbits get into good eating habits when they are young as they can be difficult to change later. If a young rabbit overlooks hay for the pellets then it may be necessary to limit pellets to encourage hay eating.
If you have been unable to locate high fibre/low protein pellets, then it's particularly important to feed to small quantities of food as this reduces the impact the food has on your rabbit's diet.
Changing FoodWhen changing between dry foods, you should gradually mix the new feed into the old over a period of around 7-14 days. For example, begin with a mix of 10% of the new food and 90% of the old, and increase the new and decrease the old each day. If you do not have any of the old food then introduce the new food in small quantities, increasing the amount daily over 7-10 days until you have built up to the quantity appropriate for your rabbit's needs. Having limited dry food for a short period will not affect your rabbit as long as hay is also available to eat.
Whilst changing food, you need to watch out for changes to your rabbit's droppings that could signal the change is too rapid. If they become soft or runny, slow down the change.
Rabbit's generally consider dry food very tasty, so they will work hard to obtain it. This makes it excellent for incorporating in to toys and activities.
One way to feed dry food is using a 'treat' ball. This is a hollow ball with a small hole. You fill the ball with food and it falls out as your rabbit pushes the ball around the floor. You can usually find them for sale in the cat section of pet shops, or you can make your own from a box, cardboard tube, or bottle with holes cut in to let the food fall out.
To help you rabbit understand how to work the ball, start by placing the ball with the hole down and a few pieces of food next to it. As your rabbit tries to get the food, the ball will move knocking more food out. Once your rabbit has learnt to use it, they will soon be chasing it around at high speed! Once your rabbit has the hang of it, you can put all your rabbits dry food in the ball - and throw out your food bowl.
You can also use the dry food portion of your rabbit's diet as handfed treats, instead of a meal, to help you make friends or as a reward for positive behaviour such as coming when called.