Rabbits eating lettuce

I’ll never forget the time I took an emergency call about Andre, a Flemish Giant rabbit who had eaten a kid’s textbook. The textbook was pronounced DOA, but the rabbit looked at me like, “You got a problem?” He was fine!

Now, that’s not always the case. All too often, a rabbit’s digestive system goes wrong, either because of an improper diet or stress in his life. Obesity is also a common problem in rabbits because owners feed them too much or give them too many sweet treats.

How Rabbit Digestion Works

Rabbits are herbivores, which means they nibble only plants, and they have kind of a crazy digestive system. It starts out normally, with the rabbit chewing and swallowing and the food going down to the stomach, where it’s broken down by acids. (Interesting fact: Did you know that rabbits can’t vomit?)

When the remaining fiber gets to the rabbit’s colon, however, any digestible fiber is sent off to the caecum for further processing while indigestible fiber is eliminated from the body in the form of small, hard pellets that look like Cocoa Puffs. Back in the caecum, a colony of special bacteria go to town on the digestible fiber, breaking it down further.

The body absorbs some of the nutrients, but the remaining fermented fiber is formed into soft pellets called caecotropes and eliminated from the body. The rabbit eats them straight from the package, so to speak, because they are more digestible when they pass through the digestive tract a second time. This habit of eating these high-nutrient feces is called caecotrophy, and while it seems disgusting to us, it’s an important part of the rabbit’s ability to gain nutrients.

Your Bunny’s Nutritional Needs

Feeding your rabbit appropriately is essential to keeping his digestive system working properly. The best diet for a rabbit is as much fresh timothy hay as he wants in a day. Hay is high in fiber, and it’s good for your rabbit’s teeth and digestion. It also helps keep him from becoming obese.

Other good additions to a rabbit’s diet are mixed leafy greens. You can feed a variety of them, including kale, dandelion greens (make sure they haven’t been sprayed with herbicides or pesticides), cilantro, parsley, spinach, carrot tops, basil, romaine and red leaf lettuce. Offer a cup of mixed greens for every 2 pounds that your bunny weighs. Vary the mix of daily greens so he gets a good balance of nutrients.

Hay and greens should make up the bulk of your rabbit’s diet. Most rabbits eat about 5 percent of their body weight daily. Commercial pellets are available, but they aren’t essential. If you feed them, they should be only a small part of what your rabbit eats. Limit pellets to no more than a quarter of a cup per 5 pounds of body weight daily, and choose plain pellets that don’t look like candy.

Of course, your rabbit needs access to fresh, clean water all the time. Rabbits drink about 10 percent of their body weight in water daily.

Avoid Digestive Distress

Fruit can be a nice treat for your rabbit, but only in tiny amounts. Too much sugar in his system affects the level of bacteria in his gut and can give him a painful case of diarrhea. Choose fruits and vegetables that are low in sugar. Bugs Bunny eats carrots, but your bunny shouldn’t because they are so sweet. Instead, offer a bit of organic apple that’s mostly peel (no seeds or stems) or a strawberry top. The amount you give shouldn’t be any larger than the end joint of your pinky finger. Other foods to avoid include dairy items such as yogurt treats or commercial treats that contain sugar, honey or seeds.

Finally, keep a careful eye on your rabbit’s food intake and output. If you notice a decrease in the amount your rabbit is eating or pooping, take him to the veterinarian right away. It could be a sign that he’s suffering from gastrointestinal stasis, meaning that the intestines have slowed or stopped their movement.

By the time you notice that his poop has gone from the size of a Cocoa Puff to the size of a BB, he may have been having problems for two or three days. If we can catch the problem early, your rabbit has a much better chance of responding to medical or surgical treatment.