Few things will make your rabbitry more successful than feeding your rabbits a proper and well balanced diet. Just about every rabbit breeder has their own opinions about what makes for a balanced diet. Many breeders of show rabbits follow a specific feeding regimen and swear by a specific brand of feed and or supplements. While many meat breeders follow a slightly different path when it comes to feeding their herd.
Whether you are breeding rabbits for show, meat, or simply as pets, there are certain nutritional needs that your rabbit or rabbits need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Here on the TAP homestead, we raise New Zealand Reds and Whites in addition to American Blues. These breeds were developed as meat rabbits, so our focus is slightly different than that of show breeders. Having said that, we use the same high quality pedigreed bloodlines in our herd to produce superior meat breeding livestock. We try and maintain our livestock to meet the standards of the breed per the ARBA guidelines.
It is our desire that the following information will give you all the necessary tools you need to make competent decisions regarding the nutritional needs of the rabbits in your herd.
Protein is needed for the development of strong bones and lean muscle mass (meat). Protein requirement for rabbits varies depending on their age and whether they are pregnant or lactating. In general rabbits need 12% to 18% protein in their diet. As mentioned, protein requirements vary throughout the life stage of your rabbits. A good balanced pellet based feed should contain 15 – 16% of high quality protein. This level of protein will provide the necessary amount of amino acids to allow your rabbits to build quality muscle mass (meat yield) throughout all of the growth stages of your rabbits life cycle.
Gestating and lactating does require a slightly higher percentage of protein (about 18%) to help them not only produce healthy kits, but to also produce enough quality milk to help a momma feed her litter. Once a does kits have been weaned, she should be placed back on a quality pellet that has 15 – 16% protein. While protein is an important part of your rabbits diet, continued use of feeds with high levels of protein (18% or greater) may be detrimental to your rabbit's long-term health.
Carbohydrates and Fiber
As with humans, carbohydrates are the major energy source for your rabbits. The primary source of your rabbits carbohydrates should come from a good quality form of non-digestible fiber. High levels of non-digestible fiber, such as timothy and or coastal hay, help to stimulate gut motility and may help prevent enteritis and obesity. In addition, non-digestible fiber is important for dental health because it helps your rabbits teeth wear evenly. Fermentable fiber helps rabbits digest cecotrophs as well as preventing the colonization of bad bacteria in the cecum, again, decreasing the likelihood of enteritis. In addition, your rabbits need certain fatty acids (propionate, butyrate, acetate) which are produced by healthy bacteria in the rabbits cecum. These fatty acids are then absorbed into the rabbits bloodstream as an additional source of energy. To produce these fatty acids, rabbits require a diet with a crude fiber of 12% to 16% depending on your rabbits age and growth cycle.
While growing kits and adult normally need 15 - 16% crude fiber in their diet fro proper growth and maintenance, gestating and lactating does actually need less non-digestable fiber about 12% to 14%. If you feed a good quality pellet and timothy or coastal hay you will not have to worry about your rabbits carbohydrate and fiber needs as doing such insures they get the necessary amount of fiber for proper GI health.
Breeder's Note: Rabbits that are fed a good quality pellet should not be given alfalfa hay as the primary carbohydrate component in most pellet feeds is alfalfa meal. Feeding alfalfa hay in addition to pellets can cause your rabbit to have intestinal as well as urinary complications (see section on minerals).
Fats are a secondary energy source and the place that fat-soluble vitamins are stored for later use by rabbits. A good commercial pellet feed should contain 2% to 4% of fat, which is all your rabbit needs to maintain a healthy body composition. Added fat is not necessary in your rabbits diet, and excess amounts of fats increase the risk of obesity, hepatic lipidosis, and atherosclerosis in the aorta. As a side note, fat rabbits become lazy rabbits which can lead to a decreased desire to reproduce causing your breeding program to suffer.
A good quality pellet feed (Manna Pro, Purina, Bluebonnet etc…) should be fortified with the necessary vitamins (fat and water soluble) and minerals to help your rabbit maintain a healthy life. The B vitamins thiamine (B1) riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pantothenic acid (B5), pridoxine (B6), biotin, folic acid and the cobalamin (B12) and C are water soluble. Vitamins are A, D, E, and K are fat soluble. The B-complex vitamins (B1, B2, B3, B5, B6, and B12) are synthesized by bacteria in the rabbits cecum. The rabbit then excretes cecotrophs (grape like clusters of vitamin packed goodness) which they eat in order to reabsorb these vitamins. Obesity can prevent a rabbit from reaching its anus to eat its cecotrophs, resulting in a vitamin deficiency.
When purchasing pellet food, look at the label on the bag and check the date (usually stamped on the bottom of the bag) in which it was packaged as vitamins A and E will degrade over time due to oxidization. Therefore all rabbit feed should be fed within 90 days of milling to prevent this loss of the essential vitamins.
A good quality pellet feed, should have alfalfa meal listed as the first ingredient (that means the majority of the feed is composed of this ingredient). Alfalfa is high in calcium and phosphorous and has the right amount of calcium and phosphorus needed through all the stages of your rabbit's life cycle from kit to adult. In addition, most commercial pellets are supplemented and or fortified with minerals. This is important as mineral deficiencies can cause poor bone and joint growth as well as bone demineralization in adult rabbits increasing the risk of your rabbit breaking a leg or it's back (common rabbit injury's that can occur when they are startled or handled improperly).
If you have drop trays under you cages then you will definitely notice that sometimes the urine in the trays will appear to have a milky like consistency. This is normal as rabbits absorb all the calcium in their diet and the excess not used by the rabbit is excreted by the kidneys as calcium carbonate in their urine making the urine appear to have a milk like color and consistency. Too much calcium however in your rabbits diet can lead to the formation of kidney stones in the kidneys, bladder and ureters which is not only painful but can cause death in an otherwise healthy rabbit. For proper urinary health your rabbits only require a calcium level of 0.5 – 1%.
Feeding your rabbits a nutrient rich balanced diet not only helps to keep your breeders healthy, it also allows for the maximum growth of young fryers. Healthy rabbits reproduce more often and have larger litters and are less susceptible to disease. All of these attributes are essential to running a successful rabbitry whether you are raising rabbits to show or are simply raising meat pens to feed your friends and family. And as always, if you have enjoyed this article, please share it with your friends and don't forget to send us on friend request on Facebook and Google+ so that you will not miss out on any of our new articles.
Other Related Articles On Our Blog:
Choosing The Right Feed (Pellet)
Comparison Of Rabbit Dry Foods, The Rabbit House UK
Krempels, Donna Ph.D., What Should I Feed My Bunny?
Bennet, Bob, Storey's Guide To Raising Rabbits, Storey Publishing, North Adams, MA, 2009