Feeding the house rabbit 1: Hay and straw
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Hay is an excellent source of fiber, and the most important part of any rabbit’s diet. The rabbit’s digestive system is dependent on large amounts of indigestible hay-fiber to obtain and maintain optimal digestion. Hay must therefore be available at all times.
Fiber has several important functions:
• Protects against gastro-intestinal stasis;
• Prevents constipation caused by accumulation of fur in the intestines;
• Adds moisture and volume to the feces;
• Prevents enterotoxaemia;
• Provides a healthy bacterial balance in the cecum.
The rabbit’s digestive tract is able to process large amounts of high-fiber / low-calorie food. Too little fiber in the diet can cause serious problems including dysbiosis of the bacterial flora of the digestive system, or diarrhea. These problems can be avoided by offering the rabbit unlimited amounts of grass hay every day.
The quality of the hay is very important. Good quality grass hay should be rough, green, dry, have a sweet and spicy aroma, and generally look appetizing. Some say that the smell of good hay resembles the smell of tobacco. Alternatives are timothy hay or alfalfa hay. It’s important that the hay does not contain too much dust. Small particles of dust may cause respiratory problems. The hay sold in pet stores is often of very bad quality, and many rabbits refuse to eat it. Often it’s better to buy from local farmers or stables. Hay that is moist or has a moldy smell can make your rabbit sick, and must be removed immediately.
Hay should be stored in a dark, dry place. Direct sunlight may ruin important vitamins and minerals in the hay.
The hay can be offered in a basket or a hayrack, or in the litter-box. Hay that ends up on the cage floor, and gets soaked in urine and droppings, must be removed as soon as possible to avoid becoming moldy.
Stuffing the hay into wicker baskets, empty paper rolls, and other fun containers, might encourage some rabbits to eat more hay.
Another method to increase hay consumption is to put the hay directly on the floor in the rabbit’s living area, away from the litter-box. This way hay is always available, and the rabbit can graze peacefully from the ground like wild rabbits do.
Advice from Michel Gruaz (Switzerland): Straw can also be given to rabbits. Straw obtained from barley is an ideal litter for Rex rabbits as it helps protect their sensitive feet. This kind of straw is appreciated by rabbits and is able to absorb a lot of humidity. Straw obtained from wheat has properties similar to barley straw. The best quality hay to consume is that of oat. It absorbs humidity less. In order to recuperate the clean dry stray, a rack can be used. This avoids also a too rapid growth of the dung heap. And the dung will be of better quality. The quality of straw, and its cheap cost, favors its use as litter. In summary, hay in the rack, straw as litter.