A Picky Bunny is a Smart One!
Rabbits and other selective browsers are smarter than you think. With good reason they delightfully eat the soft supple Oxbow timothy leaves from the hay and wait for the stems to go out with the rubbish. The same can be said for humans. Why do we buy a whole head of broccoli and place only the top quarter in the casserole? Because not all plant parts are created equal.
People and pets know which foods, and which parts of foods, are the most quickly satisfying – those which are the most calorie dense. It would take a bowl full of popcorn – and a lot of time chewing – to receive the same initial caloric reward provided by a few spoonfuls of ice cream. Food is merely nature’s way of packaging energy for us. Mammals, including us, are pre-wired to prepare for times of feast and famine, and to seek foods which are the least amount of work for the greatest amount of potential energy. As all plant parts are not created equal, your rabbit, too, seeks to eat the most energy-dense foods. If you were to put a bowl full of seeds next to a handful of hay, any smart rabbit would scurry for the high-fat meal.
Making Healthy Meal Decisions
For these reasons, rabbit owners must make healthy decisions for their pet. Hay is given for its high-fiber, low-protein content. As fiber yields the least amount of calories, it adds bulk and chewing time to the meal. Rabbits that are fed a limited amount of pellets feed on proper amounts of hay, which serves a multitude of purposes. Grass hay keeps the stomach constantly full and moving and supplies some energy throughout the day. Grinding the hay also properly maintains rabbit teeth, which continuously grow and can easily become problematic during the adult years. Unlike carbohydrates, hay is fermented in the hind-gut of rabbits. High-fiber forage helps maintain the intestinal balance, preventing digestive problems common among small herbivores.
Grass hay, such as timothy or orchard, should be given in unlimited quantities each day. But what do you do with the stems left over from yesterday? Leave them in the cage! Do not throw away the most beneficial part of the meal.
All Plant Parts Are Not Created Equal
As we mentioned, all plant parts are not created equal. The fiber content in the leaves is approximately 24% as opposed to 34% in the stems. The protein (energy) content of the leaves is likewise much higher than that of the stems. Going back to mom’s broccoli casserole, which would you prefer? The high-fiber stems take a lot more work for their energy. The reason for feeding hay, however, is so that your rabbit will continually graze throughout the day. For the same reason, it is critical to keep treats to a minimum. Rabbits need a very calorie-restricted diet to ensure they will continue to eat not only the hay leaves, but also the stems! A small slice of fruit may have as many calories as a large bowl of hay.
It is very understandable, then, why we have a nation of picky (and plump) bunnies. Rabbits become well aware of meal menus, cleaning routines, and treat times. The order in which food is eaten is no mystery. Veggies, fruit, and nuts will be eaten before pellets, which will be eaten before hay. Hay leaves will generally be eaten before stems and seed heads. As the protein and energy content decreases in a feed, smart foragers seek easier meals.
Limit the amount of vegetables in the diet, as they are high in sugar and calories. Leafy greens should be limited to the size of your pet’s head, twice a day. Limit the amount of pellets to 1/4 cup per 5 lbs of body weight. This will give the optimal amount of calories while still encouraging the intake of grass hay.
Grass hay consumption is one of the most important keys to caring for a healthy rabbit. Leave the hay until the stems are consumed. Rather than replacing hay each day just add more as needed!
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