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Lifestyle

February 21, 2014

Vet Connection: What’s the right diet for your pocket pet?

Small mammals such as rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs have very different gastrointestinal systems than dogs and cats. Many small mammals, except ferrets, have a large cecum, which is a pouch between the small intestine and colon that is built to ferment and break down fiber. A rabbit’s cecum, for example, is 10 times larger than its stomach.

Billions of specialized bacteria live in the intestine, cecum and colon. Some yeast and protozoa that do not cause disease also live in the cecum. The bacteria in the cecum and colon work to break down and ferment the fiber that in turn keeps the intestine contracting, digesting and absorbing nutrients. In a rabbit, the specialized bacteria flow backward into the cecum to preserve their numbers. These pets eat their own feces on a daily basis to re-culture their gut with the specialized bacteria.

These pets even have specialized flat premolar and molar teeth called cheek teeth which can grind hay up to 120 times per minute. If they do not get a diet with 90 percent total fiber from the combination of hay and high-fiber pellets, the teeth will not grind enough, and they will become elongated with spikes that damage the tongue and cheek. If overgrown enough, the teeth can prevent the pet from eating.

Although treats are not required for rabbits or other small herbivores, limited appropriate treats can be beneficial for strengthening the pet/owner bond, training and enrichment. It is important to limit the number of treats and ensure they are low in protein, fat, calcium and sugar. Some examples of inappropriate treats are nuts, seeds, popcorn, bread, crackers and yogurt drops. High-fiber grass and alfalfa-based treats are appropriate in limited amounts, as are small amounts of dried fruits/veggies. There are far more inappropriate treats on the market, but good products do exist.

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