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.
Pets that are fed an improper diet such as mostly pelleted food and no hay are much more prone to a problem called gastrointestinal stasis. The intestines stop propelling food because there is not enough fiber, water and normal bacteria for proper digestion to occur. Sometimes, the pellets just adhere together in a big ball, obstructing the stomach so little can get past. Soon, the pet stops eating and drinking, which makes the problem even worse. None of these pets should go for longer than 24 hours without eating.
Summary of dietary requirements:
1. Feed 70 to 75 percent high-quality grass hay. Grass hay is fed primarily to supply high fiber. This ensures good movement in the GI tract. It also keeps the normal bacteria in the GI tract normal. Orchard grass, timothy and oat hay are all good. Alfalfa hay is high-protein hay that is not needed if they are eating some pelleted food. Not only will they eat the hay, they will use it to build beds, and it will keep them active and busy building.
2 High fiber uniform pellets, 20 to 25 percent. Use timothy or alfalfa pellets. Avoid adding seeds, fruits and vegetables. The pet will eat only the added goodies and ignore the pellets. Do not overfeed pellets. Rabbits require only 1.5 tablespoons for each 2.2 pounds of weight.
3. Fresh or dried greens, 5 to 15 percent. Fresh and dried greens can be an important and enjoyed component of a rabbit’s and small herbivore’s diet, but they are not required. They do, however, provide an excellent source of water and enrichment. Varying types and textures is a great enrichment tool. It is recommended to completely wash and clean all greens. Organic products are preferable.
4. Treats, zero to .5 percent. Make sure the treat is low sugar and high fiber.
5. Unlimited clean water. Offer water in a crock and a water bowl. Pets offered crocks of water drink 30 percent more than those with just a water bottle, so it is a good idea to have two water sources.
Following these rules of nutrition will help your exotic mammal to live an active long and healthy life.
Dr. Elizabeth Bradt is a 1986 graduate of Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine and the owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospital in Salem. Email your pet questions to email@example.com. Please title your email “Vet Connection.”