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Importance of Hay to Rabbits

By: Dr. Dawn Ruben

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With her sensitive and specialized digestive system, your rabbit requires a proper diet to stay healthy and happy. Feeding her plenty of hay is one of the most important things you can do to maintain her health.

Rabbits are herbivores and require diets rich in vitamins and high in fiber. Hay has both, and she should be given all she wants (unlike pelleted foods, which should be fed to your rabbit in measured amounts and only a few times a day). Your rabbit has a menu of options in hay. Rabbits under 8 months can eat timothy, oat or alfalfa. After 8 months, she should be fed little if any alfalfa. Too much alfalfa in an older diet can cause illness due to high levels of calcium and protein.

Hay is important because the fiber promotes normal movement of the intestinal tract. It also reduces the incidence of intestinal diseases. Hay stimulates normal gastrointestinal processes, including digestion of food, absorption of necessary nutrients and excretion of normal feces. Without hay in their diet, the intestinal tract of rabbits may slow down or completely stop moving. This is referred to as 'gastric stasis' and can increase your rabbit's risk of developing hairballs, one of the most common ailments veterinarians treat in rabbits.

Actually, many veterinarians feel that hairballs may not really be an issue; the gastric stasis is the problem. Evidence of the diet playing an important role in gastric stasis is seen when wild rabbits are compared to domestic rabbits. Wild rabbits don't succumb to hairballs so why should domestic rabbits? The primary difference between wild and domestic rabbits is diet. In the wild, there is plenty of grass, leaves and other plant material for the rabbit to eat. With a pet rabbit, the diet is frequently offered as pellets or a few vegetables and fruits. Without sufficient hay, these rabbits tend to succumb to various illnesses, including gastric stasis and hairballs.

Rabbits that are diagnosed and treated for hairballs or gastric stasis almost always are being fed a low fiber and low hay diet. To keep your rabbit healthy, make sure you offer plenty of fresh timothy or oat hay every day.

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