When your rabbit eats, food is passed down the oesophagus, into the stomach and then on to the small intestine. In humans, the small intestine is responsible for absorbing the nutrients from food by the means of enzymes; however, in rabbits the main component of their diet is fibre, which enzymes cannot breakdown. Rabbits therefore have a special digestive system, which allows them to process the fibre and extract the necessary nutrients from plant material. In the colon the fibre is sorted into two types - digestible (nutritional) and indigestible. The colon will send the digestible part of fibre to the caecum. The caecum contains bacteria which breaks down the fibre to release nutrients in the form of a special type of dropping called a caecotroph. The rabbit will then immediately eat these droppings so they will pass through the digestive tract again. Indigestible fibre is diverted into the large intestine to be eliminated – these are the dry, round droppings which you will often see.
Gut stasis – why won’t my rabbit eat?!
Normal movement of the digestive system is essential to keep food moving through. The fibre in your rabbit’s diet is essential for good gut motility as well as providing the ideal environment for producing caecotrophs. A low fibre, high carbohydrate diet (i.e. eating too many pellets and not enough hay & grass) will predispose them to gut stasis.
If your rabbit stops eating, gut movements will slow down until it halts. The lack of gut movement will then in turn worsen the problem, putting the rabbit off eating, so it’s important that this problem is addressed quickly.
IF YOUR RABBIT STOPS EATING OR HAS STOPPED PASSING DROPPINGS FOR 24 HOURS, THEY WILL NEED TO BE SEEN BY A VET ASAP
Ways to Get Your Rabbit to Eat More Hay
80% of a rabbit’s diet should be hay (or grass). Here are some tips on how to encourage your rabbit to eat more hay and grass if you feel they aren’t eating enough:
Some rabbits can be quite fussy about the variety of hay they like. When choosing hay look for green, long strands that smell sweet and aren’t too dusty. Try a wide range of different hay. You do not have to stick to one variety - mix and match to keep your rabbit interested.
Rabbits prefer to munch hay while they are resting and while they are using their litter tray/toilet area. Putting the hay in these places will catch your rabbit at a time they are most likely to eat it. If you don’t want to put hay in the litter tray, hang a hay rack above it.
Most rabbits like to play and throw toys around. Incorporating hay in to play activities can encourage them to pull, bite and chew at the hay. A willow ball or cardboard tube filled with hay can be hung from the cage or thrown around by your rabbit.
You can make hay more interesting to your rabbit by mixing in food they like best. This could include dry food, fresh vegetables or dried herbs. Whilst searching through the hay for the good bits, hopefully they’ll eat some hay too.
Many rabbits have bad hay eating habits because they eat too much dry food. A healthy adult rabbit should only be fed a small quantity of dry food (an eggcup-full per day should be sufficient). Dry food tastes good but it doesn’t provide all the fibre levels and chewing action needed to keep your rabbit healthy.