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Rabbit Treat Foods: Facts and Fallacies
By Susan Smith
(Wisconsin House Rabbit News)
That cute little whiskered face is so hard to ignore, especially when your bun sits up and looks so deserving of that special treat. And pet stores sell a selection of rabbit treats which are perfect for your precious rabbit. Right? WRONG! Most so-called rabbit treats are the equivalent of taking your rabbit to McDonald's, providing non-nutritious junk that can cause harm. Confusing the issue is that many of these products use phrases that lead the buyer to believe that the product is healthful: "nutritionally fortified," "doing right for the environment," natural feeding habits," "for nutritional variety," "the finest selected ingredients." The addition of "feeding instructions" and "guaranteed analysis" lend a tone of authority.
Commercial rabbit treats fall into several categories: pellets, processed cereal kibble, mueslix (dried seed/fruit/veggie mixes), cereal/veggie blends, and candies/sugars.Pellets
Pellets were discussed in the House Rabbit Journal, vol. III #4. I won't say more here except to repeat those guidelines: choose a pellet that is high in fiber (~20-25%) and low in protein (14-15%) and calcium (less than 1%). Restrict pellet feedings to HRS guidelines and feed unlimited hay and safe fresh vegetables. Do not buy a pellet that contains seeds, nuts, or starch-rich cereal kibble mixed in (see below).Processed Cereal Kibble
These range from "Crunchy Puffs" to shaped products designed to substitute for pellets. Sometimes they are mixed with pellets. Some contain expensive extras that serve no benefit to your rabbit, such as plant or herbal extracts and freeze-dried bacteria. One contains less than the National Research Council (NRC) requirements for calcium. Another contains cheese flavoring! These kibbles tend to be lower in fiber and higher in fat than pellets. They are also extremely expensive and come with feeding recommendations guaranteed to give a spayed or neutered house rabbit obesity. The variety of colors and shapes are more of an aesthetic to the human buyer than to their rabbit. Fresh vegetables, restricted high fiber pellets, and unlimited hay are healthier for your rabbit and your budget.Mueslix
These are mixes that are made from seeds and grains. They are marketed as "vitamin and mineral enriched," a "delicious energy provider," or "fortified." They are made of carbohydrate- and fat-rich seeds and grains such as oats, milo, corn, peas, sunflower seeds, potatoes, peanuts, puffed corn, cornflakes, popcorn, and dried fruits. They are often held together into "sticks" with honey and other sugars, and are marketed with the explanation that they supply needed energy and reflect the rabbit's normal diet.
Seeds are high in fat and are great for birds and wintering animals. Your house rabbit has no such need; in fact, the National Research Council recommends that domestic rabbits receive no more than 1.5% of their calories as fat; the fat content of seeds is much higher. Labels on the back of these mueslix products list a minimum fat content of 4-5%; the real value is probably greater. Rabbit metabolism is geared for a low fat diet (in comparison, the average human diet contains 35-40% fat!), and the excess is not burned but is stored as body fat. Rabbits appear to be more sensitive to fat than are humans, and in addition to obesity, the excess fat can accumulate in your rabbit's liver and arteries (atherosclerosis). Veterinarians have reported that rabbits fed such seed-rich diets have a much higher incidence of fatty liver disease (hepatic stenosis), which is often fatal.
These seeds and grains are also rich in starches. While some of this starch is digested in the small intestine, much of it is not accessible until it reaches the cecum. There, it becomes a potent energy source for the cecal bacteria; unlike fiber, which slows fermentation, starch in the cecum is fermented rapidly and can lead to bacterial overgrowth, bloat, and gastrointestinal stasis.
Manufacturers claim that seeds and grains satisfy "the gnawing urge." While this is true, it is far safer to satisfy that urge with willow baskets, untreated wood, and hay or straw.Cereal/Veggie Blends
These are grain products which may be supplemented with dehydrated vegetables, and shaped into a form which mimics a vegetable product. The high carbohydrate content of these snacks means they are robbing your rabbit of important fiber and overloading him with sugars. These products also tout the vitamins that are added back - which are merely replacing those originally lost during the processing of the treat. Real vegetables will supply as much, if not more, and will not cost $24 per pound (2.1 ounces of this mixture is sold at $3.09).Candies/Sugars
These can include everything from yogurt drops to sweetened papaya tablets. The high sugar is the culprit here. Many rabbits have a sweet tooth, but sweetness means high sugar content. As we discussed above, excessive sugar is converted to fat, or will pass into the cecum where the bacteria will use it for energy and then rapidly overgrow, possibly leading to bacterial imbalance and gastrointestinal stasis. The same can occur after feeding too much fruit. Avoid feeding your rabbit simple sugars and, instead, stick with nutritious treats such as vegetables and herbs; save the sweets for an occasional piece of fresh pineapple, fresh papaya, or apple peel.Vitamin Supplements
In a word, don't. For nearly all rabbits, a diet containing a variety of fresh vegetables, restricted high quality pellets, and unlimited hay provides all the vitamins your rabbit requires. While special health situations may require nutrient supplements, these are best handled after consultation with your veterinarian.
It is tempting to show your love for your rabbit by purchasing treats for him. Speaking as a nutritionist, I advise showing your love with healthy treats, like those vegetables recommended by the HRS, fresh non-alfalfa hay, and untreated wood for chewing. And give plenty of pets, which are of course free.