Herbivore Nutrition

I make no secret of the fact that I believe rabbits and guinea pigs should be fed grass, grass, grass and more grass.  I have been hammering on about the importance of grass and hay for over a decade.  Grass, herbs, cereal grasses and forage seeds are readily available, so there is no excuse not to feed your rabbit or guinea pig a healthy diet.

History & Background

The history of rabbit and other small animal foods food is interesting. They were originally bred to be eaten, and/or for their pelts. Rabbits were kept in outside walled warrens where they lived a healthy life not too different from their wild cousins.  Guinea pigs in South America are kept to this day in rural kitchens where they are fed household vegetable scraps and native grasses or wild plants

Commercial rabbit diets available today evolved from three main sources.  The first is the pellet producing industry that had originally designed their pellets for fattening up meat or fur rabbits prior to being slaughtered.  The second source is the industry that produced compound pelleted feed for laboratory animals and the third, most common today, the agricultural feed companies looking to diversify and find new markets for their mixed feeds.

Wild Diet

Rabbits and guinea pigs are obligate herbivores.  Although chinchillas do occasionally eat insects in the wild, their main diet is herbivorous.  Small herbivore nutrition should, one supposes, take as its starting point the grasses and wild plants that these animals would eat in the wild.  Traditionally kept for the family pot, rabbits in a European domestic setting, and guinea pigs in South America,  would have been fed on a mixture of cheap straight grains such as oats with hay, other forage including hedgerow herbs and wild plants together with plenty of kitchen scraps.

Wild .v. Domestic Diet

Today’s domesticated pet and exhibition rabbits  have a lifestyle not only very different from those rabbits on which many feeds are still based but also quite different from their wild cousins.  Firstly we do not intend to kill our pet and exhibition rabbits for their skins and meat, nor do we kill them after so many tests have been performed on them on ‘humane’ grounds like the laboratory animals used to test dietary requirements. They tend to live a relatively long but pampered life and it is this that contrasts with the far more natural and healthy lifestyle of their wild cousins.

Pet and exhibition rabbits often live in cramped conditions getting very little exercise, pick and choose what they eat from oversized bowls of mix where anything uneaten gets thrown out the next day. They are often selectively bred for their physical features and given expensive medical treatment when they fall ill. ‘Survival of the fittest’ no longer applies.

Rabbit diet and the problems of selective feeding

The average rabbit is the equivalent of a couch potato living on junk food, with or without good BUPA cover if things go wrong. Rabbits and guinea pigs are designed to eat large amounts of plant material rich in indigestible fibre such as grasses and wild plants.  This is essential for the proper wearing down of their continually growing teeth and their complex digestive system. The British Small Animal Veterinary Association recommends a diet of ad lib hay, limited pellets and fresh fresh vegetables because in their experience grain based diets are responsible for many of the dietary and dental problems seem in clinical practice.

Fresh grass and wild plants are the best foods but good quality hay, sprouted grasses such as wheat grass and barley grass, dried grass, fresh vegetables and grass based pellets are the healthiest way to feed your rabbit, guinea pig or chinchilla.

Young, pregnant and elderly animals may benefit from supplementary alfalfa which is high in protein and calcium.  Other animals may find the calcium and protein levels are too high and cause kidney problems.

Selective eating of ingredients from mixed feeds commonly sold for these animals is the biggest cause of diet related illness. Grains, and that includes the coloured biscuits, are high in phosphorous, low in calcium and low in fibre. The balancing calcium and fibre are all in the pellets of a mixed feed so animals which leave these behind can develop dental and digestive problems.  If you do feed these mixes then do not throw out uneaten pellets at the end of each day.  Feed less mix until everything in the bowl gets eaten.

Healthy treats for rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas

If you want to give your rabbit, guinea pig or chinchilla a biscuit type snack, Galens Garden have designed healthy, balanced, cookie mixes with the correct Calcium to Phosphorous and protein to fibre ratio which are now available in the shop.   Carrot and Coriander, Apple and Alfalfa, Not Chcolate (Carob and Marshmallow), Beetroot and Rosehip, Hedgerow Herbs, Charcoal and Yucca.

If you want to make your own rabbit, guinea pig or chinchilla treats, we supply Alfalfa Powder to help balance the lack of calcium and high phosphorous levels in grains as well as to add protein and fibre, Grassmeal Powder which is perfectly balanced as a food, Apple Powder, Carrot Powder and Rosehip Powder.

These powders can also be used to add to baby cereal for syringe feeding although we do have a specialist syringe feeding powder called NutriPowder based on grassmeal, alfalfa, herbs and roots as a slow release energy source with wheatgrass, barley grass and other top quality ingredients in it.