A study by the University of Bristol's School of Veterinary Sciences has been used to launch an RSPCA campaign called Hay Fever, to highlight the fact many owners do not know what food is best for their rabbits.
Rabbits have long been one of the UKs favourite pets, with owners falling for their cute appearance and believing the common misconception they are easy to look after.
However despite their popularity, a study by the University of Bristol, commissioned by the RSPCA, shows a lack of grass and hay in their diet is among the most important welfare issues affecting rabbits in the UK.
"The RSPCA is trying to give rabbits Hay Fever! But not in a bad way - we want all pet rabbits to be eating hay as their main food, said Rachel Roxburgh, RSPCA companion animal scientist.
"People also think their rabbits should eat carrots because that's what Bugs Bunny does... but he's a cartoon - real rabbits don't talk, and they shouldn't be eating carrots too often either!" she added.
Despite the popular saying salad is rabbit food a rabbits diet should not include too much lettuce and types like iceberg shouldnt be fed. Even more surprisingly, while many people think carrots are ideal food for bunnies, in fact they do not naturally eat root vegetables, cereals, or fruit.
As carrots (and apples) are high in sugar they should only be fed in small amounts as an occasional treat.
A healthy adult rabbit diet should consist of:
- Mainly good quality hay (available at all times). Owners should feed a bundle of hay thats as big as the rabbit, every day and ideally access to growing grass for grazing.
- Fresh clean grass (growing or picked by hand), but not lawnmower clippings. They can upset rabbits digestive system and make them ill.
- An adult-sized handful of safe washed dark leafy greens such as cabbage, broccoli, kale and herbs such as parsley.
- Constant access to fresh clean water.
- Owners can also feed a small amount- no more than 25g/kg body weight (i.e. one eggcup full per kg) of good quality commercial rabbit pellets/nuggets.
The Bristol study found dental problems (12 per cent) and digestive problems (11.5 per cent) were very commonly reported by owners both of which can be caused by poor diet.
We know insufficient hay and grass can cause dental and digestive health problems and have an impact on rabbits psychological wellbeing, and yet many people do not realise good quality hay should be the main source of their food seeing it merely as a bedding material, she added.
A survey carried out by TNS highlights this even further, with results showing that only eight per cent of rabbit owners know hay and grass are the key component of a rabbits diet.
People think the most important food for rabbits is: Rabbit food (23 per cent), carrots (19 per cent), leafy greens (17 per cent), fruit and vegetables (15 per cent) hay and grass (8 per cent)
As part of the launch of Hay Fever, the RSPCA will be hosting a day of online activity through its official Facebook and Twitter pages on Monday 25 June.
Activities on Facebook include a live Q&A on diet with rabbit expert Rachel Roxburgh; a new viral video Nobody likes a grass and a special rabbit rehoming appeal; meanwhile Twitter will feature lots of tips and games.
Hay Fever marks the start of an ongoing campaign for the RSPCA on key welfare issues facing pet rabbits. The overall campaign is called What bugs a bunny?
It is hoped in the long term this campaign will help improve the welfare of one of Britains most popular pets and encourage owners to learn more about these complex and interesting animals.
For more information on how to care for your rabbit log onto www.rspca.org.uk/rabbits or for more on diet, go to www.rspca.org.uk/rabbitdiet
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More information: Assessment of the state of rabbit welfare in the UK and prioritisation of issues an investigation of husbandry, behaviour, housing and health (and other key issues) by a team of welfare scientists, behaviourists and vets at the University of Bristol, School of Veterinary Sciences, in a 16-month study.