Quick Tips for Rabbits
& Guinea Pigs
by Dr. Charlene Arendas, DVM
***This article is only to be used as a general guide, and is not meant to prevent or cure any condition. Please refer to your veterinarian for the specific health care needs of your pet***
Rabbits & guinea pigs will thrive as indoor pets, living in appropriately sized cages or enclosures with solid flooring. Many cages are built with wire bottoms to allow urine and feces to drop below the surface and allow for easy clean-up. Although this may seem like a great idea and it may be utilized with success for short periods of time, on a long-term basis it can be abrasive to the soft foot pads of these animals and help contribute to a problem known as “bumble-foot”. Bumble-foot may include inflammation, infection, and thick scar tissue on the bottom of the feet of caged pets. It is usually exacerbated by abrasive surfaces, dirty conditions, and prolonged exposure to urine/feces in the cage. Cages should be well-ventilated to allow airflow and should be placed in areas free from drafts and strong odors. Be sure that the cage you choose is specifically made for small pets and that the coating on the bars (if any) is safe if ingested.
AVOID: Wire-bottomed cages or solid walls, drafty or high odor areas
USE: Solid-bottomed cages with open sides, quiet calm areas
Rabbits and guinea pigs have respiratory tracts that are very sensitive to perfumes, odors, & scented litters/sprays. Long term exposure to strong odors may cause respiratory tract irritation, inflammation, and may lead to secondary infections, asthma-like conditions, and other diseases. We do not recommend aromatic bedding for any small exotic pet. Immediately discontinue any bedding that your pet attempts to eat. Even though it may be digestible, any bedding could cause an obstruction once it absorbs moisture and swells in size within the intestinal tract. Although you do not need to change the bedding daily, you should scoop out the wet or dirty areas on a daily basis. This will help decrease ammonia odors from urine, and will also help prevent your pet from developing sores from sitting on wet bedding (bumble foot).
AVOID: Cedar, Pine, Corn Cob, Clay Cat Litter, or Scented Bedding/Litter
USE: Shredded Paper, Cloth, Aspen, CareFresh, Pellet Bedding (Yesterday’s News)
Diet: Pellets, Hay, & Fresh Foods
While there are many choices of foods available for rabbits and guinea pigs, there are a few things you should know before picking out a food for your pet. Seed-based diets may look colorful and enticing to us and to your pet, but these diets are generally very poor in nutrition. The problem with these foods is that each type of seed or ingredient has different nutritional content, and pets develop preferences for certain seeds or pieces. They can easily develop a deficiency when they become “picky eaters” and only eat certain parts of their food. The ideal diet will be pellet-based, where each bite your pet takes has the exact same nutritional content. Some reputable exotic pet food brands that we recommend and use for our own pets include: Oxbow, Mazuri, & ZuPreem. Although most pets love their pellets, it should actually only make up a very small percentage of their diet. An average sized, full-grown rabbit or guinea pig rarely needs more than 1/8-1/4 cup of pellets per day.
Rabbits and Guinea Pigs have special digestive tracts that require a large amount of fiber on a daily basis. This is obtained through whole plant matter – called roughage – and will be mainly available in a dried form of grass known as hay. Hay can be purchased at all pet stores and comes in different varieties such as Timothy and Alfalfa. We recommend timothy hay for the average healthy adult guinea pig or rabbit. Alfalfa hay can cause weight gain, so it may be given sparingly to your pet as a “treat”, or to supplement young growing animals or underweight animals. Timothy hay should be available at all times for your pet. Sometimes you may see hay “cubes” available in pet stores. These may be given as a “sometimes” treat, but do not use it as a daily source of hay. Hay cubes are short pieces of hay compressed together. Rabbits & guinea pigs need nice long strands of loose hay to keep their digestive tract healthy. When rabbits & guinea pigs do not get enough fiber in their diet, they can be prone to a condition known as Gastrointestinal Stasis – where their food takes much longer to digest and moves through their intestinal tract at a very slow rate. This can cause the appearance of bloating, small or very few fecal pellets, and inappetence. It can become a serious situation if not corrected soon.
AVOID: Hay “cubes”, large quantities of alfalfa hay, inaccessibility to hay
USE: Timothy hay available at all times
Many fresh foods may be used to supplement the diet of your rabbit or guinea pig. The majority of these should be lots of dark leafy greens, and small amounts of vegetables and fruits. Fruits and veggies should be given at a maximum of 1 Tablespoon per 2 pounds of body weight daily. Greens may be substituted for some of the hay in your pet’s diet. Please note that if your pet is not used to eating fresh foods, they should be introduced very slowly over 7-10 days to allow time for their digestive tracts to adjust to the new diet. Abruptly changing the diet of any pet could cause a change in normal intestinal bacteria and could lead to diarrhea or significant illness.
GREENS: Dandelion greens & flowers, Kale, Mustard Greens, Escarole, Endive, Radicchio, Collard Greens, Beet Greens, Carrot Tops, Parsley, Turnip Greens, Romaine, Swiss Chard, Bok Choy, Mint Leaves, Red/Green Cabbage
VEGETABLES: Pea Pods, Carrots, Squash, Tomatoes
FRUITS: Apples, Pears, Peaches, Strawberries, Raspberries, Blueberries, Mangoes, Papayas
AVOID: High starch or high sugar foods (grapes, peas, bananas, corn, beans, grapes, potatoes), cereals, grains, bread products
Guinea pigs & rabbits have a delicate balance of normal bacteria that live in their digestive tract and are essential for life. Any stressor can cause a disruption in the bacterial balance and cause digestive tract disease or illness. Probiotics are a type of supplement that provide the “good” bacteria to the digestive tract. Bene-Bac is a good over the counter brand of probiotic that you can use to help prevent problems when your pet is going through a time of stress, such as illness, new home, diet change, or major change in routine. Please remember that for rabbits & guinea pigs, “not eating” for 24 hours should be treated as an emergency and they should be seen by your veterinarian ASAP!
Fresh clean water should be available at all times. Rabbits & guinea pigs may learn to drink from either sipper water bottles or from bowls placed on the cage floor. Be sure that water bottles do not constantly drip into the cage, and that bowls are heavy and cannot be tipped over by your pet.
Vitamin C (Guinea Pigs Only):
Guinea Pigs require a supplemental source of vitamin C in their diet, as their bodies are unable to make it on their own. Some guinea pig foods are vitamin C-fortified, but over time the vitamin breaks down and is barely detectable. Some vitamin C supplements are available at pet stores, but you can also supplement by using vitamin C-rich foods such as dark leafy greens, broccoli, bell pepper, & strawberries.