Small mammals such as rabbits, chinchillas, and guinea pigs have very different gastrointestinal systems than dogs and cats. Many of the small mammals, except ferrets, have a large cecum, which is a pouch between the small intestine and colon that is built to ferment and break down fiber. In the rabbit the cecum is ten times larger than the stomach. Billions of specialized bacteria live in the intestine cecum and colon. Some yeast and protozoa that do not cause disease also live in the cecum. The bacteria in the cecum and colon work to break down and ferment the fiber that in turn keeps the intestine contracting, digesting and absorbing nutrients. In the rabbit the specialized bacteria flow backwards into the cecum to preserve their numbers. These pets eat their own feces on a daily basis to re-culture their gut with the specialized bacteria.
These pets even have specialized flat premolar and molar teeth called cheek teeth which can grind the hay up to 120 times per minute. If they do not get a diet with 90% fiber (such as a mostly pelleted diet) the teeth will not grind enough and they will become elongated with spikes that damage the tongue and cheek. If overgrown enough the teeth can prevent the pet from eating.
Although treats are not required for rabbits or other small herbivores, limited appropriate treats can be beneficial for strengthening the pet/owner bond, training, and enrichment. It is important to limit the number of treats and ensure they are low in protein, fat, calcium, and sugar. Some examples of inappropriate treats are nuts, seeds, popcorn, bread, crackers, and yogurt drops. High-fiber grass and alfalfa based treats are appropriate in limited amounts, as are small amounts of dried fruits/veggies. There are far more inappropriate treats on the market, but good products do exist.
Pets that are fed an improper diet such as mostly pelleted food and no hay are much more prone to a problem called gastrointestinal stasis. The intestines stop propelling food because there is not enough fiber, water and normal bacteria for proper peristalsis and digestion to occur. Sometimes the pellets are just adhered together in a big ball obstructing the stomach so little can get past. Soon the pet stops eating and drinking which makes the problem even worse. None of these pets should go for longer than 24 hours without eating.
1. Feed 70-75% high quality grass hay
2. High fiber uniform pellets 20-25%
3. Fresh or dried greens 5-15%
4. Treats 0-.5%
5. Unlimited clean water
Following these rules of nutrition will help your exotic mammal to live an active long and healthy life.
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