This month, we’ve asked our resident small animal expert, Dean Barratt, to discuss one of the most asked about topics we receive enquiries on - how safe is it to feed seeds to rabbits and guinea pigs?
In some quarters the feeding of seeds to rabbits (and to a lesser degree Guinea pigs) has become an increasing topic of debate in recent years. And yet, seeds have been used in main diets and treats for over 40 years. So, what’s going on?
What exactly is a seed?
The first thing to look at is what we class as a seed, as cereals such as oats and vegetables such as peas are seeds. In this case most people are talking about oil seeds, but seeds are incredibly diverse - the smallest seeds are like specks of dust, the largest can weigh 20kg. So, the first danger is treating all seeds the same. After all, rabbit owners “in the know” have long sought out and regarded hay with seed heads as being the most choice!
So, are seeds all good, or all bad?
Well, they’re neither, for as with all things in life the devil is in the detail. But before we answer this question further let’s first consider where some people’s concerns spring from?
It’s well documented that locust bean seeds cannot be chewed open, therefore rabbits and most rodents can’t digest them. This, combined with their size, means they are potentially dangerous if swallowed whole, but this is not true of other commonly fed seeds which can be easily chewed (as all food should be) by rabbits, those that have a softer outer coating or are dehulled (without their shell).
Still, the potential for digestive tract blockages may be a concern, but this is only with whole seeds of certain sizes, in their shell. This is because some seed coats (aka hulls, shells or testa) are not digestible; however, ground-up seed hulls are a common ingredient in many main diets as they are a good source of fibre, including beneficial indigestible fibre. We also shouldn’t forget that other foods and materials (their own fur and carpet fibres being the main culprits) are capable of causing blockages – typically where underlying issues are at play.
Sometimes the concern is the higher fat content of many seeds compared to other foods that would typically be fed to rabbits or rodents. Fats and oils are essential for life, but just as with human diets it’s the type and amount of these fats that is relevant. For example, hemp and linseed (aka flax) are amazing sources of beneficial omega 3 and 6 essential fatty acids (and, crucially, balanced sources), as well as many other micro-nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. Others, like buckwheat seed, are good sources of certain essential amino acids (those that rabbits cannot synthesise from other nutrients) like lysine. Seeds can also be a source of certain phytonutrients that may be lacking in grasses, vegetables and fruit: again, hemp seed is a good example of this.
In terms of the amount that’s consumed then rabbits still need 2.5% to 5% of their daily nutritional intake as fat/oils. So, moderation of fat intake rather than avoidance needs to be the order of the day. And moderation is the key with all foods for rabbits - with or without the presence of seeds – except for hay, which needs to be fed freely.
Realistically, it’s also hard to avoid seeds. Rabbits do encounter and eat them in the wild (in grasses and berries), and many pet rabbits are commonly fed fruits which contain small seeds (strawberries, kiwi, banana and many types of berries), as well the aforementioned grass seeds in their hay.
What do the experts say?
Little reference is made to not feeding seeds, of any kind, on the main rabbit and pet welfare websites, and few books mention seeds in any specific negative way. In fact, probably the most academic book on feeding rabbits, the aptly titled Nutrition of the rabbit (3rd Edition) published in 2020 by CABI, confirms that oil seeds have a place in rabbit diets.
In 2013 the FEDIAF - which is the European trade body for pet food manufacturers - published a document about pet rabbit diets using vets and experts to write and review the guide. And many seeds are on its list of potential ingredients for the production of rabbit foods.
We’ve also spoken to vets in recent times about rabbits and seeds, and each time their advice has been to simply feed in moderation.
What is our advice?
We wouldn’t suggest offering your rabbit a bowl of seeds with shells on (or off for that matter) or feeding whole seeds of a certain size with their shells on (like safflower). But offering treats and main made with seeds, in moderation, is fine, especially if those seeds are the more beneficial types, are chopped and dehulled (unless smaller seeds) and are blended into the treat – forcing the pet to chew and grind the morsels of food as they remove them from the treat.
Finally, it’s important to bear in mind that this advice is for pet rabbits in general. All individual rabbits, just like humans, have their own specific dietary “foibles”, so it’s about getting to know your rabbit’s and offering any new food in even stricter moderation than usual, until you know your rabbit is comfortable with it.
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