Since I started keeping animals and doing research about them, I learned loads about animal nutrition. I discovered that there are some very stubborn myths about what animals should eat. Many people believe these myths. They are so much a part of our culture that every child grows up thinking they are the golden truth. But these well-known ‘facts’ are totally untrue and can be very damaging. These myths are:
- Rabbits eat carrots.
- Ducks eat bread.
- Cats drink milk.
Actually, there are more than three, such as: ‘Dogs eat bones’ and ‘Mice eat cheese’. But I feel I don’t know enough about dogs and mice to say anything worth knowing about their nutrition, so I will leave the refuting of these particular myths to others.
Around here, it seems like everyone absolutely believes these ‘facts’ to be true. I have met people who have kept animals for years and feed them a totally unsuitable diet, not seeing that their animals are unhealthy and don’t live long. There is no point trying to talk to them about it – people who have done things a certain way for many years are usually not open to suggestions for change. But in the pet zoo, I try to show visiting people and children the right way to feed these animals.
So now for the busting of these three myths:
1. Rabbits eat carrots.
A few days ago, I showed the baby bunnies to a group of preschool children. I asked them what they thought the bunnies ate. Lots of raised hands. “Carrots..!”
There is no denying that rabbits like carrots. Love them, even. But that doesn’t automatically mean they are good for them. Carrots are fine as treats. But carrots and other vegetables should never make up the main part of a rabbit’s diet.
This is what a rabbit food pyramid looks like:
Rabbits are designed to eat grass and weeds. That is what wild rabbits eat in nature, and that is what our domestic bunnies still need most of all. For most people, that will mean feeding dried grass – hay. When I lived in Holland and kept rabbits, meadow hay was plentiful. Here in Israel, I had to adjust my expectations. There are no meadows and there is no meadow hay. You can buy small packages of imported grass hay in pet shops, but they are expensive. I found several alternatives: alfalfa hay, oat hay and freshly cut grass and weeds. Rabbits need plenty of fiber to keep their intestines working properly, to keep their teeth healthy and for boredom busting – they love getting their teeth into something tough!
As you can see, the mainstay of a rabbit’s diets should be hay. Green vegetables and pellets are also important. Fruit and sugary vegetables (such as carrots) are treats and should be fed sparingly.
2. Ducks eat bread.
This is probably one of the most widely spread and damaging myths ever. Who, growing up in Europe, hasn’t been taken to the park, armed with a bag of stale bread, to ‘feed the ducks’? I certainly have. When we are in Holland, my mother takes my own children to feed the ducks. Only recently, awareness started to dawn that ducks don’t need feeding. In fact, this old habit has caused a lot of trouble in the duck world. Because of the scores of people bringing their old bread to the duck ponds, several things happened:
- Ducks realised they didn’t need to migrate anymore – there was an abundant food source all through the winter right at the place where they spent summer.
- Ducks got filled up with carbohydrate-rich bread and didn’t get enough of the foods that they should have been eating, such as waterplants, bugs and grasses.
- Because they could fill up quickly on dense bread, ducks got bored and had too much time on their hands, which led to aggressive behaviour and ‘gang-raping’ of females – yes, really…
Basically, because of this artificial food source, ducks started behaving in a totally non-natural way. Recently, people have started to become aware of this and you start seeing ‘Do Not Feed The Ducks’ signs by the ponds.
For ideas what to feed the ducks instead of bread, see this excellent post by ShutterbugSage: 10 Things to Feed Ducks.
There is something else about bread. Many people here seem to be under the impression that it is a good universal animal feed. In the past, the pet zoo animals were fed bread as the mainstay of their diet. When I revived the place and brought new animals, people expected me to let them bring their bread leftovers to feed the animals. I had different ideas about that, though. My rule is: No bread whatsoever allowed in my pet zoo. There is no discussion about this. Bread is human food. It is bad for animals. People are allowed to bring vegetables and weeds, but no human food leftovers. At first, I received some surprised looks and maybe a few eyerolls, but I’m glad to say everyone respects my rule.
3. Cats drink milk.
I don’t know how many times I have argued with my father-in-law about this. He feeds milk to the feral cats that come to his garden. He maintains that “everyone knows that cats drink milk!” This old story is simply not true. Cats are lactose intolerant. Feeding them milk causes serious problems such as stomach upsets, vomiting and diarrhea. By giving the feral cats milk, he intends to help them, but actually makes them sick instead.
When we got our first house cat, Shandy, as a small kitten, the people at the rescue facility had been feeding him milk. The result was that we had to deal with terrible diarrhea for the first week. Until this day, Shandy does not like milk. (He would kill for tuna, though.)
As far as I know, my father-in-law still feeds milk to the feral cats, even after my sisters-in-law backed me up. He did buy a bag of dry cat food, though, which is progress. He thinks I spend way too much money on good quality, meat-based cat food. But for cats to be healthy, they need to eat meat. Not dairy, not corn, rice or soy (fillers in cat food) and definitely not vegetables. I read a good post recently on the need for meat in cat food: Obligate Carnivores by Adventures in Cat Fostering.
So, one of my goals is to teach my children that these myths are bad. And also to show as many people as I can the right way of feeding pet zoo animals. You can find these myths in every children’s storybook, in every comic, in commercials and on TV, but that does not mean they are true in real life. Different animals require different, specific nutrition. Keeping pets means we are responsible for feeding them according to the requirements of their species.