Rabbits are very easy pets to look after and you can keep them healthy by making sure you feed them the most appropriate diet. Rabbits are herbivores which means they only eat a plant-based diet unlike other household pets like cats and dogs who need a protein-rich (and meat-based) diet to keep them active and healthy.
The main dietary elements you need for your rabbits are a constant supply of grass hay such as timothy hay or brome grass which keeps their gastrointestinal tracts healthy along with a constant supply of fresh drinking water. Rabbits also need a pellet food formula supplemented by vegetable treats.
In this article, we consider all the key food groups and elements necessary to keep your pet or show rabbits happy and healthy. A well-balanced healthy diet will not only keep them healthy but their fur shiny and glossy which is particularly important for rabbit breeders who also show their pet rabbits.
What is an ideal diet for my pet rabbit?
The key ingredient for your pet rabbit’s diet is hay followed by pellets and fresh vegetables and a plentiful supply of fresh drinking water.
The importance of hay
Rabbits are herbivores and they graze continuously throughout the day – mostly on straw and hay and this helps to keep their teeth filed to the correct size. Your rabbit’s diet starts with an unlimited amount of good quality hay – which can be Timothy, orchard hay or brome. This grass hay is very high in fiber which is vital to maintaining the health of their digestive tracts.
Young growing rabbits can eat any type of hay but we don’t recommend giving adult rabbits alfalfa hay which is too protein-rich for their systems to handle and also too high in calcium for their dietary requirements. Hay also serves as a bedding in a larger rabbit hutch and it will also absorb some of urine and feces droppings present in their cage.
Fresh hay is super important for rabbits and there must be a constant supply of enough hay for your rabbit to graze on during the day. The amount of hay you need will depend upon the size of your rabbit and whether or not you have more than one rabbit. In fact, you can choose a bundle of hay which is around the same physical size as your rabbit as a guide. When you first furnish and line your rabbit hutch though we recommend a liberal sprinkling of hay throughout the entire cage.
Hay will provide all the necessary fiber for your bunny’s gut health while helping to keep their teeth filed down as they constantly nibble on it.
Supplement with pellets
Along with hay you should be feeding your rabbits Timothy pellets around ⅛ to ¼ of a cup for every five pounds of your rabbit’s bodyweight. This translates into feeding, say a ten pound rabbit, between one quarter and one-half of a cup of food pellets each day.
It’s really important to measure the pellets you give your rabbits and keep these servings in proportion to the recommended feeding portions. Rabbits will overeat if they can – and they will be nibbling on straw and hay most of the day. If you over-feed pellets to your rabbits, they will tend towards obesity quite quickly and this can also cause an overgrowth of bad bacteria in their guts. Pellets are lower in fiber than hay and high in carbohydrates. Pet owners who overfeed their rabbits with pellets can end up with very obese, unhappy constipated rabbits.
When choosing a pellet food formula, focus on finding a product with around 19% of protein and 18% of fiber. You then combine your rabbit’s diet of hay and pellets with a balance of vegetables which offer the best nutritional value.
Leafy green vegetables to complete your rabbit’s diet
The final important source of food for your growing rabbit is a selection of leafy green vegetables. Rabbits love darker leaf lettuce varieties and turnip greens as well as carrot tops. Your rabbit needs about two cups of leafy green vegetables per day – for every six pounds of their body weight. So if you have a 12 pound rabbit, you would be serving him four cups of leafy green vegetables every day. The trick is in getting the right balance of hay, pellets and leafy greens. Rabbits love variety and they will eat all the vegetables you offer them but too many rich vegetables can give them diarrhea.
Not all leafy green vegetables are equal in calorie terms or nutritional value. Avoid giving your rabbit too many high carbohydrate vegetables such as carrots and potatoes as these can cause excessive weight gain and obesity. The best vegetables to offer your rabbit include darker leafy greens such as romaine lettuce, bok choy, carrot tops, mustard greens, cilantro, basil, watercress, beet greens, kohlrabi, broccoli and cilantro.
There are some vegetables which should only be given sparingly to rabbits because of their high calcium content which can give them bladder stones and other health problems. High calcium vegetables include dandelion greens, collard, parsley, kale, escarole and Swiss chard. These should only be given in very small portions.
Vegetables which are a better choice include: green peppers, broccoli, brussel sprouts, wheat grass, radicchio, squash and endive. Avoiding giving your rabbits iceberg or larger head lettuces – these are full of water and contain very few useful nutrients. Only give your rabbits small amounts of carrots – as they are high in carbohydrates and too much can upset their delicate intestinal flora.
Regardless of which vegetable types you select, as a responsible rabbit owner you should continue to monitor their wastes (urine and feces) to make sure they are not having gastrointestinal problems from not having the correct balanced diet.
Also keep a close eye on your rabbits to see if they are having gas pain after eating different foods. Some rabbit breeds are also more susceptible to quite different health problems caused by dietary imbalances – so keep this in mind as well.
Many rabbit owners and beginning rabbit breeders also wonder if in addition to the diet suggested above should they give their rabbits vitamins. Vitamins for rabbits are unnecessary. A balanced and varied diet of hay, pellets and leafy greens will satisfactorily address all your rabbits’ dietary requirements without the need for vitamin supplements to keep them happy and healthy.
Can I give my pet rabbit additional treats?
You can give your rabbits special treats every now or then or if you are kitty-litter training them or preparing them for shows. Rabbits love eating and can very easily become overweight if given too many calorie-rich treats. There are also some foods which rabbits must never eat – which can be toxic and even deadly (including cookies, chocolate, onions, seeds, nuts, grains and bread).
Some sugary treats you can offer your rabbit (in limited quantities) include apple, berries or pear but no more than 2 tablespoons of these high fiber fruits every second day. The higher sugar content of these types of fruits can upset your rabbit’s delicate gastrointestinal (GI) tract if they overindulge.
If you feed your rabbits apples you must always first remove the seeds – an apple sliced quite small is good. Rabbits can also have a small amount of banana – even though this is a fruit quite high in sugar. Don’t exceed your two tablespoon measurement of fruit and vegetable treats every second day to maintain dietary balance.
Rabbits can also eat melon, papaya, peach, pineapple, plums, blueberries, grapes and blackberries and many other fruits. Some rabbit owners let their rabbits have small amounts of dandelion which is fine but too much dandelion will upset their stomach and give them diarrhea. Keep this treat to a bare minimum. Kale is another high calcium treat which should be given in smaller quantities to your rabbit for the same reason.
Do newborn and baby rabbits require a special diet?
If you are a rabbit breeder and your rabbit has just given birth to a litter of kittens, you may wonder how to meet the needs of both the lactating mother rabbit (the doe) and the newborn rabbit kittens. The newborns will only require their mother’s milk and she will feed them every twelve hours or so. They also have to be kept warm and covered in the fur nest that the mother rabbit created. You should avoid touching or handling the newborn rabbits unless the mother decides to reject one of them after smelling your scent on them.
In the event that you have come across a nest of abandoned baby rabbits, still furless and with no mother present, you can bottle feed them until they are old enough to eat normal rabbit food such as hay, pellets and leafy greens.
You can successfully feed newborn rabbits Kitten Milk Replacer or a similar product and then add some acidophilus. You can also feed newborn rabbits a mixture of Carnation milk and coconut flavored pedialyte (electrolyte drink). It’s not anywhere as good as the mother’s milk but it can sustain life and get your newborn rabbits to the developmental stage where they are big enough to eat adult rabbit food.
Once the baby bunnies’ eyes open, you can start to introduce them to hay, pellets and a good selection of leafy green vegetables. Make sure they have a good supply of fresh water nearby as well. Baby rabbits should be weaned at around four weeks and be starting on solid foods.
You will also need to help your baby bunnies to go to the toilet by stimulating their rear ends with a damp cotton ball – this action tells their bowels and bladder to release all wastes. Normally the mother rabbit would lick their rear ends having the same effect. It’s really important to do this because baby rabbits don’t automatically know how to empty their bowels and bladder, and failing this they will become constipated which can be life threatening for newborn rabbits.
Growing young rabbits aged under 8 months old will need a diet with a good supply of alfalfa pellets and alfalfa hay which delivers additional protein and calcium to boost their growth. You can taper off this amount (of alfalfa) when they reach maturity and go back to timothy and oxbow hay. By the time your rabbit is around eight months old, they should have reached maturity and be adult-sized.
What foods must you avoid feeding rabbits?
After considering all the important elements of your rabbit’s diet, many rabbit owners want to know what foods they must never allow their pet rabbits to eat. This list includes the following:
Avocados – These contain a toxic compound called persin. If a rabbit eats any part of the avocado they can experience difficulty breathing and even congestive heart failure which can be fatal.
Chocolate is very toxic to rabbits (and cats and dogs). Chocolate contains both caffeine and theobromine and darker chocolate has higher levels of these ingredients both of which are very harmful to rabbits. A rabbit with chocolate toxicity will experience diarrhea, hyperactivity, panting and trembling and even an elevated heart rate (tachycardia) and a fever. A rabbit with chocolate toxicity is a medical emergency and you must seek immediate veterinary assistance.
Dairy products – which are high in sugar and can lead to obesity and dental decay.
Kidney beans and broad beans (also known as fava beans) – these are high in carbohydrates and can cause diarrhea, gas and bloating and general gastrointestinal discomfort. They also add no nutritional value. Beans can also make your rabbit fat, unhappy and gassy.
Meat – rabbits are herbivores and their digestive systems are not designed to process and break down meat, eggs or dairy products. Rabbits are unlikely to even try and eat meat but they will try yogurt or milk products – both of which should be avoided because of their high sugar content.
Muesli which has seeds and nuts and gives your rabbits both digestive as well as teeth problems.
Mushrooms of any kind contain mycotoxins which can lead to mushroom toxicity in rabbits and symptoms include diarrhea, organ damage, gastro upsets and even potentially neurological harm.
Onions, leeks and garlic – all these contain the oxidants which attach themselves to red blood cells leading to cell damage. A rabbit who eats raw onions, leeks or garlic can develop oxidative damage and a condition called hemolytic anemia with symptoms of pale gums, stumbling and dizziness, loss of appetite and lethargy.
Potatoes (not overtly harmful) but they have no real health benefits for rabbits and are high in carbohydrates and can cause obesity.
Rhubarb and leaves – These can be poisonous and rhubarb is an irritant at the very least to rabbits. Rhubarb contains oxalic acid which can affect calcium absorption and a rabbit who eats too much rhubarb can develop oxalic acid toxicity with symptoms such as painful mouth, loss of appetite, gas and bloating, diarrhea and overall lethargy.
Seeds and pits from fruit such as apples, apricots, peaches, pears, mangoes and cherries – all of which contain small amounts of cyanide which is poisonous to most mammals. Pears and apples have the highest concentrations of cyanide so never give your rabbits a whole apple.
Tomatoes and particularly tomato leaves which contain solanine and tomatine which are poisonous for rabbits.
Rabbits also engage in the unusual practice of coprophagy which means that they eat their own poop as part of their normal digestive processes which is also called hindgut fermentation. Don’t be alarmed by this bizarre behavior. You will mostly see rabbits doing this at night and it is an evolutionary mechanism where rabbits ingest their own waste which in this case is high in nutrients particularly vitamins B and K. Rabbits will eat their night droppings (which are also called cecotropes) which helps their digestive processes move smoothly through their bodies. So it’s basically a really simple way of them cleaning out their own systems – twice.
Keeping your rabbit happy and healthy is really quite simple and affordable. Rabbits need a mix of good quality hay, pellets and leafy greens and a fresh supply of drinking water. You can supplement their diet with the occasional treat as long as you make sure that you are avoiding any of the more dangerous foods listed above.