Even though many rabbits owners are more educated on the dietary needs of their bunnies, there is still many people who do not fully understand what the main part of a rabbits diet is.
What do rabbits eat? A question that is asked often but not always answered correctly.
The majority of a wild rabbit’s diet is grass, leaves, twigs, herbs and plants. For domesticated rabbits to stay as healthy as their wild counterparts, their diet should consist mainly of hay. Some people tend to think that rabbit pellets are the main meal and hay is a type of ‘bedding’ or just an extra nibble. Whilst hay can be used as bedding it is also your rabbit’s staple diet. I’ll break this topic down into three sections: Hay, Pellets, Fresh & Dried Produce. Fresh grass is included in the ‘Hay’ section.
It’s all very well feeding your rabbit the right food, but what are the wrong ones? Check out this post to see what plants and foods that are toxic to rabbits.
Like I said before, this is the staple diet. Feed your rabbit plenty of hay and you are on the right path to a healthy and happy bunny. If you have a lawn, then grass is a good alternative but when your bunny is in their hutch or cage, you should leave a large pile of hay in the cage for them to eat.
Why is hay beneficial to rabbits?
· It is full of fibre which helps keep the intestine moving. A rabbit’s intestinal system needs to be constantly moving to stay healthy. As they like to chew on various objects, hay will ensure that anything that was hard to digest will be moved along by ingesting hay.
· The action of chewing hay is good for wearing down teeth. Many teeth problems occur from not eating enough hay. Pellets may feel harder but the way of chewing a pellet and the way of chewing a piece of hay is different so they both wear down different parts of the teeth. That’s why providing only pellets is not healthy for a rabbit.
· Having hay to eat prevents boredom. Rabbits will happily sit there for hours picking out the bits they enjoy and throwing the hay around.
· The indigestible fibre found in hay can prevent hair from accumulating in the gut. As rabbits do not spit hair balls out like cats do, it is important that they can get rid of swallowed hair in their faeces.
What types of hay are there?
This is possibly the healthiest type of hay you can feed your rabbit. Depending on the bag of timothy hay you buy, it should be a lovely green colour or a slightly tan colour. It is easiest to store as it is less damp therefore less likely to mould. It should smell sweet and fresh and you should see quite a few seed heads and many stems and leaves. The texture of the hay is hard and provides a good texture for the wearing down of teeth. Timothy hay is a good choice for obese bunnies and for general bunnies as it has low calories, fat and protein yet is high in fibre.
There are several brands from pet stores, at the moment I use Alfalfa King Timothy Hay as I found the colour and the smell wonderful. My rabbits tend to prefer this one but I find that whilst the strands are nice and long to begin with, the last third of a pack is always dusty and full of small bits that get ignored. I have also tried Woodland’s Timothy Hay with Carrot and Apple. Whilst it sounds nice to me, I‘m not sure if carrot and apple are very healthy additions to hay. In my opinion, it would be better to shred some fresh carrot and mix it into hay. I would like to see one with dried dandelion or other herbs mixed in as my rabbits were not very impressed with dried apple. Excel Herbage Timothy Hay with dandelion and marigold was received well in general. You can also buy large bales of timothy hay from farmers but you will need a place to store it. Bales are cheaper than pet shop hay.
This is a legume hay which contains as much fibre as timothy hay. It is good for younger rabbits and lactating does, but due to its high calorie/protein/calcium content, it is unsuitable for rabbits that are over a year old. The high calcium can cause sludge in urine and the high calorie content can cause a rabbit to gain weight. It is a rich green colour with a distinct smell and many leaves.
Many rabbits enjoy this hay so I am under the impression that its tastier as given a choice, my rabbits would rather nibble on alfalfa than timothy hay. Unfortunate for them, as I do not feed them alfalfa hay anymore. They used to have a bit but I was weary of the calcium content as Nibbles also had slightly thicker urine. You can give a bit to rabbits over a year old as a treat but if they are prone to kidney stones, stay away from alfalfa. It is also a good hay to help stimulate underweight rabbits to eat. One popular brand that sells alfalfa hay is Oxbow. Alfalfa King also does bags of alfalfa hay.
This hay has a similar nutritional analysis to timothy hay which makes it a great alternative. If your rabbits do not like timothy hay (yes! They can be so picky sometimes!) you can try oat hay as it has a completely different texture and taste. Oat hay has grain husks that many rabbits enjoy the taste of.
I’ve tried two types of oat hay with my rabbits. The first type I tried is Burns Green Oat Hay. My rabbits were not so keen on the coarse stems but did nibble some of the seed heads. My sister in law’s guinea pigs much preferred this hay though. I’ve tried Alfalfa King’s Oat, Wheat & Barley Hay. Whilst this is not all oat hay, it has a nice variety of other hays and my rabbits enjoyed foraging for their favourite bits. Once again, I found them not too fond of stems. Oxbow also produces bags of oat hay but I have not yet tried that.
This is soft yellow/green hay that smells quite sweet. It is less coarse than oat or timothy hay and can be quite stringy as the strands are very thin. It has a variety of grasses, flowers and herbs which encourages rabbits to dig through and look for their favourite bits. This type of hay contains a bit more protein and a bit less fibre than timothy hay but it is cheaper (due to being more easily grown) and appears to be tastier than timothy hay. That could be due to rabbits preferring the softness of meadow hay over timothy hay.
This is readily available in the UK unlike timothy hay which is not usually grown here due to the climate being less suitable. You can buy bales of this from local farms and big bags are available on the internet and at pet stores. I’ve used two brands and both were received well by the buns (Pure Pastures Meadow Hay and Devon Meadow Hay). My rabbits love meadow hay so much, if you have a bag, they will bite a hole in it to get to the hay. I use meadow hay as the main hay as they eat more of this. Even though it is not as good as timothy hay (which I still give but is not always finished), the general rule is some hay is better than no hay.
This is dried grass. There are two types that are readily available, one is literally the same kind of grass you expect to find in the UK and the main brands is Readigrass and Excel Barn Grass. It has a higher protein and calcium value than other hays apart from alfalfa and the amount of fibre is not as high as the other hays. The second type is orchard grass which is nutritionally similar to timothy hay. It even looks similar to timothy hay in appearance. You can feed this freely to your rabbits whereas I would suggest giving less Readigrass if your rabbits are susceptible to kidney stones.
Buying hay from local farmers is the cheapest way to go as you can buy bales of it provided you have the storage space. However, you must keep the hay dry and let it breath to prevent damp and mould. As long as it’s kept in good conditions, hay can be kept for a long time.
If you have access to fresh grass, this is an excellent alternative for hay. You can leave your rabbit in a run on your lawn (supervised!) and let him eat grass. Or you can pull fresh grass from your lawn to give to your rabbit. You will still need hay in the cage or hutch but you might notice that the more grass your rabbit eats, the less hay you will need to give. This means a bale of hay can last a bit longer. You will need to check that your rabbit can handle fresh grass as I know some rabbits are less tolerant to it for some reason. I know too much grass and my rabbits produce too much cecal faeces (soft droppings) and that they do not eat those which can be a hygiene hazard. Any grass with no pesticides, chemicals and is not next to a busy road is safe for your rabbits.
Fresh and Dried Produce
One of the best things about having a rabbit is watching them eat their veggies. One of my most interesting experiences is feeding my rabbits coriander and mint. I fed them coriander first and I placed my face in front of their and whilst they were chewing, you can smell the coriander being crushed when they breathed. Then I fed them some mint and this time you can smell mint as they breathed out. It sounds a bit odd but just try watching them eat at a rabbit level and you will see what I mean!
Introduce new food slowly to your rabbit
There are some fresh foods that you can feed your bunny. With all new foods, you have to introduce them slowly. What I usually do is give them a small piece and monitor the litter tray. If their droppings look the same as usual, I will give them a bit more but if the droppings come out slightly softer, I would scrap that off the list of things to give my rabbits. Be aware that some foods are TOXIC to rabbits. Also, any fresh food you give them must be clean and not rotting.
Rabbits have delicate digesting systems
General rule is, if you won’t eat it, do not expect your rabbit to as they have delicate digesting systems and food that is off will upset the balance in their stomach and intestines. Some owners suggest giving some fresh food every day. With the rising costs of everything in UK, buying vegetables for rabbits can sometimes be quite expensive. I give mine what I find in my fridge, for instance, if I am having carrot tonight, I will cut the tops off and give them to my buns or if I am having broccoli, I will put some aside for them. By doing this, I do not end up buying lots of veg that I (and them) cannot finish, I ensure that I only give them food that is fit for human consumption and I make sure they get some fresh food regularly. I do not give them fresh foods every day but they do get some most days.
Here is a list of fresh foods that people often ask whether rabbits can eat or not. The list states the food and rabbits can eat and I have offered my bunnies before. It is by no means conclusive and if you are ever unsure, then do not give.
· Apple – the SEEDS are toxic so do not offer those to your rabbit. The fruit is sweet so give sparingly. Apple twigs are great for wearing down teeth.
· Banana – this is very sweet so give as treat and do not give often or in large amounts.
· Basil – this fragrant herb can be given to your bunnies. Mine are sometimes keen and sometimes not.
· Blackberry leaves – mine loves these. I’ve never offered the fruit as it is quite sweet so check that before you give any.
· Blueberry – I’ve only given this once as I do not always have it at home but they seemed to like it enough. Once again, this is quite sweet so feed sparingly.
· Broccoli – this is an old favourite among bunnies but I’ve heard that too much can give gas. I’ve given my rabbits a tablespoon sized chunk with no issues.
· Carrot tops – the leafy green bits that you do not usually eat are ideal for your bunnies.
· Carrot – whilst many images and cartoons depict rabbits holding onto a huge carrot, they are not actually eaten by wild rabbits! Wild rabbits might eat the leafy tops but they rarely dig up the whole carrot. Carrots are sweet so only offer a little bit and not too often.
· Celery – you can give leaves and stem. My rabbits love the leaves but are picky with the stem. Funnily enough, when I leave celery in the cages, they will turn up their nose but once I’m gone they will chomp it down anyway. Make sure pieces are not too long as the stringy bits can pose problematic.
· Coriander – this may be a bit strong for bunnies who’ve never had coriander before but I found that both my rabbits really enjoy coriander. I find the taste of coriander is a good herb to mask the taste of medicine when crushed.
· Cucumber – I’ve heard that rabbits will like this. Mine did not like cucumber at all.
· Dandelion – the whole plant, flowers and root is yummy for rabbits. You won’t find this in the supermarket but if you have a garden, you may find it growing. If the soil it is growing in has been treated with chemicals, do not give to your rabbit. It helps rabbits who have a problem with passing liquid.
· Grapes – I’ve only given them the seedless variety and I’ve given them part of the stick vine bit that the grape is attached to. They quite enjoy it. At first I was unsure whether it was safe but grape growers have complained about wild rabbits eating the vine so I figured it was safe enough. They did not have any reaction to it.
· Lettuce – NEVER feed ICEBERG varieties. I have given mine romaine lettuce and little gem lettuce. These are quite refreshing on a hot summer’s day.
· Marigold – I heard these flowers are tasty for bunnies. I have not yet fed them any of this as I am in the process of trying to grow some.
· Pak Choi – mine love the dark leafy bits.
· Parsley – Another yummy herb my bunnies enjoy.
· Peppermint – this is the mint you can buy from the fresh herb section of supermarkets. Aside from making nice tea, it also makes nice bunny feed.
· Rocket – this is a type of salad leave that’s quite bitter. Funnily enough, bunnies don’t mind the bitterness; mine go mad for a bag of rocket.
· Rosemary – my rabbits turn their nose up at this but it is safe.
· Spinach – this is really tasty. I eat some as I feed my rabbits some but if your bunny, like my Nibbles, tends to get sludgy urine or kidney stones, feed in moderation.
· Spring greens – I’ve only bought this once to see if my rabbits liked it. They did but because we do not cook it at home, most of it went to waste.
· Squash – I’ve given mine the butternut variety before but they had little love for it.
· Strawberry – the leaves and fruit is fine for rabbits but do not give too much as it is quite sweet.
· Watercress – I usually get a bag of rocket, watercress & spinach salad. They do enjoy some watercress.
Dried produce is dried herbs. You can try drying your own in an oven at a low temperature for a few hours or in a boiler cupboard or you buy yours. Some companies do packs of mixed herbs and plants, all in one. Galen’s Garden also does dried vegetables. I’ll list the ones my buns have tried but like above, it is not a complete list and if you are ever worried, do not offer it. As my rabbits like all the dried stuff they’ve been offered, I’ll leave the comments to a minimum!
Rabbits can also eat:
· Blackberry Leaves
· Dandelion Flower, Root and Leaves – good for the waterworks
· Parsley Stalk
· Sundried Sweetcorn – I do not think this is particularly healthy but mine occasionally get a nibble of a dried sweetcorn as a treat
· Willow Twigs
Finally, the Rabbit Pellets
There was a misconception (and there still is for those who are unaware) that rabbit food is a complete diet for bunnies. You must always provide hay and water. Plenty of both. Rabbit pellet is a concentrated feed; it provides all of the nutrients a rabbit may need in a concentrated form. When you consider a wild rabbit, their diet involves eating lots and lots of grass and herbs that are low in nutrients. They will eat all day to get the amount of nutrients they need. Rabbit food is very different in that you only need to feed a little bit due to the high nutrient content.
No rabbit food on the market is a complete diet
It is meant to accompany hay, rather like a side dish.
Even though pellets are hard, they do not wear down a rabbit’s teeth in the right way which is why you cannot just feed pellets alone. Most rabbit foods state on the packaging that hay should also be offered in unlimited amounts nowadays. It is possible to not feed pellets but that requires the owner to be very knowledgeable in rabbit nutrition as you will need to substitute pellets for other foods that would offer a healthy amount of nutrients.
I would not suggest you do this unless you were very confident that you can provide a good diet plan. There are two types of foods on the market, the ‘luxury’ kind and the ‘plain’ kind.
Luxury rabbit feeds are colourful and appeal to us
They contain lots of different parts such as pea flakes, seeds, dried sweetcorn etc. They look fun but they encourage selective feeding. Rabbits are able to pick out which bits are yummy to them and they leave the bits they dislike. This means they are not getting all the nutrients that are needed. Poor luxury feeds contain a lot of grains, sugars and fats which are not suitable for rabbits. A rabbit diet should consist mainly of fibrous foods and that applies for this too. If you choose to offer this kind of feed, you should check that it is high in fibre and with fewer grains. You should also ensure that your rabbit does not eat selectively. Do not put any fresh food into their bowl till all the old food is eaten. If you cannot make sure of that, then you should choose the option below.
What are pellets made of?
Plain rabbit feeds are dull green brown in colour and look rather boring. Each pellet has the same nutritional value and you do not need to worry about selective feeding. These pellets usually have hay or grass as the first ingredient. Some are made from alfalfa and these pellets contain a lot more protein. Alfalfa based pellets should only be given to young rabbits or lactating does to help them grow or produce milk. As young rabbits grow older, gradually move them onto grass/hay based pellets. Young rabbits can also be given pellets freely. As they grow older, the amount of pellets should be slowly reduced. Check the packaging to see how much you should give your rabbit per day and split it into two meals. Your rabbit does not need a lot of pellets per day so if you find your rabbit is not eating much hay, try cutting down on pellets gradually as you may be giving too much. A handful a day is sufficient so do not be afraid to give less when it comes to pellets as you really do need to get your rabbit eating the good stuff: hay.
Good quality pellet
I recommend using a good quality plain pellet food. I believe the ‘luxury’ stuff to be unhealthy for rabbits. Look for one high in fibre and low in sugars, protein and fats if you are buying for an adult rabbit. If you are buying for a young rabbit, look out for high fibre and high protein pellets. Do not buy many bags of pellets in one go as the amount of vitamins in the pellets reduce over time. Always make sure you know how much pellets you are giving your rabbit, grab a plastic cup, measure and mark it. It is very easy for a rabbit to gain weight but hard for them to lose it. If you are cutting down on pellets, make sure you do it gradually.
If you are unsure of what pellet food to use, I have a useful guide which tells you what to look for, the ingredients and the nutritional content of some popular brands of bunny food.