Rabbit Diet and Nutrition
It's a popular misconception that rabbit pellets were developed
as a convenient way for pet owners to feed their rabbits, but in
fact this way of feeding was originally developed for the commercial
breeders who wanted a cheap and convenient way of promoting fast
growth and weight gain for food production!
However, don't let that put you off feeding a pelleted food, as
of course these days the pet rabbit is well cared for by the pet
food manufacturers in this country, and concerns about overfeeding
and obesity have been addressed.
The diet of the pet rabbit should mimic that of the wild rabbit.
Rabbits are designed to eat grass. The most natural life for a pet
rabbit would be to run loose in the garden, grazing on the lawn,
sampling a wide variety of plants and vegetables and stripping bark
from trees. This lifestyle may suit the rabbit, but it's not a very
practical option for most owners!
Unlimited, good quality hay is the foundation of a healthy diet
for pet rabbits. As well as meeting their basic nutritional requirements
it has many other benefits. Chewing hay strengthens teeth and jaws.
Hay also provides lots of long-strand fibre to maintain healthy
gut movement, because a rabbit fed only commercial rabbit pellets
probably does not get enough long fiber to keep the intestines in
good working order. The long fibers in the hay push things through
the gut and keep the intestinal muscles in good tone. In addition
to keeping the intestinal contents moving at the rate at which nature
intended, hay may also help prevent intestinal impactions caused
by ingested hair or other indigestible items.
Rabbits need to spend a lot of time eating (4-6 hours daily) in
order to keep their teeth wearing down at the correct rate. This
is easily achieved by feeding you rabbit ad lib quantities of good
quality hay or providing access to grazing in the warmer weather.
The importance of this high fibre diet cannot be emphasised enough.
A good-quality commercial rabbit pellet provides trace nutrients,
vitamins and minerals that a rabbit might not get if fed only hay
and fresh foods. The best dried mixes available are those which
are pelleted 'all-in-one' to stop the rabbit from selectively eating
only the pieces it wants. However, very little pelleted food is
required for good health - possibly just scatter some pellets amongst
the hay for the rabbit to find. Many experienced rabbit veterinary
surgeons are now recommending no more than 1/8 cup of quality pellets
per 5 lbs. of rabbit per day, and some even consider commercial
pellets a "treat food" that can promote obesity in spayed/neutered
adult rabbits. A rabbit fed too many pellets will often ignore his
hay, to the detriment of his intestinal system!
It is OK to feed fresh cut grass (within half an hour of cutting),
dandelions, chickweed etc and fresh vegetables small amounts of
fruit can also be provided. Lettuce, although not harmful to rabbits,
provides very little nutritional value.
The importance of adequate water intake cannot be overstated. A
rabbit who does not drink sufficient water will gradually begin
to suffer desiccation of the intestinal contents.
Rabbit Welfare have a good leaflet on
Baby rabbits have different nutritional needs to adults. They need
higher protein levels (around 16%) to support growth, as well as
high fibre (at least 18-20%) to promote healthy digestion.
Young rabbits are very vulnerable to digestive problems, especially
around the time of weaning. Sudden changes in diet can be dangerous.
This is one of the main problems in buying rabbits from pet shops
- they are likely to have had three changes of environment and diet
in quick succession. In addition, the immature gut has to establish
proper movement of its contents and stress hormones can upset this
process. Fatal digestive upsets are all too common, especially in
babies who have left the breeder before eight weeks of age.
What to feed
Vegetables:- Asparagus, broccoli, Brussel Sprouts, cabbage, carrots,
carrot tops, cauliflower, cauliflower leaves, celery, celery leaves,
courgette, cucumber, kale, green beans, parsnip, peas, pea pods,
pumpkin, radish tops, rocket, spinach, squash, swede, turnip and
Fruit :- Apple, Apricot, banana, blackberries, blackberry leaves,
blueberries, cherries, grapes, kiwi, mango, melon, nectarines, peaches,
pears, pineapple, plum, raspberries, raspberry leaves, strawberries,
strawberry leaves and tomatoes.
Herbs and wild plants :- Camomile, chickweed, clover, dandelion,
groundsel, mallow, mint, nettle, parsley and plantain.
Poisonous plants to avoid:- Deadly nightshade, Evergreen trees
and shrubs, foxglove, Ivy, peach and plum tree leaves, potato tops,
tomato leaves and tulips (and other plants from bulbs).
Don't feed your rabbit biscuits, cookies, crackers, nuts, seeds,
breakfast cereals (including oatmeal) or "high fiber"
cereals. They may be high fiber for humans, but not for rabbits,
who arefar better able to completely digest dietary fiber than humans.
Fed to a rabbit, the high fat and simple carbohydrate content of
these types of food may contribute to fatty liver disease, cecal
dysbiosis, obesity, and other health problems.
See also Rabbit Digestion
Websites of interest to rabbit owners
House Rabbit Society