By Anne Fawcett, BA(Hons), BSc(Vet) (Hons), BVSc(Hons) MVet Stud GradCertEdStud(Higher Ed)
Rabbits love to eat. When it comes to design and diet, rabbits are closer to horses and cattle than they are to dogs and cats. They are obligate herbivores, built to graze a plant-based diet. They ferment this food in the hindgut, which is especially adapted to processing fiber. In fact their need for fiber is so high that they are often referred to as fibrevores.
Within hours of eating, rabbits pass soft, mucus-coated stools called cecotropes. Although an average rabbit passes about 150 fecal pellets every day, many of these are re-ingested. This is a normal part of their digestion, which helps ensure an appropriate balance of normal gut flora.
A steady supply of dietary fiber is key for gastrointestinal health, because it keeps the gut moving. Poor gut motility or gut stasis can cause gastrointestinal upsets, which can be life-threatening in rabbits.
1. What Do Rabbits Eat In The Wild?
Wild rabbits spend their days grazing grass, plants, leaves and herbs. Unless you have a big backyard containing suitable plants (and zero predators!), it is very difficult to replicate that exact diet for pet rabbits. The good news is that feeding a diet consisting mostly of grass and hay is the next best thing.
2. What Is The Ideal Food For Pet Rabbits?
I use the 80:15:5 rule. Ideally, a rabbit’s diet should be made up of 80 percent good-quality hay and grass. Rabbit dentition is built to break down hay and grass — their teeth continually grow so they are worn down by chewing this fibrous food. In addition, their gut functions best when it has a constant input of fiber. Finally, rabbits are natural grazers. Chewing on hay and grass is something they enjoy doing, so unlimited access to hay and grass will keep most rabbits happy.
There are two major categories of hay. Grass hays — including timothy, oat, wheat and rye grass; and legume hays (like Lucerne, alfalfa and clover). Legume hays are very high in calcium and protein, which lead to formation of urinary crystals and stones. Rabbits find these almost addictive, and it can be difficult to wean them off, but legume hays should not be fed for prolonged periods.
Grass hays are less nutritionally dense, higher in fiber and much more suitable to feed long-term.
It may seem a bit dull to us, but to a rabbit, hay and grass aren’t just hay and grass. Even within a stack of hay, rabbits will notice a range of tastes. You can prove this yourself by conducting a simple experiment at home. Provide three piles of hay or grass from different sources or collected at different times. Almost all rabbits will favor one pile of hay or grass over the others, probably because of the taste or texture or a combination. Even within the same batch of hay, they will often select out the most flavorsome hay and leave the rest. This is why hay and grass should be topped up daily.
Fresh veggies and herbs should make up at least 15 percent of the diet. Where possible, seasonal veggies and herbs are recommended. Suitable vegetables include carrots, kale, spinach, peas, beans, cucumber, fennel, bok choy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, arugula, celery and Brussels sprouts. Rabbits will often eat parts of the veggies that we don’t enjoy — such as celery tops, carrot tops and the husk from corncobs. Suitable herbs include basil, parsley, chamomile, dandelion, mint, dill and coriander. Too much of any one thing can be bad. For example, there are reports of rabbits fed exclusively on carrots suffering from vitamin A toxicity. The key is to provide a good variety of vegetables.
Finally, up to 5 percent of the diet can be made up of high-quality pellets. Seed mixes could pose a problem depending on a rabbit’s eating habits. Many rabbits, like us, are selective feeders and will pick out the most delicious (usually the fattiest) bits, and leave the rest. This can lead to obesity. With pellets, which are all the same, the problem with selective feeding is avoided.
Fresh, clean water should be supplied daily. Bowls are readily tipped over or soiled. Most rabbits can learn to drink from sipper bottles, which avoids these problems.
3. What If My Rabbit Doesn’t Like Hay?
The majority of rabbits enjoy eating hay and grass, but some are fussy eaters. Usually these rabbits are older, and used to eating a pellet-based diet. If you do adopt a pre-loved rabbit, find out what he or she is used to eating. Avoid sudden dietary changes, as these can cause gastrointestinal upsets or gut stasis. Instead, gradually increase the amount of hay and grass, and gradually decrease the amount of the pellets in the diet over a 14-day period. This gives the rabbit time to adjust to a new diet.
If your rabbit shows little interest in hay, remember that all hay is not equal. Purchase the best-quality hay you can. Good quality hay smells fresh, feels dry yet a little soft, and is not excessively dusty. Avoid moldy hay or hay that has been stored for a long period of time.
Offer hay before you offer other foods. While it is essential that rabbits are not starved into eating hay, if you offer hay before anything else your rabbit is more likely to consider trying it.
Vary the way in which you present hay. Hay on the ground is readily soiled. Some rabbits prefer eating hay from a hayrack, others enjoy pulling hay from cardboard rolls.
I like to hide vegetables in hay so that rabbits have to actively find them.
It can help to “scent” hay by rubbing fruit (for example a chunk of pineapple or pear) on the hay.
You can also introduce the hay flavor by feeding occasional pressed-hay treats.
Rabbits that are fed diets high in pellets are at high risk of developing obesity and dental disease, as well as other health problems. But they’re also likely to be bored if they can munch their way through their food ration in a short period, there’s not much left to do to fill in time before the next meal. Grazing takes longer, but allows rabbits to express their natural behavior.
4. What Are Rabbit’s Favorite Foods?
Just like us, every rabbit has his or her own preferences and favorites. Some will go crazy for cucumber, others delight in pineapple. Other bunnies enjoy the simple things, and will dive into a pile of hay or grass. Some favorites are fine to feed continuously: if your rabbit loves timothy hay, there is no harm in providing a constant supply, as this should make up 80 percent of the diet. But if your rabbit’s favorite is fruit, this should only be given occasionally.
In my experience, two foods that will tempt most bunnies are a fresh bunch of basil and fennel tops.
5. What Makes A Good Rabbit Treat?
Small pieces of fruit are popular treats, but should be fed in small amounts, as these are high in sugar and can lead to obesity. You can offer your rabbit pieces of apple, blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, nectarines, pears and plums. Other fruits, such as oranges, peaches and pineapple should be peeled. Tomato can be offered but the leaves must be removed. If you do feed fruit as a treat, avoid feeding more than 1 tablespoon in a day. I personally recommend feeding a maximum of about 1 teaspoon of fruit per day.
For a fun treat, I recommend preparing a “rabbit salad” containing a mix of veggies and herbs that they can pick at (see recipe below). Depending on the ingredients used, you can even eat the same salad — although you might want to add some dressing for yourself!
Some people will reserve one vegetable (for example cucumber) as a treat to be hand-fed as a reward.
There are plenty of treats commercially available. I recommend trying to avoid those with artificial colorings. Compressed hay treats are ideal. Treat foods should be fed in very small amounts.
Apple And Broccolini Salad Recipe
Now that you’ve read about what to feed your rabbit, why not make a tasty salad for your bunny (and yourself)!
- 1 cup baby spinach leaves
- 1/2 cup basil leaves
- 1/2 cup mint leaves
- 1 bunch of broccolini
- 1 red delicious apple
Slice apple into fine pieces. Chop broccolini. Mix spinach, basil and mint leaves, sprinkle with broccolini and apple slices and serve to your rabbit without any dressing. Serves two rabbits. Also suitable for guinea pigs and humans.