Feeding Your Rabbit

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

Rabbits are herbivores (plant eaters) and are considered grazers, because they eat continuously. They have a complex digestive system and are very efficient at processing food. Like horses, rabbits have a cecum and are “hind-gut” fermenters. They also have very specific dietary needs. If you introduce new foods too quickly or feed inappropriate foods, the rabbit's normal digestive flora (normal bacteria) will be disturbed and gas/toxin-producing bacteria can overgrow, causing the rabbit to become sick and possibly die.

What do rabbits eat?

Rabbits should have a daily diet of mostly hay, a small amount of fresh vegetables, and a specified amount of pellets, according to their body weight. Hay is the most important part of a rabbit's daily intake. Unlimited, high-quality grass hay, such as timothy, orchard, or brome, should make up the bulk of a rabbit's diet.

Grass hay is high in fiber, which is critical to maintaining a rabbit’s healthy digestive tract. Daily consumption of hay also allows rabbits to use a normal grinding motion of the cheek teeth, which keeps them in proper alignment. Young, growing rabbits can eat any type of grass hay, including alfalfa; however, alfalfa hay is not recommended for adult rabbits, as it is too rich in protein and too high in calcium.

For adult rabbits, timothy pellets should be offered at approximately 1/8 to 1/4 cup per 5 lbs (2.25 kg) of body weight. Over-feeding pellets to adult rabbits is a common cause of obesity and soft stool, as pellets are generally low in long-strand fiber and high in carbohydrates, and can cause an overgrowth of abnormal bacteria in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

"Some vegetables like carrots are high in carbohydrates and should not be offered daily."

A pet rabbit's diet may be supplemented with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of a variety of leafy green vegetables every day. Some vegetables like carrots are high in carbohydrates and should not be offered daily. Variety is important. Introduce new vegetables slowly and in small quantities, and monitor for soft feces, diarrhea, or signs of gas pain.

Particularly good vegetables include leafy greens like romaine lettuce, Bok choy, mustard greens, carrot tops, cilantro, watercress, basil, kohlrabi, beet greens, broccoli greens, and cilantro.

Some leafy greens, such as collard and dandelion greens, parsley, kale, Swiss chard, and escarole, should be fed in limited quantities, as they are high in calcium and may contribute to the development of calcium-based bladder stones if fed in excess. Other acceptable vegetables include broccoli, green peppers, Brussels sprouts, endive, wheat grass, radicchio, and squash. Iceberg lettuce and celery should not be fed, as they are mainly water and contain limited to no nutritional value.

"A small amount of many different vegetables is much better than a large amount of one food item."

Carrots should be fed sparingly, as they are very high in carbohydrates and may upset GI bacterial flora. A small amount of many different vegetables is much better than a large amount of one food item.

Young rabbits, under 7-8 months old, should be fed alfalfa pellets and alfalfa hay free-choice. They need the extra protein and calcium as they grow. They, too, can have a variety of vegetables. At approximately 7 months, they must be weaned onto an adult diet, as described above, as their growth slows down.

How often should I feed my rabbit?

Rabbits should be fed and provided with fresh water daily. Hay must always be available. As nibblers, rabbits should have food available at all times.

Do I need to give my rabbit vitamins?

No, rabbits do not require extra vitamins. They just need a varied, high-fiber diet.

Can I offer my rabbit treats?

Yes, but first check with your veterinarian about the types of treats that are recommended. Freshly washed or cleaned vegetables can be offered as treats rather than a daily supplement. Rabbits can become overweight if fed an abundance of high-calorie treats. Cookies, nuts, seeds, grains, and bread should never be fed to rabbits.

"Cookies, nuts, seeds, grains, and bread should never be fed to rabbits."

Fruits can be fed in very limited quantities: no more than 1-2 tablespoons of high-fiber fresh fruit such as apple, pear, or berries, once or twice a week. The high sugar content in fruits and even carrots may upset the normal GI tract bacteria if given in excess.

How much water does a rabbit require?

Fresh water should be available 24 hours a day. Some rabbits prefer water bowls, and others prefer sipper bottles. If you offer water in a sipper bottle, be sure to inspect it for clogs and fill it with clean water daily. If you offer your rabbit water in a bowl, make sure the rabbit does not spill it in its cage or soil it with feces.

Is there anything else I should know?

Rabbits need to chew to maintain the health of their continuously growing teeth. Chew toys should always be available. Hard wooden chew toys (blocks and sticks), huts or balls made of timothy hay, and cardboard are best.

Rabbits engage in coprophagy, which means they eat their own feces. This occurs at night, and these fecal pellets are different from the ones normally excreted: they are called cecotropes, cecal droppings, nocturnal droppings, or night droppings – and they are rarely seen by the owners. They are usually small, soft, or pasty, darker in color, and have a strong fermented or sweet smell.

These pellets serve as a rich source of nutrients for the rabbit, specifically protein and vitamins B and K. Most owners never observe this behavior, as it happens in the early hours of the morning. If you do, remember that it is normal and necessary for the health of your rabbit.

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