Thanks to Peter Rabbit and Bugs Bunny, we tend to think of rabbits as carrot-munching critters. But what else do rabbits eat? What are you supposed to feed your rabbits?
Just like humans, a healthy diet is imperative for your rabbit to live a long and happy life. But, that doesn’t entail a bucket-load of carrots. (In all honesty, the tops are better for rabbits than the actual carrot.)
In this comprehensive rabbit feeding guide, you’ll learn all about what to feed your rabbit and why. Let’s get into it!
A Bit About Rabbit Digestion
Before we get started on what to feed your rabbits, it will help you to understand how a rabbit’s digestive system works. Rabbits are herbivores, meaning they eat plants exclusively. Their dietary needs are much like a horse’s, meaning lots of fibre and low protein.
Here’s how it works:
- Food leaves the stomach and enters the small intestine, where protein, sugar and starch are all absorbed.
- After leaving the small intestine, food goes to the colon, where fibre is sorted into two types: digestible and indigestible.
- Indigestible fibre is sent straight to the large intestine for water absorption and eventually evacuation in the form of tiny round droppings.
- Digestible fibre is sent to the caecum where it’s broken down by special bacteria to absorb the nutrients that the small intestine’s enzymes can’t.
- After, it’s sent through the large intestine, just like the indigestible fibre.
Do Rabbits Have Sensitive Digestive Systems?
Yes, rabbits have a sensitive digestive system. If they don’t get what they need in nutrients and vitamins, they can develop serious health problems like G.I. Stasis, among others.
Even switching over their food too quickly or introducing too much of a new treat can have a big impact on their digestive system. It’s best to do it gradually, especially in young rabbits and seniors.
Rabbit Digestive Issues
Rabbits can develop digestive issues, most commonly Gastrointestinal (G.I.) Stasis. This is a change in the bacterial ratio in your rabbit’s digestive tract. Without the right amount of good bacteria, your rabbit can’t properly digest its food, which can lead to blockages and internal infection.
G.I. Stasis can be caused by different things, including your rabbit’s diet, which is why it’s so important to learn more about your rabbit’s digestive system. (Give yourself a pat on the back for being a good pet parent, and reading this rabbit feeding guide).
What Do Rabbits Eat?
Rabbits mostly eat grass and/or hay. They need a low-protein and super-high-fibre diet, which is exactly what grass and hay provide. Hay and grass are the single most important piece of a rabbit’s diet, with the exception of water, of course.
In the wild, rabbits usually just stick to grass and clover and get other minerals and nutrients through other plant life and even dirt when they need to. Luckily, your rabbit has it much easier. House rabbits usually eat hay and dry pellets fortified with all the vitamins and nutrients they need to stay healthy (they don’t need a salt lick). Rabbits also eat veggies, fruits, and leafy greens to enrich their diet.
Here’s an overview of how your rabbit’s diet should look like:
- 85% hay and grass
- 10% greens and veggies
- 5% pellets
- optional: occasional fruit as a treat
What to Feed Your Rabbits
A common (and kind of harmful) belief is that dry pellets are the most important thing to feed your rabbits. But it’s actually the lowest on the list. Let’s talk more about what you need to feed your rabbits.
First things first, your rabbit needs water. Water is the oil that drives the engine in every living thing, and your rabbit is no exception. It’s vital for organ function, digestion, and flushing out toxins.
Make sure your rabbits constantly have fresh, clean water. Read our post Water Bottle vs Water Bowl to see why we recommend a water bowl for your rabbit.
Hay or Grass
Hay is the absolute most important part of your rabbit’s diet. It is extremely high in fibre and low in protein, fats, and sugars, which is exactly what a rabbit needs. If rabbits don’t get enough hay or fibre, they are at risk of developing a laundry list of digestive issues.
Hay is vital to a rabbit’s diet for more than just digestive purposes. It’s also important for their teeth. Rabbits eat hay to grind down their constantly growing teeth. If your rabbits don’t get enough of it in their diet, their teeth will continue to grow and can become so long that it prevents a rabbit from eating. They can also develop spurs on their teeth, which are very painful.
What Type of Hay to Feed Your Rabbits
There are many different types of hay, such as timothy and orchard grass, among others. Timothy hay is the go-to for most rabbit owners, but it really comes down to what your rabbit likes best.
One thing is for certain, alfalfa is not suitable for adult rabbits, and should only be fed to babies. It’s too protein-rich for most adult rabbits, which can cause digestive problems.
Hay or Grass – What’s Better to Feed Your Rabbits?
Grass and hay are more similar than you think. In reality, hay is just a form of grass. It has most of the same vitamins and nutrients in it. In my opinion, a mix of both is the best.
You can plant grass in a potting tray to grow it inside or throw some around your rabbit’s enclosure. Just be sure that if you are getting grass from outside, do not use lawn clippings. Once a mower’s blade cuts the grass, fermentation starts. And that can harm your rabbit’s gut.
How much hay to feed?
Hay (and grass) should always be given in unlimited quantities. Make sure the grass you give to your rabbit wasn’t in contact with any chemicals or pesticides.
Dry pellets are made up of compressed timothy hay, for the most part. They’re also enriched with the necessary vitamins and nutrients that a rabbit needs to stay fit and healthy.
Some pellets are made with other things like dandelions, chamomile, and other healthy plants. Just like hay, it’s really up to what your rabbit prefers.
One thing is for certain; stay away from muesli-style pellets. Museli-style pellets have colorful bits and pieces that look delicious, but are actually unhealthy. Recent studies have found that these pellets not only lack the essential nutrients that rabbits need, but they can also lead to very serious digestive and dental issues which are often fatal.
How much pellets to feed your rabbit?
Feed ¼ cup of pellets per 6 lbs. of rabbit’s body weight.
Vegetables and Greens
Vegetables and greens can be given to your rabbit every day, just make sure to have a variety that includes more greens than veggies.
Here are some leafy greens that are safe for your rabbits to eat:
- Romaine Lettuce
- Red and Green Leaf Lettuce
- Bok Choy
- Collard Greens
- Spinach (limit due to high calcium content)
- Carrot tops
- Radish tops
- Summer Squash
- Bell Peppers
- Brussel Sprouts
How much greens and vegetables to feed?
Rabbits should get 1-2 cups of greens and vegetables per 6 lbs. of rabbit’s body weight.
Plants & Herbs
Rabbits can eat herbs, both fresh and dried. Fresh herbs are healthier for bunnies since dried herbs can lose some nutritional qualities in the drying process, but both options are safe and beneficial.
Herbs your rabbit can eat:
How much plants and herbs to feed?
Add plants and herbs in the mix with your daily veggies and greens.
Feeding your rabbits fruit is a healthier alternative to many store-brand rabbit treats, which are usually full of sugar and artificial flavours and colours.
Here are some fruits you can feed your rabbits:
- Papaya (without seeds)
- Cherries (without pit)
- Apples (without seeds)
- Berries (i.e. strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cranberries)
- Nectarine (without the pit)
- Peach (without the pit)
- Plum (without the pit)
- Watermelon (without seeds)
- Mango (without the pit)
- Pear (without seeds)
How much fruit to feed?
Due to its high sugar content, limit fruits to 2-4 tablespoons up to two times per week.
Foods to Avoid
First, NEVER let your rabbit eat meat or any animal products for that matter. That’s pretty self-explanatory. And, DEFINITELY, no human treats like chips, chocolates, or anything like that.
Here’s a more specific list of foods to avoid giving your rabbits:
- Fruits with seeds or pits still in them or fatty fruits like avocado
- Plants that are toxic to rabbits such as rhubarb
- Carb-based foods like crackers, pasta, cereal, and bread.
- Seeds or nuts
- Beans (except for green beans which can be given occasionally)
- Iceberg lettuce
- House plants (spider plants, ferns, poinsettias, lilies, orchids, etc)
- Corn (including the cob)
Veggies to be careful with as they cause gas in rabbits and can cause G.I. stasis if given in large quantities:
How Much to Feed Your Rabbits
Now that we’ve covered what to feed your rabbits, let’s go over how much they should eat. It’s not as simple as feeding dogs, where you can lay down a bowl of kibble, and leave them to it.
Again, 85% of your rabbit’s diet should consist of hay and grass, 10% should be a variety of greens and veggies, and the remaining 5% should be pellets.
Here’s what that looks like daily:
- Unlimited hay and grass
- 1-2 cups greens, vegetables, and plants per 6 lbs. body weight
- ¼ cup of pellets per 6 lbs. body weight
How Often Should You Feed Your Rabbits
The rabbit feeding guide with the measurements above are best split into two feedings while giving constant access to hay and grass and an assortment of veggies and greens. Again, fruits are only to be given as treats, not daily.
I know I sound like a broken record about having unlimited hay, but it’s only to make sure you know it’s absolutely crucial, so a rabbit’s gut is constantly moving and getting what it needs. Rabbits are grazers, so they don’t have set meal times. They will snack on their food throughout the day, as needed.
How to Monitor Your Rabbit’s Diet
Monitoring your rabbit’s diet is important for detecting health issues and identifying specific dietary needs. For instance, older rabbits are known to have a calcium buildup in their systems, which can cause larger problems like bladder stones and kidney dysfunction.
The best way to monitor your rabbit’s health is through their diet. So, you’re already setting yourself up for success by reading this rabbit feeding guide. The next part of that is monitoring how your rabbit’s diet is being digested. The best way to decipher that is by looking at their droppings.
A round “cocoa puff” is completely normal, meaning that your rabbit is digesting everything properly. Cecotropes look like bunches of grapes. They may seem unusual, but they’re actually healthy. Your rabbit will likely re-digest these for his gut health.
Adjusting Your Rabbit’s Diet
If you’re introducing something new, be sure to do it gradually over several days. Never just switch up food brands. This can cause stomach upsets and other digestive issues. Just mix a bit in at a time.
When your rabbit isn’t reacting well to a certain type of food, it’s okay to not-so-gradually subtract it, especially if it’s causing something severe like diarrhea. If you don’t know what’s causing the reaction, adjusting your rabbit’s diet can be a process of trial and error. However, there are some common reasons that you may want to think about first.
When There’s Too Much Calcium
An excess of calcium will usually present itself in your rabbit’s urine. It will be too dark and sometimes there will be tiny stones or bladder sludge. If this is the case, your rabbit will need to be fed a special low-calcium food and low-calcium grasses or hay.
You will also want to avoid calcium-rich veggies and greens like broccoli leaves, kale, and spinach.
When They Need More Protein
Usually, rabbits need a very low-protein diet. However, there are a few circumstances that call for an increase in protein. Those reasons include:
- When your rabbit is recovering from an illness or injury
- Pregnant or nursing rabbits
- Young, growing rabbits
When Your Rabbit Is Overweight
Obesity is pretty obvious especially in smaller breeds. It’s also very serious, and sometimes leads to many health concerns, including heart problems, diabetes, and joint issues.
If your rabbit is a little on the heavy side, you can simply adjust by scaling down the pellets your rabbit’s getting and increasing exercise. If that doesn’t work, that means it’s a deeper issue, and you should involve a vet.
When Your Rabbit Is Underweight
Underweight rabbits can be a bit trickier to spot, especially in long-haired breeds. However, if you pick up your rabbit and it feels really thin and boney, that’s a sure sign. But, as hard as it is to spot, it’s even harder to treat because weight loss can be caused by many different things, without even thinking about neglect or underfeeding.
A rabbit usually becomes underweight caused by a lack of appetite or a parasitic infection, so the most important thing to do is consult a vet because a rabbit’s gut needs to be constantly moving, and if your rabbit’s already losing weight, it’s already affecting his digestive system, and you’ll need help to rectify that.
How to Adjust Your Rabbit’s Diet With Age
Rabbits grow very quickly, which means their diet changes a lot throughout the first few months. Here’s how to adjust your rabbit’s diet as it grows and ages.
For the first 3 weeks of their life, rabbits only need their mother’s milk. Mom will also likely need a little more protein in her diet to make up for nursing. I switched my pregnant rabbit over to young rabbit food near the end of her pregnancy for that reason.
Once baby bunnies are ready to eat pellets and hay at around 4 weeks of age, you’ll need to feed them pellets made for younger rabbits with the nutritional ratios they need while they’re growing. Also, younger rabbits up to 6 months can eat alfalfa hay.
Once your rabbit is around 6 months old, it’s considered an adult. That means you should start switching to adult rabbit food and timothy hay. After 6 months, it’s also safe to slowly introduce new foods like veggies and greens.
Senior rabbits usually eat most of the same things that adult rabbits do. There’s no need to switch their food or hay unless they need something different. However, older rabbits are more likely to develop an excess of calcium. In that case, you will need to lay off the calcium-rich veggies and greens.
- Rabbit Diet and Feeding – The Rabbit House
- Rabbit Diet – Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund
- Food & Diet – House Rabbit Society