What to Feed Your Pet Rabbit

Rabbits are popular pets,
Wild rabbits eat mostly grass and leaves. So what is the best diet to feed your pet rabbit?

Wild rabbits eat mostly grass and leaves. So what is the best diet to feed your pet rabbit?

and there is a large amount of information (some reliable, some less so) regarding how to feed and keep these engaging animals. This article seeks to dispel the common misunderstandings about what to feed your pet rabbit, and makes feeding suggestions to support health and long life.

Rabbits are herbivores, and in the wild their diet consists primarily of grass and leaves. They are adapted to be able to extract nutrients and energy efficiently from a very poor diet. Their guts are delicately balanced fermentation vats full of bacteria that enable them to digest this diet. Because the diet is so fibrous, the rabbit has developed constantly growing teeth to allow them to grind the food to improve its digestibility. As such the diet a rabbit is fed at home is vitally important. This diet must contain enough fibre to allow normal tooth wear and avoid the issue of ‘acquired dental disease’ and to promote normal gut motility (long stem fibre is essential for normal gut motility). Diets without sufficient fibre can lead to dental disease, disturbance in the gut bacteria causing ‘sticky bottom’ (when a rabbit doesn’t eat its soft faeces) and gut stasis (when the gut stops moving and the rabbit stops passing faeces and stops eating: a condition that is serious and can be fatal).

So what should you feed your pet rabbit?

It's important to feed your pet rabbit a good quality hay

It’s important to feed your pet rabbit a good quality hay

The answer is primarily hay. A good quality hay, with minimal dust that smells fresh and clean. Most rabbits will eat a bundle of hay approximately the same size as their body every day. At all times rabbits should have fresh hay available, and this should be changed for clean hay regularly as it can rapidly become soiled. Providing hay in hay racks as well as on the floor, and encouraging your rabbit to use a litter tray can reduce soiling.

Most rabbits also enjoy fresh vegetables, and a selection should be offered daily. A bunch approximately the same size as the rabbit’s head is appropriate.

One word of caution: if your rabbit is not used to greens, these should be introduced gradually over a period of two weeks to avoid the possibility of diarrhoea. Start with offering a tiny amount each day, gradually increasing this as long as diarrhoea is not seen.

Ideally a variety of greens should be fed, but it is wise whilst introducing these to the diet to give one thing at a time so you know what your rabbit likes and can tolerate.

Which vegetables and plants are safe to feed?

SAFE Vegetables/Plants

  • Freshly picked grass (NOT from clippings)
  • Dandelions
  • Plantain
  • Raspberry leaves, strawberry leaves, blackberry leaves
  • Culinary herbs such as mint, coriander, basil, dill
  • Spinach, cabbage, kale {as long as fed in small quantities}
  • Spring greens
  • Chick weed
  • Clover
  • Mallow
  • Yarrow
  • Apple
  • Chicory
  • Green beans
  • Peapods
  • Watercress
  • The more vividly coloured fibrous types of lettuce such as rocket and radicchio (NOT Iceburg Lettuce)
  • Leaves of fruit trees (as long as these have not been sprayed)

Which vegetables and plants should you avoid?

UNSAFE Vegetables/Plants

Do not feed the following to pet rabbits:

  • Buttercups
  • Bracken
  • Comfrey
  • Evergreens
  • Foxgloves
  • Hemlock
  • Ivy
  • Laburnum
  • Linseed
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Milkweed
  • Poppies
  • Potato plants
  • Ragwort
  • Tomato plants
  • Evergreens including Yew
  • (Kale and cabbage: ONLY if fed in large quantities)

What about home-grown vegetables?

If you are willing to grow your own vegetables, your rabbit will undoubtedly appreciate it, and suitable plants to consider include: wheatgrass, culinary herbs, berry plants (the leaves can be fed) carrots (for the tops rather than the actual carrots) and spring greens.

Equally there are a lot of free resources available if you are willing to forage for plants in the wild. You must make certain you can accurately identify what you are picking, and only use plants/leaves from areas that have not been sprayed with pesticides and are not close to roads. Make certain you have the landowner’s permission before removing any plants or leaves. Anything foraged in this way can be fed fresh, or dried for use over the winter.

What else can you feed a pet rabbit?

Good quality concentrate pellets can be added to your rabbit's diet

Good quality concentrate pellets can be added to your rabbit’s diet

Many rabbits will not need anything else if fed a diet of good hay and a variety of vegetables/leaves, however the addition of a small amount of good quality pellets gives reassurance that no nutritional deficiencies will occur. There are several good quality brands of pellets available and around 25g (about an eggcup full) of pellets per kilogram bodyweight of rabbit should be fed every day.

Many owners feel that the muesli type diets are suitable for rabbits, but in general these are not advisable unless fed correctly. The issue with muesli type diets is that while fully nutritionally balanced if the WHOLE diet is consumed, most owners do not appreciate that this means they must not provide more muesli unless everything in the bowl is eaten, otherwise selective feeding occurs and the rabbit avoids the least tasty portions of the diet, which unfortunately are usually the bits that contain the added vitamins and minerals (the reason you have chosen to feed a concentrate diet in the first place). Research has shown that feeding muesli type diets incorrectly can lead to obesity and an increased risk of acquired dental disease.

What about water requirements?

Rabbits should always have access to clean water

Rabbits should always have access to clean water

The final dietary ingredient is of course water, and all rabbits should have access to clean water at all times. Water can be provided in a bowl or using a drinking bottle, and both methods have pros and cons. Rabbits will generally drink more from a bowl, however bowls can be knocked over and soiled, so need to be regularly checked. Drinking bottles are more hygienic as long as they are regularly cleaned, however they can leak, the drinking nozzle can become blocked or frozen and overgrowth of algae can occur if cleaning is not done properly. Rabbits used to bowls from a young age may have difficulty with water bottles, but rabbits used to bottles will often readily drink from bowls.
Feeding your rabbit a great diet is easily achievable and gives your pet many health benefits. Lots of hay, a variety of fresh food and a small amount of good quality pellets is a simple recipe for a happy rabbit.