Feeding Your Rabbit
Rabbits cannot just eat anything at any time. They are fibrevores and vegans, so their digestive systems are designed to process leafy greens, hay and grasses. They also must be fed according to age, as their dietary and nutritional requirements change as they mature.
The feeding of rabbits is highly subjective, so there is much contradictory information as to what is safe and what is not. What is outlined below comes from my personal experience and the general consensus – anything that appears on both safe and unsafe lists (of which there are many) is best avoided. Erring on the side of caution will literally save your rabbit’s life. It also pays to not be experimental, or feed things they can have but don’t really need – keep to the tried and proven staples.
The following is what to feed your rabbit according to their stage in life:
For the first 3 weeks of life, baby rabbits only need their mother’s milk twice daily. They should remain with their mother for a minimum of 8 weeks. [If a mother rabbit refuses to feed her babies, hand-rearing protocols need to be commenced. The main reason why a doe will refuse to feed her kits is because she is malnourished herself and does not have enough milk. It helps to feed a pregnant doe fennel and dandelion, as these plants increase milk production. Avoid feeding mint, as it dries up milk.]
From 3 to 7 weeks they still need their mother’s milk, but can have alfalfa hay and junior alfalfa pellets. They should have access to these on an unlimited basis 24/7. Initially, they will nibble, but increase their intake as they grow.
At 8 weeks, a rabbit can be adopted. Feed unlimited alfalfa pellets, alfalfa hay, and water. It is a bit of a predicament, and common, to acquire a bunny who has not been fed correctly when things have been done in bulk to save money – an adjustment to their diet is needed, but must be very slow as you wean them off their old food. This is normally done at 25% new food in week one, 50% new food in week two, 75% new food in week three, and 100% new food in week four. If they have been fed greens, they need to be stopped until 12 weeks.
From 8 weeks to 7 months they no longer need their mother’s milk – they may or may not have been weaned – it doesn’t matter. They still need unlimited alfalfa pellets and alfalfa hay. Within this period, at 12 weeks, they can have leafy greens, introduced one at a time in small amounts not exceeding half an ounce.
A rabbit is classed as a young adult from 7 to 12 months. From 7 months of age, you can start introducing all other hays to gradually replace the alfalfa. Pellets should no longer be unlimited, and can be changed to an adult variety. Feed half a cup per 2kg of body weight once a day (the rabbit may not always eat all of them in one sitting). Leafy greens can be increased gradually, but don’t introduce anything new too suddenly. Rabbits can start to have fruit treats at this time – due to high levels of sugar, fruit portions should be coin size or 1 to 2 ounces per 2kg of body weight, just two or three times a week.
A rabbit is classed as a mature adult from 1 to 5 years. They should have access to unlimited hay of all kinds (except alfalfa). Pellets should be reduced further to 1/4 of a cup per 2kg of body weight per day. Leafy greens can be increased to 2 cups per 2kg of body weight per day. Fruit treats can be given at 2 ounces per 2kg of body weight daily. It’s not recommended to alter they types of food too drastically at this stage.
Senior rabbits are aged from 6 years onward and their adult diet can continue. However, if a geriatric rabbit is underweight or has lost condition, pellets can be increased and alfalfa hay provided if the bunny has normal (regularly checked) calcium levels.
Hay should comprise 80+% of a rabbit’s diet. It not only provides fiber for large, golden poops that promote intestinal health, but the mouth action required to chew it helps keep their teeth worn down. Rabbits need to eat every 3 to 4 hours to keep the gut from stalling – so unlimited hay solves this problem.
Grass is equally as good as hay for digestive support. Fresh grass is best eaten by grazing (not picked or cut – do not feed lawn mower clippings, as the heat and cutting causes the grass to ferment). If you don’t have a lawn, you can purchase grass seeds and grow it in troughs, or even forage for it in areas that have not been sprayed with pesticides or where a virus has been released to control wild rabbit populations.
Rabbits won’t drink stagnant or unclean water, so it needs to be replaced everyday. It’s also not often you will see your rabbit drink, but if they are peeing, they are drinking. It helps to provide bowls, dispensers and water bottles (glass with metal nozzles). Some rabbits will use one or the other; others will use all. Just provide fresh water – there is no need to put anything else in it. Make sure a bowl is heavy ceramic, as rabbits like to tip them over. A water bottle should be fastened at a height that does not strain the neck.
A Good Quality Pellet
Pellets should be high in fiber (at least 18%). Alfalfa hay-based pellets are recommended for younger rabbits (as alfalfa is rich with nutrients a young rabbit’s needs) and timothy hay-based pellets are more suitable for older rabbits. Pellets should be rabbit only blends, and not contain dried or dehydrated fruit/vege (ie: corn), nuts, seeds, grains, oats, colored biscuits or too many chemicals – these are called ‘muesli’ mixes and only serve to put on weight and cause dental issues. When purchasing pellets, always look at the ingredients and consider the percentages of fiber (grass) and protein – they should be in the range of 10% to 20%. Consider the age relevance – junior, adult, senior. Avoid cheap, bulk pellets – they have very little nutritional value and are designed to put weight on.
The rabbit digestive system is designed to process leafy plants, rather than root vegetables or pulses/legumes. So, the best greens to feed are safe herbs and weeds (which contain medicinal properties), and the leaves of certain vegetables. There are extensive lists of what to feed a rabbit (refer Medirabbit, which also outlines unsafe foods), but you can easily limit these down to one safe list and not deviate from it too much. Of course, it depends upon what is available to you. If you are lucky enough to have a grower’s market in your location, take advantage of it as they sell at wholesale prices, are better quality, and have more variety than a supermarket (wash everything thoroughly). You can often also make arrangements with the vendors to get free vegetable off-cuts.
Always do your research before putting anything in your rabbit’s mouth. Check it online or with people who will know if it’s safe or not.
Safe greens include (but are not limited to):
Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, coriander/cilantro, dill, chervil, lemon balm, oregano, tarragon, marjoram, fennel, chamomile, mint, herb robert, herb bennet, lemon basil, ribwort (all forms, also known as plantain – Parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, coriander/cilantro, dill, chervil, lemon balm, oregano, tarragon, marjoram, fennel, chamomile, mint, herb robert, herb bennet, lemon basil, ribwort (all forms, also known as plantain – bunny super food due to the fiber), sonchus (sow thistle, puha), dandelion, cleavers, chickweed, hawkbit, hawksbeard, catsear, nipplewort, bristly oxtongue, dovesfoot/cranesbill geranium molle, shepherd’s purse, celery and celeriac leaves, kale, carrot tops, watercress, fenugreek, rocket, arugula, chard, pineapple sage, lemon grass, lavender, comfrey, borage, mallow, vetch, roses, pansies/violas/heartsease, nasturtiums, hibiscus, lawn daisies, cornflowers, sunflowers, fuschias, yarrow, young dock, birch, willow.
Greens rabbits can have but can cause gas and diarrhea:
Lettuce – iceberg lettuce contains nil nutrition (romaine lettuce has the most Lettuce – iceberg lettuce contains nil nutrition (romaine lettuce has the most nutritional value, however any kind of lettuce can cause diarrhea, so needs to be fed sparingly); brassicas – cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, sprouts, any kind of choy – these a big gas causers so should be fed in extremely small amounts or not at all; spinach; silverbeet; asparagus. I refrain from feeding my rabbits these foods.
It’s practical to grow your own greens in soil (in pots/troughs). It’s always good to have pineapple sage and lemon balm on hand to settle upset bunny tummies.
You can also re-grow plant cuttings by propagating them in water. The plants that work well for this are carrot tops, fennel, coriander, and celery.
As with pellets, the majority of commercially made treats are not specific to a rabbit’s dietary needs. The better brands are Oxbow, Burgess Excel and Selective. The only way to really ensure quality control, is to make your own. Here is a simple recipe:
- A cup of good quality pellets soaked in water
- A mashed banana or an organic sugar-free bunny safe fruit or vegetable infant puree
- Any combination of dried bunny safe herbs (you can also add weeds, and flowers; dried herbs can be purchased from supermarkets – stick to those that are leafy greens)
- 2 cups of finely chopped hay
- Critical Care (optional)
- Plain cooked oats (for weight gain ONLY – exclude these if your bunny does not need to gain weight)
Mix it all together and form into a moist dough – you can them form it into small balls or roll it out and use a cookie cutter to make shapes; bake on a tray with baking paper on a low heat until dry and crunchy OR place them in a food dehydrator for as long as it takes. An oven can burn the sugar content quite easily, so a low heat for a long period is required. I invested in a food dehydrator for the sole purpose of drying forage and making my own rabbit treats.
Treats can also include tiny portions of specific fruits and rabbit safe flowers – dried or fresh. The most commonly fed grains are banana, seedless apple, and pear. Carrots should only be fed as treats in coin size amounts 2 to 3 times a week.
The main benefit of foraging is it enables the provision of plants that are more akin to a rabbit’s natural diet. If you don’t have a garden and are in a position to forage for your rabbit, always go with what is known to be safe – bunnies are not a pet with which to experiment regarding food. There are several basic weeds/plants found in most gardens or neighborhoods that are safe for your bunnies, and some basic rules to follow when foraging:
- Have permission of the site owner – do not trespass on private property.
- Make sure the plants have not been weed-sprayed/treated with pesticides or are near high traffic zones.
- Do not forage in a rabbit virus release zone or where there is likely to be a high wild rabbit population (check with your local authorities).
- Do not pick anything you are unsure of.
- Do not pull plants out by the roots (just pick the leaves or snip the stems).
- If the plants are seeding, re-sow them by sprinkling them around.
- Leave flowers for bees.
- Do not ‘loot’ the site (otherwise you won’t be able to go back until it replenishes itself, which can take months).
- Wash everything thoroughly to remove bugs & discard plants that look nibbled (ideally your bunnies should be up-to-date with their vaccinations).
If you want to keep going back to a forage site, you need to look after it by not stripping it completely. It is good practice to have multiple forage sites that you go to for different things and alternate using. This allows each site time to replenish. Sites that are not likely to have been pesticide treated are neighbor’s gardens, rural pastures, and vacant lots/construction sites. Public reserves/parks, schools, and gardens around council buildings generally use weed sprays.
What NOT to Feed?
Avocado; rhubarb; corn; fungus (mushrooms); vegetables from the onion family (including chives, shallots & garlic); brassicas such as cabbage, sprouts, cauliflower, turnip, broccoli, rutabaga, choys, and mustard – while not toxic, they cause gas; lettuce – not toxic, but can cause diarrhea (iceberg in particular has no nutritional value); plants that are poisonous for humans, cats and dogs will also be poisonous for rabbits; chocolate and all other confectionery; alcohol, hot drinks, coffee; dairy products from cows (milk, butter, cheese, cream, yogurt) – the only exception is baby rabbits can have goat milk if the mother refuses to feed them; nuts; seeds; all meat products; cereals, grains, baked goods; cooked food (NB: cooked, mashed, cold pumpkin is fine to stimulate appetite); commercially made treats & pellets than contain colored bits, dried fruit/vege, nuts, seeds, grains, wheat, any plant that grows from a bulb, succulents, evergreen tree leaves/branches, stone fruit.