One of the most important questions when you first consider getting rabbits as pets, is what do rabbits eat? Today we will give an overview of a rabbit’s diet, looking at their feeding patterns and nutritional requirements. We will let you know:
- which one food item should may up the bulk of their diet,
- what type of rabbit food is best;
- which greens, vegetables, fruit and treats to choose.
What Can Rabbits Eat?
Rabbits are herbivores – which means that they are adapted to eat and digest plants. They have specific requirements and must be fed a suitable diet that meets their needs, or they will become ill.
Wild rabbits feed selectively, actively choosing a nutrient-rich diet by eating the leaves of plants that are richest in nutrients. This is important as they use a great deal of energy finding food, grazing, and keeping safe.
However, selective feeding can lead pet rabbits to become overweight, as they tend to be much less active than their wild cousins. As well as obesity, this type of selective feeding can lead to digestive problems for your bunny.
How The Rabbit’s Digestion Works
The type of diet the rabbit needs is a direct result of the way their digestion works. The process begins in the mouth and continues in the stomach, as digestive enzymes get to work on the food. Many nutrients are absorbed as the food passes through the small intestine.
Long roughage (indigestible fiber) in grass and hay maintains a rapid movement of food through the gut by waves of muscle contractions called peristalsis. This rapid transit is essential for the rabbit’s digestive process to work properly.
These large fibrous particles are not broken down, but fluid is removed in the colon, and they are excreted as hard dry fecal pellets at a rate of up to 300 per day!
Digestible fiber is fermented by bacteria in the caecum, which is the rabbit is an enlarged sac where the small intestine joins the colon. This makes nutrients more accessible. After fermentation, the contents of the caecum are passed out as soft droppings called cecotropes.
These are made up of the partially digested (fermented) food and intestinal bacteria. The bacteria produce B vitamins during the fermentation process, and these are also present in the cecotropes.
Rabbits eat these soft droppings and complete the process of digesting them on a second run through the intestines. This is essential as it provides nutrients – such as the B vitamins – which are otherwise missing from a rabbit’s natural diet.
Your Rabbits Nutritional Requirements
The specific dietary requirements of pet rabbits include:
- Unlimited water.
- Unlimited hay.
- Limited hay-based rabbit food pellets.
- Some fresh greens, herbs, and vegetables.
- Around 12-14% protein for maintenance, 15% for growth.
- Less than 2% fat – 1% is preferable.
- At least 15 to 25% fiber – less while growing, 20-25% for adults.
Let’s expand on some of these in turn.
Water is an essential part of a pet rabbit’s diet, and not only to maintain hydration. Most of the diet is made up of hay and rabbit pellets, neither of which contain much water. However, water is essential for healthy digestion and the food must be kept wet in order to move quickly and easily through the digestive tract.
Hay (or long roughage) is dried grass, and it provides the indigestible fiber in the diet, which forms long particles in the gut, speeding up the transit time that’s essential for gut health.
Types of hay vary depending on the seed used, and varieties like Timothy hay and oat hay are suitable for adult rabbits. Juvenile rabbits, up to about 7 months can also have alfalfa hay, which isn’t a grass seed hay and is higher in protein but has less fiber than Timothy hay.
Some hay can be replaced with grazing fresh grass or kiln-dried grass. The act of chewing any of these types of long roughage is also essential in order to keep your rabbits’ teeth worn down and healthy. A rabbit’s teeth continue to grow throughout their life.
Hay should make up about 80% of a rabbit’s diet.
Learn more about hay for rabbits.
Limited Hay-Based Rabbit Food Pellets
Don’t worry too much about the exact amount to feed, as rabbits can thrive on no pellets so long as good quality hay is their main source of nutrients. Feeding a large number of pellets will usually lead to obesity.
Pellets should be made mainly of hay or have mixed meadow hay at the top of the ingredients list. As with alfalfa hay, alfalfa pellets shouldn’t be fed to adult rabbits as they are too high in protein.
Pellets should be uniform in composition as rabbits will often feed selectively when given mixed feeds. Ingredients like corn and seeds are best avoided as these are not natural feed for rabbits and can lead to digestive issues and obesity.
A great pellet should make up 0 to 10% of the overall diet.
Some Fresh Greens, Herbs, and Vegetables
Whether it’s for enrichment or the wealth of micronutrients they contain, all rabbits should be offered some fresh food. This can be fresh grazing in an outside run; not just grass but plants like clover, plantain, and dandelion greens, which are probably growing in your yard.
If this is impractical you can feed arugula (rocket, UK), bok choy, collard greens, mustard greens, carrot tops or a little kale. Rabbits will also enjoy many culinary herbs like mint, coriander, basil, thyme or parsley. Herbs and greens are often rich in calcium and other minerals.
Outdoor grazing and foraging can replace a portion of the hay element of the diet. Greens, herbs, and vegetables should be added up to 10-15% of the diet.
What Vegetables Can Rabbits Eat?
Your rabbit can eat a wide variety of vegetables such as carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, parsnip and Romaine lettuce (but not Iceberg as it contains a chemical called lactucarium that can be toxic to rabbits).
They may also enjoy some of the bits we often throw away, like broccoli stalks, cauliflower leaves or the base of the celery. However, vegetables (other than herbs and greens) should only be fed in small amounts.
What Do Bunnies Eat For Treats?
Rabbits don’t need treats beyond fresh vegetables and the odd berry. If you want to give treats manufactured for rabbits, make sure that they are hay-based, or alternatively dried foraging – which can be a treat if it contains unusual items such as willow sticks and meadow flowers.
Stay away from yogurt drops, dried fruit, nuts, and seeds, all of which contain too much fat, sugar or both. It’s important to realize that not all treats that are sold for rabbits are actually good for rabbits.
What Fruits Can Rabbits Eat?
Wild rabbits have been reported as eating small berries, but fruit is not generally part of a rabbit’s healthy diet. If you do want to feed fruit to your rabbits give it occasionally and in very small amounts because of the sugar content.
This puts fruit in the same category as other treats. They are treats – which means they are fed in small amounts and not regularly. A few blueberries arguably make a better treat than a processed fruit-flavored biscuit sold for rabbits but should still be limited.
Suitable fruits include blackberries, strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, apples or pears. Never feed pips and stones from the fruit as these contain chemicals that can convert to cyanide in the stomach.
Fruits can be 0-5% of the diet.
Frequently Asked Questions
How much should I feed my rabbits?
To some degree, this depends on the breed and size of the rabbits, but as a guide for a small (2-4lb) rabbit:
- Unlimited fresh hay
- 0 to 2 rounded tablespoon of rabbit pellets
- 1 to 2 cups greens, herbs, and vegetables
Multiply the amounts up for larger rabbits.
How often should you feed a rabbit?
Rabbits should have fresh hay available all of the time. They eat many times a day so it is sensible to split fresh food and pellets up into a least two servings a day.
What can rabbits not eat?
In the broadest of terms, rabbits shouldn’t eat anything that is not hay, grass, wild or culinary herbs, greens, vegetables or a little fruit. Within these groups, there are a few foods that are not okay to feed, such as, iceberg lettuce, rhubarb, potatoes, onion, and garlic.
How much variety does a rabbit need?
In terms of greens, herbs, and vegetables, feeding a wide variety of different plants is beneficial to your rabbit, as each plant contains different phytonutrients, minerals, and vitamins.
A rabbit’s digestive system and consequently their diet is the number one concern for health issues and illness. Feeding a great diet – as outlined here – will help your rabbits to remain fit and well, which is the best outcome for both you and them. For more detail on feeding your bunny take a look at our related articles.