Rabbits Thrive With the Right Diet

People are so different in their preferred tastes for food.  There are so many cultural options with different spices and flavors.  While leftovers may be good for a few extra meals, we tend to get bored with the same meal served multiple times.  At Beth’s Bunnies we have rabbits that get very excited when we give them a favorite treat like cilantro or banana.  Yet, once we figure out what works, that’s the diet we stick with.  If you want to explore new food options for your pet rabbit, keep in mind that rabbits are herbivores.  Never feed rabbit meat!  Let’s explore the ins and outs of feeding pet rabbits.

Hay!  Rabbits need access to quality grass hay.  Alfalfa hay can be fed to young rabbits until about 6 months of age, but alfalfa has too many calories and more protein than an adult rabbit needs.  The best hay to buy is Timothy hay or oat grass hay.  The hay helps the rabbits wear down their teeth.  It aids in digestion and helps to prevent hairballs.  Feed stores have large bales that are more economical than the bag of hay available at a pet store.  Hay storage with large bales can be an issue, but a clean garbage can is one possible storage solution.  We were lucky enough to find a plastic rectangular garbage can that holds a bale of hay perfectly.  It is easy to rinse out and keeps water from seeping inside. Watch your hay carefully though!  Watch for random “debris” in the bale of hay like nettles or other plant material you don’t want your rabbit to come in contact with.  IF the hay gets wet, you’ll have to watch for mold.  Dispose of dusty hay, don’t risk your rabbit’s health!  Since we also have a horse, we usually have coastal hay available.  We use the less expensive coastal hay in nesting boxes.  Since it is a grass hay, it’s ok if the does nibble on it when they have the nest box in their home. 

Fresh veggies should be offered to your rabbit.  But as you introduce new vegetable varieties, please give small quantities and gradually increase over time. You don’t want to overload their digestive system with something new.  Watch for diarrhea.  DIscontinue if you see adverse reactions.  Discard anything they don’t eat in their hutch.  Best options for your rabbit include:  cilantro, mint, parsley, bok choy, celery tops, Romaine lettuce, collard greens, mustard greens, turnip greens, kale in small quantities, broccoli leaves, and dandelion leaves. Many of these veggies can be grown in container gardens, bought inexpensively at the flea market, or found at the local grocery store.  Please, wash the vegetables before serving them to remove any chemicals. 

Fresh foods to avoid at all costs:  avocado, potatoes, onion, walnuts, and iceberg lettuce. Don’t feed your rabbit grass clippings!  Carrots, apples and bananas may be delicious to your bun, but the higher sugar content can make your rabbit overweight. Our rabbits were offered blueberries and strawberries.  They weren’t interested at all!  Avoid gassy foods like brussel sprouts, chard, cauliflower, and cabbage.  I keep a list of bunny safe foods on my phone to avoid buying the wrong items.

Many online sources recommend buying willow or apple twigs to offer to your rabbit to nibble.  They don’t get nutrition from the twigs, but the twigs wear down their teeth.  A local option for both a snack and teeth maintenance is rose bush clippings.  We have an heirloom rose bush called “seven sisters”.  This bush has only been fertilized by bunny nuggets, never any other commercially produced fertilizer.  The pests don’t bother this bush, so we’ve never used pesticides.  The rose bush does need to be trimmed back and when we do trim it, we save the leaves, stems and deadhead flowers for the rabbits.  There is no need to trim the thorns, the rabbits nibble it all!  We were about ready to purchase a second rose bush ultimately for the rabbits, but we realized that those rose bushes were most likely fertilized and sprayed with all sorts of chemicals.  Our best option is to start a new seven sisters bush from our original plant! 

When supply chain issues became a problem for commonly bought items like baby formula, many online rabbit groups started discussions on how to forage for healthy rabbit food.  Some promote growing fodder.  The setup to grow fodder takes up little space and seems fairly easy to maintain.  But experienced people will admit that if the temperature the fodder is grown in is too warm (think Florida’s hot summers), there may be problems with mold.   Another option is to grow duckweed because it is high in protein.  There are some funny blog posts about duckweed, but all humor aside, I’m very leery because of the high protein.  Rabbits don’t need 20-35% protein as found in duckweed.    There are many edible flowers that can be grown here in Florida.  They include nasturtiums, violets, hibiscus, begonias, chrysanthemums, and daylilies.  Foraging for your rabbits is an option, but it takes time.  

Here is a rule of thumb:  If a plant is safe for a horse to eat, it’s probably ok for a rabbit. There is a fun article to read “Similarities Between Rabbits and Horses” at https://theuniversityanimalclinic.com/rabbits-are-they-just-small-horses/.  Also think like a wild rabbit when considering new treats to feed your rabbit.  A rabbit in the wild may get into a garden.  They would naturally eat the carrot top growing above the ground, but would not eat the carrot that is in the ground.  So rabbits are not naturally used to eating root vegetables.

The majority of pet rabbit owners go to a pet store or a feed store and buy ready made pelleted food. Online delivery services allow us to have pet food delivered to the door.   Depending on your situation, you may buy one small bag that lasts a while or if you have multiple rabbits you buy the big 50 pound bag.  Pellets should be uniform in color and size.    We free feed pellets to nursing does and young rabbits up to 6 months old.  After that, the adults get measured feedings to avoid obesity.  Watch the pellets in your rabbit’s feeder. If the pellets are discolored or clump together, dump them out.

There are some commercially made rabbit foods that include colorful crunchies or seeds (often referred to as muesli-style food).  We are suspicious of this type of food because we saw rabbits dig through the bowl to nibble only their favorite parts.  There is a lot of waste.  And… if we don’t want our children eating foods with dye, why would we give dyed food to our rabbits?

If you bring home a new pet rabbit, find out what brand pellet the rabbit has been fed.  You’ll want to slowly transition the rabbit from the original food to a new food of your choice.  Another consideration is availability of the brand of rabbit pellets.  Here’s what happened to us last year.  We brought home 2 new rabbits from South Florida.  We knew what brand pellets the owner had been feeding, but she forgot to get us some of the pellets to allow us to gradually transition them to our feed.  We felt sure we’d be able to find a local distributor to buy what brand she used.  Nope.  Not a single retailer had the feed within 100 miles!  We had to abruptly start the rabbits on our feed.  Luckily, they showed no signs of distress.

All rabbits need fresh water.  We chose to use water bowls because we find them much faster and easier to clean than water bottles.  We also don’t have a drip system to automatically fill water bowls because we want to track water intake.  When we send home rabbits with new pet owners, we ask if they have city water or have well water.  It may matter to a rabbit!  Our pure, odorless well water is different from water that has chlorine or water softener treatment.  We don’t want a rabbit to refuse to drink water because it tastes or smells funny!  

Rabbits may not have the luxury of an extremely varied diet like humans.  With a careful balance of water, hay, vegetables, and pellets, they get all the nutrition they need for long healthy lives.

Margaret waiting for her snacks.

Published by Beth Lovoy

Co-owner of Beth's Bunnies with my husband, Randy. In addition to raising beautiful, healthy, bunnies we also raise chickens. We are all protected by our 3 Anatolian Shepherds.

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