Healthy rabbits and healthy diets
I see some widely varying assumptions regarding appropriate diets for bunnies. The importance of adhering to a sensible diet was brought home dramatically when a young, otherwise healthy, rabbit was presented to our hospital recently and passed away despite prompt and appropriate treatment. Rabbits have a quite unique digestive tract and basing assumptions about their needs on our diets is a mistake we can easily make.
How do rabbits actually work?
The things going on in a rabbit’s belly are quite fascinating – and perhaps a little gross. Bare with me. Like cows and sheep they are 100% herbivorous. However unlike those guys they do their fermentation of all that plant material in the large intestine, rather than in the complex stomachs as sheep and cattle do. This means the nutrition from that fermentation process is not available to the small intestine (the part of the gut that is designed to absorb the good stuff) as it is released after the ingesta has left that part. So how do rabbits capture this microbially digested goodness? By eating their own poo! Not a joke – this actually happens – and it is totally healthy. During the day while they are eating normal food, rabbits pass very dry, high fibre poo that they have nothing more to do with. But at night when not eating food they pass special poo called cecotrophs, and they gobble this delicacy up directly from their bums! It’s actually all very healthy and never gets them sick. I promise! It gives them a chance to extract valuable protein and other nutrients released by microbes living the large intestine.
How does all of this affect what I feed my rabbit?
This remarkable and relatively complex digestive system requires two main things – consistency and lots & lots of fibre! Essentially the rabbit’s large bowel has developed into a really impressive sorting system. It sorts food poo (cecotrophs) from poo poo (poo). For that sorting system to work properly they need a steady and continuous supply of high quality fibre. They also need diet consistency so their gut micro-organism populations stay steady. Finally, a rabbit’s molars grow continuously throughout life and must be continuously ground down. This means they need an abrasive diet to stop teeth overgrowing.
All of this means many food options we might think are totally appropriate and healthy for a rabbit are anything but. Any food that is carb-rich or high fat is likely to cause trouble. The following things are definitely NOT suitable to be fed to rabbits,
- Peas, corn, beans
- Breakfast cereals
- Nuts & seeds
Of course it remains true that “The dose makes the poison”. The things in the list above CAN be fed to rabbits without ill-effects in small enough quantities. But these foods are so easily over-fed that it is much simpler to just take them totally off the menu. This is especially the case when you have young children able to feed your rabbits!
So what CAN I feed my bunnies?
The ideal basis of a rabbit’s diet is fresh grass or high quality hay. If you have a lawn it is wonderful to let the rabbits free range over it. However there are many potential pitfalls with free ranging including predation by raptors (hawks etc), escaping the yard, digging warrens in the lawn and destroying garden beds with digging. A bunny tractor is a wonderful solution to all of these issues. A well made tractor will provide safety and control of your rabbits for many years – allowing you guide their grazing only over parts of the lawn that need it the most.
If you don’t have a suitable lawn – hay should be the main staple of your rabbits’ diet. Use a high quality hay like Oxbow or other mixes available from pet shop packaged as suitable for rabbits. Grass and meadow hays are preferred and may be derived from mixes of timothy grass, meadow grass, ryegrass, lupin, oat and barley among others.
Putting hay in elevated racks or nets is a great way to make feeding a more active process. Anything you can do to make the feeding of any of your pets more physically and mentally demanding (within reason!) is a good thing. Keeping your bunnies fitter and more mentally active is obviously always good thing 🙂
Can I feed rabbits fresh vegetables? What about fruit?
Small amounts of fresh high fibre leafy greens are a highly recommended part of a rabbit’s diet. Just be careful with quantities! If you only have one rabbit you can only provide a maximum of 2 cups of fresh greens per day.
Fruits, and any vegetables that are rich and sweet (such as snow peas, carrots etc) need to be even more restricted. A maximum of 1 tablespoon per day per bunny is a good rule of thumb. That’s right – just one tablespoon!
Obviously any commercial rabbit foods are fine, right?
Um, not really. A diet of hay or grass, supplemented with leafy greens and occasional fresh treats, is balanced and doesn’t need anything else. If you are unable to provide fresh vegies then some of the commercial mixes may be an appropriate alternative. Your choices usually include commercial grain mixes and pelleted diets. My preference is for pellet formulas because rabbits have a tendency to pick and choose from the variety present in commercial mixes – only eating their favourite bits leading to a lack of diet balance. With pellets they tend to feed more consistently.
Feel free to call us if you have any concerns about your rabbit’s health!
- Campbell-Ward M. Gastrointestinal physiology and nutrition. In: Quesenberry KE, Carpenter JW, eds. Ferrets, rabbits and rodents: clinical medicine and surgery. 3rd ed. Louis: WB Saunders; 2012:183-191
- Carabano R, Piquer J. The digestive system of the rabbit. In: de Blas C, Wiseman J, eds. The nutrition of the rabbit. Wallingford: CABI Publishing; 1998:1-16
- Meredith A. General biology and husbandry. In: Meredith A, Flecknell P, eds. BSAVA manual of rabbit medicine and surgery. 2nd ed. Gloucester: BSAVA; 2006:1-17