What To Look For in Rabbit Food

rabbit sitting in the grass eating

Looks Like Rabbit Food!

We’ve all heard that joke in a fancy restaurant when a plate comes out sparse and fancy: “Looks like rabbit food.” Well, that expression is on to something because feeding a rabbit correctly might take more care than you’d expect. While the cat and dog food article was brief, this article is longer because a rabbit’s diet needs more preparation than you might suspect.

Changing a Rabbit’s Diet

As a rule, any changes in your rabbit’s diet should be made slowly over a period of time to avoid intestinal upsets. If your pet is not in the best of health, or if you are in doubt about changes that should or should not be made as suggested by this article, please consult your veterinarian before proceeding. The dietary recommendations in this article are for NON-BREEDING, NON-PRODUCTION PETS.

Grass Hay

Grass hay is one of the most important parts of your pet’s diet. Hay should be provided for your rabbit in a box or hay rack and should always be available. Hay is appropriate for all ages of rabbits, starting at weaning. Hay provides several important things for your rabbit’s health:It is rich in nutrients such as vitamins, minerals, and proteinsProvides food for the micro-organisms that make up the cecotropesProvides indigestible fiber that promotes healthy motility (movement of contents) of the intestinal tractIt is the best preventative for stomach and intestinal problems such as chronic soft stools.Provides healthy chewing activity to promote proper wear of the teeth (all rabbit teeth grow continuously throughout life)

Hay can be stuffed in empty paper towel or toilet paper rolls, unpainted, unvarnished baskets, empty boxes and so on to provide a sense of foraging for food, which is a mental enrichment, and decrease chewing of inappropriate objects such as furniture and wallpaper!

Remember that rabbits are designed to live primarily on a diet of grasses and leaves, therefore grass hay provides a good portion of that diet. There are two basic types of hay available: grass and legume.

Legume Hay

Legume hays are made from alfalfa, clover, peas, beans, or peanuts. These hays are loaded with nutrients but have more calories, calcium, and protein than a house rabbit needs. Feeding only legume hays may lead to gastrointestinal disorders and obesity and, for this reason, we do not recommend feeding these hays. If you mix legume hay with grass hay, the rabbit may pick out the calorie-rich legume hay and overload himself with calories, so we do not recommend mixing grass and legume hay. A small amount of alfalfa hay used as a treat is fine but not used as the routine hay source for the house rabbit.

Grass Hay

Grass hays are made from timothy, meadow, oat, rye, barley, or Bermuda grasses. Grass hay availability varies greatly in different areas of the country and the world. You may only be able to obtain one variety where you live. However, if possible, try to feed mixed grass hay or provide two or more individual types. Contrary to some sources, it is not necessary to only feed timothy hay and it is much preferable to feed a variety of grass hays if available. Grass hays are rich in nutrients but provide the lower energy diet appropriate for a house rabbit. These are the healthiest hays to feed. If you have a choice, choose sun-dried hay which has retained more of its nutrients than commercially dried hay.

Do not feed straw. Straw is devoid of most nutrients and although it is not harmful in small amounts, it will lead to serious nutritional deficiencies if it is a major part of the rabbit diet.

Brands & What to Look For

Sources for hay include horse barns, feed stores, pet stores, rabbit clubs and a growing number of online stores. A few online stores that carry grass hay include the Oxbow Company, Kaytee, and Sweet Meadow. When you buy hay you need to consider the following:Buy hay that smells fresh, never buy damp or old hayBuy from a reputable source that replenishes the hay frequentlyIf you buy from a feed store or horse barn, buy hay that has not been on the top of the pile to prevent contamination with animal or bird droppings.

Hay Tips

Hay can be stored in a dry place with good air circulation. Do not close the bag of hay but rather leave it open. Rabbits often pass stools when they are eating and placing some hay in the litter box can help with litter box training. They will not eat soiled hay, so you need not worry about sanitation. Hay should have a fresh smell. Rabbits of any age can be introduced to hay without any special preparation.

Green Foods

Green foods are the next most important food in the rabbit’s diet. Green foods provide the same benefits listed for hay. They also contain a wider variety of micronutrients and, importantly, provide water in the diet. Even though you may provide a water container in the cage, rabbits do not always drink as much as they should. Feeding green foods forces the rabbit to consume liquid and helps promote healthy gastrointestinal function as well as kidney and bladder function. You will notice that, if you feed your rabbit a lot of green foods, he will drink very little water, which is regular.

Provide Greens Sparingly

It is NEVER appropriate to feed your rabbit a diet composed primarily of green foods. The green foods available in the grocery stores do not have enough concentrated calories to sustain a rabbit’s regular body weight when this is the primary source of food. Even in the wild rabbits would eat dried grasses and tree and bush leaves to obtain more calories. Greens are an important addition to the diet but should never be the total diet.

Greens Tips

When selecting and using green foods follow these guidelines:Buy (or grow) organic if possibleWash any green foods firstMake sure your rabbit is eating hay well firstIntroduce greens a little at a time over several days and watch the stools for any changeFeed a variety of green foods daily—a minimum would be three varieties—this provides a wider range of micronutrients as well as mental stimulation for your pet

Feed a maximum of about one packed cup of green foods per two pounds of body weight at least merienda a day or this amount divided twice a day. Uneaten fresh foods should be removed from the cage after three to four hours to prevent spoilage.

What to Watch For

Occasionally you may have a situation where a select green food causes a soft stool. You will know if this is the case within twelve hours of feeding the offending food. If you are feeding a variety of greens and are not sure which one is causing the problem, then feed only one green food every 48 hours until the offending food is identified and then simply remove it from the diet. This is not a dangerous situation, but it can be messy and there is no need to feed food that is causing a problem.

You can offer your rabbit a huge variety of green foods. You might even consider growing some yourself! This would include grass that you grow in your yard, but grass may only be used if there have been no pesticides or other chemicals applied. You might consider growing a patch of grass just for your bunnies. And don’t throw away those dandelions when you pull them up! If they have not been treated with chemicals, they are an excellent source of nutrition. In caudillo, the darker green a food is, the higher the nutritional value. Therefore we do not recommend iceberg lettuce. It is not dangerous but is extremely low in nutritional content. You can use packages of mixed salad greens if they contain dark colored greens and are not composed primarily of iceberg lettuce or romaine lettuce. Please, no salad dressing!

• Here are some of the green foods you might consider:• Baby greens• Bok Choy• Borage Basil• Broccoli (leaves and top)• Brussels sprouts• Cabbage (red, green, Chinese)• Carrot/beet tops• Celery (leaves are good)• Chicory• Collard greens• Dandelion greens (and flower)• Dock• Endive• Escarole• Kale• Leaf lettuce• Mustard greens• Parsley (Italian or flat leaf best)• Radicchio• Romaine lettuce• Swiss chard (any color)• Watercress

Fruits and other Vegetables (Treat Foods)

Depending on the time of year, rabbits in the wild would have access to additional foods such as fruits, vegetables, and flowers. Since these items do not make up most of the diet, we recommend feeding these treats in limited quantities. Another reason for limiting the amount is because some rabbits like these foods so well that they will eat them to the exclusion of all others, thereby creating a potential for health problems. Foods from this list can be fed daily and you may even wish to use them as part of a reward or training system.

*TIP: Find at least one food in this list that your rabbit likes and feed a small amount daily to check on your rabbit’s appetite.. If your rabbit will not eat her treat food, then other problems might be brewing and you need to keep a close eye on your bun bun for health problems.

These treat foods are far healthier (and less expensive) than the commercial treat foods sold for rabbits. Commercial treat foods should generally be avoided because many are loaded with starch and fat and, if fed in quantity, can cause serious health problems.

For treat foods, follow the same guidelines listed above for selecting and using green foods except for the amount. You can feed your pet a total of one tablespoon per two pounds of body weight per day of any combination of the foods below:

• Apple• Bean or alfalfa sprouts• Blackberries• Blueberries• Cactus fruit• Carrots• Cherries• Cranberries• Edible flowers from the garden (organically grown and NOT from a florist) such as roses, nasturtiums,• Daylilies, pansies, and snapdragons• Green or red bell peppers• Kiwi Fruit• Mango• Melons• Papaya• Pea pods (flat, NO peas)• Peach• Pear• Pineapple• Raspberries• Squash

Dried fruit can be used as well, but since dried fruit is so concentrated, use only one third the amount as fresh. Instead of one tablespoon, use one teaspoon. Pets In Stitches does not recommend feeding bananas and grapes as rabbits sometimes become addicted to these foods.

Forbidden Foods

A diet of grass hay and green foods with small amounts of fruits and vegetables contains all the nutrition necessary for the pet rabbit. Unfortunately, many commercial treat foods sold for rabbits contain high levels of starch and fat. In addition, some people still feel it necessary to feed rabbits high starch foods such as cereals, cakes, and cookies. Although a pet rabbit can eat very small amounts of starchy or fatty foods without ill effect, the problem is that people often feed excess amounts because the rabbits eat these foods so greedily. Our recommendation is to completely avoid high starch and/or fat foods for your rabbit. In this way you will avoid any potential problems these foods can cause, including obesity and serious gastrointestinal disease. It is always easier to prevent than to treat a disease.

Examples of high fat and/or starch foods to AVOID include:• Any other grains• Beans (of any kind)• Breads• Cereals• Chocolate• Corn• Nuts• Oats• Peas• Refined sugar• Seeds• Wheat

Commercial Rabbit Pellets

Rabbit pellets should generally only comprise a small portion of a pet rabbit’s diet.

High calorie content can lead to obesity. Unfortunately, the concentrated and small form of the pellets does not lead to a feeling of fullness that a diet based on grass hay can provide. Even though rabbits should eat to their caloric needs, in captivity, with boredom, they will overeat pellets if provided free choice.Low indigestible fiber content can lead to a sluggish gastrointestinal tract and eventually more serious disease, including complete gastrointestinal shutdown.Doesn’t promote regular tooth wear due to the concentrated nature of the food. A couple of chews and the food is pulverized as opposed to the much longer chewing time needed to break down hay or greens.Lack of sufficient chewing activity and a full feeling in the stomach due to concentrated nature of the food may lead to behavioral problems, such as inappropriate or excessive chewing on furniture, plants, wallboard. This could be likened to a sense of boredom. Rabbits in the wild spend a great deal of their day eating and pellets can be eaten in a few minutes.Concentrated, dry nature of pellets may not promote regular water intake, resulting in potential urinary tract disease.

Pellets should comprise ideally 10% of the healthy rabbit’s diet and maximally no more than 20%. In some cases, it may be necessary to feed a higher amount for the following reasons:In households where hay cannot be used due to human allergies or unavailabilityTo implement weight gain, most often related to a debilitating illnessWhen the owners are unable to feed a varied diet of good quality grass hay and a variety of green foods. Pellets will help to cover some of the trace nutrients that might be missed in a restricted diet.For female rabbits that are used for breeding, during the pregnancy and nursing period.

When selecting a pellet look for the following:

• 18% or higher in fiber• 2.5% or lower in fat• 16% or less in protein• 1.0 % or less in calcium

Do not buy pellet mixes that also contain seeds, dried fruits, or nuts.Buy pellets based on grass hays (timothy, orchard grass, brome, etc) NOT alfalfa hay.

The amount to feed a healthy rabbit would be approximately ¼ cup of pellets per four pounds of body weight daily. This can be divided and fed twice a day, or all fed merienda a day. Pellets can even be fed one by one and used in a training program. We recommend ¼ cup maximum for other than giant breeds and ⅛ cup maximum for dwarfs, but even less for each if there are medical issues.

Pellet Care

Pellets should be bought in amounts that will be used within three months and kept in a closed container in a cool dry place to prevent spoilage. Do not use pellet mixes that contain grains and seeds along with the pellets. The addition of the grains and seeds only add to the calorie and fat content, which can result in obesity, liver, and intestinal disease.

For more information on feeding rabbits, check out our article Healthy Food Options for Your Rabbit. Enjoy nourishing your bunbun!


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