What to feed rabbits

Poor diets can cause a lot of health problems in rabbits. So what sort of nibbles should rabbits get their teeth into for a healthy hop, skip and jump?

When it comes to feeding your pet rabbits, it doesn’t pay to emulate the habits of their celebrity cousins. Take Peter Rabbit, for instance. Beatrix Potter had him sneak into Mr McGregor’s garden to munch on lettuce and Bugs Bunny was rarely seen without a carrot to chomp on.

In fact, rabbits’ diets should not be lettuce-based and bunnies should be kept well away from some varieties. And as rabbits are strict herbivores, they don’t naturally eat lots of carrots or fruit. These foods are high in sugar and should only be fed as occasional treats, lest they lead to obesity.

What not to feed your rabbit

You should refrain from feeding your rabbit lettuces (such as iceberg), which contain laudanum and can be harmful. Light-coloured lettuce varieties have little nutritional value, but darker varieties (Romaine, for instance) may be fed to your pet, as they are higher in nutrients.

Some vegetables and vegetation that your rabbit should avoid include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Bindweed
  • Elder poppies
  • Foxglove
  • Rhubarb leaf

Fruits can be given as a treat for rabbits because they love the sweet flavour. Be careful not to give too much, however, since high levels of sugar can unbalance their stomach bacteria.

Apples, pears, strawberries and grapes are among some of the best fruit for your rabbit, but these should be limited to a maximum of two tablespoons per day.

Delicious and nutritious

So what should you feed your pet bunnies to help keep them healthy? Rae Walters, from the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF), says: ‘Pet rabbit food should mimic the diet of their wild cousins and consist of 85% hay or grass, 10% leafy greens and just 5% pellets.’

Don’t dismiss hay as mere bunny bedding. Eating lots of fresh, dust-free hay or grass helps wear down rabbits’ constantly growing teeth, preventing dental problems. It also provides roughage, which reduces the likelihood of hairballs. Hay available for purchase comes in a variety of colours and dryness – try and combine a few together to find one that your rabbit enjoys, but avoid yellow, straw-like hay as it does not provide the nutritional value that the fresher, green bales do.

A diet of hay/grass and greens also allows foraging and grazing – important bunny behaviours. If given too much highly palatable commercial food, rabbits tend to eat quickly, and then have nothing to do. They can become bored, which in turn may lead to behavioural problems.

Going green

Greens may be a mixture of:

  • Leafy green herbs
  • Weeds
  • Vegetables, such as cabbage, broccoli, cress, sprouts and radish tops

Shop-bought pellets ensure your rabbits get all the vitamins and minerals they need, including vitamin D. The pellets should be of good quality and fresh (no more than six weeks old), but avoid over-feeding since this can cause weight gain and prevent rabbits from eating enough hay and grass.

Good-quality pellets contain no dried fruit, seeds, nuts or other bits found in muesli-style foods – which should be firmly off the menu since they cause teeth and tummy problems. Also, rabbits often become ‘faddy’ with this food, picking out their favourite bits, and serious health problems can develop in selective eaters.

Rabbits love to chew and a tasty twig provides an interesting distraction – but be careful what you provide.

Your bunny can eat twigs from the following trees:

  • Hazel
  • Willow
  • Hawthorn
  • Apple trees

But steer clear of stone fruit trees, which are poisonous to rabbits. These include:

  • Cherry
  • Plum
  • Peach

Other hazards in the garden, when your bunny is foraging about, include:

  • Lily of the valley
  • Ferns
  • Oak leaves

Finally, never change your rabbit’s diet suddenly. This can trigger serious digestive upsets. Take at least two weeks to change over gradually, and feed lots of hay during this period.

Top rabbit feeding tips

  • Timing
    Rabbits are most active at dusk and dawn, when they like to graze and forage for food, so try to feed them during these periods. Don’t give them their daily rations all at once, however.
  • Hay
    Constant access to hay and/or grass is a must. Check your bunny has enough to last the night because, unlike us, rabbits sleep during the day.
  • Water
    Ensure that water is fresh, clean and always available. Bottles are good as a back-up to bowls, in case these become soiled. Check daily that bottles are not blocked.
  • Greens
    Give a handful of washed, leafy green vegetables, herbs and weeds daily.
  • Pellets
    A general rule is one egg cup of pellets per kilo of your pet’s weight. So for an average (2kg) rabbit, a maximum of two egg cups. Don’t give them all at once.

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