The snacking habits of Bugs Bunny and Peter Rabbit are not to be copied! Deirdre Vine offers nutritional guidance about the sort of nibbles rabbits should 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 lettuces. In fact, rabbits’ diets should not be lettuce based and bunnies should be kept well away from some varieties (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. Admittedly, Peter Rabbit also wore a jacket and drank chamomile tea – broad hints that his tale is not strictly about nutritional guidance! Then there’s Bugs Bunny, rarely seen without a carrot to chomp on. Bad role model, Bugs – rabbits are strict herbivores, so 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.
Delicious and nutritious
So what should you feed your pet bunnies to help keep them healthy? Rae Todd from the Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund (RWAF) says: ‘Pet rabbit food should mimic the diet of their wild cousins and consist of 80 per cent hay or grass, 15 per cent leafy greens and just five per cent 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. 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.
Greens may be a mixture of leafy green herbs, weeds and vegetables such as cabbage, broccoli, cress, sprouts and radish tops – there’s a varied menu on the RWAF website (see below). 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 as 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 as 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. Twigs from hazel, willow, hawthorn and apple trees are fine, but steer clear of stone fruit trees such as cherry, plum and peach, which are poisonous to rabbits. Other hazards in the garden, when your bunny is foraging about, include lily of the valley, foxgloves, ferns and oak leaves. Again, the RWAF website has a full list of dangers to look out for. 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
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, though.
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.
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.
Give a handful of washed, leafy green vegetables, herbs and weeds daily.
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.