The majority of the house rabbit diet should be composed of grass hay (any variety) which is rich in Vitamin A and D as well as calcium, protein and other nutrients. Eating hay promotes healthy teeth and gastrointestinal tract and should be available to your rabbit at all times. Varying the type of grass hay or mixing hays is a great idea (such as timothy, orchard, brome, etc). Avoid the use of alfalfa hay as the primary source of hay due to the fact it is very high in calories and protein, far more then the average house rabbit needs. Alfalfa is not a grass, but rather a legume (in the pea and bean family).
Fresh foods are also an important part of your rabbit's diet and they provide additional nutrients as well as different textures and tastes, which are enriching for your friend as well. Fresh foods also provide more moisture in the diet, which is good for kidney and bladder function. The bulk of fresh foods should be made up of leafy greens (about 75% of the fresh part of the diet). Any leafy green that is safe for a human or a horse to eat is safe for a rabbit to consume. An approximate amount to feed would be around 1 packed cup of greens for2 lbs of rabbit body weight once a day or divided into multiple feedings a day.
Many plants contain natural occurring chemicals called alkaloids, which are mild toxins that protect plant in the wild. The one most talked about with rabbits is oxalic acid and it is completely harmless to animals or humans when consumed in small amounts. The amount of oxalic acid within each plant can vary significantly due to several factors including the composition of the soil the plant grew in, the time of year and the age of the plant. Most of the fresh vegetables we feed rabbits have a low to zero level of oxalic acid, but a few, most notably parsley, mustard greens and spinach have relatively high levels. (Note that kale, which is often implicated as a high oxalate food is actually very low in oxalates). The toxicity of oxalic acid comes with feeding large quantities of foods high in this chemical and can result in tingling of the skin, the mouth and damage to the kidneys over time. These foods are nutritious and do not need to be excluded from the diet if you feed them appropriately. It is recommended that you feed a minimum of at least 3 types of leafy greens a day (and only one of them should be from the group listed below). Don't feed the same greens all the time from week to week, if possible mix it up. For instance if you feed parsley this week, then leave it out of the diet for next week and use something else. Rotating the greens will also give your bunny variety in taste, texture and general nutrition!
Beyond leafy greens you can feed other vegetables such as root vegetables or "flowers" such as broccoli and cauliflower. These foods are often higher in starch or sugars and should be fed in lesser amounts then the leafy greens. Avoid foods in the onion family such as leeks, chives and onions because eating these foods could cause blood abnormalities. A good amount of "other" vegetables (non leafy greens) to feed your rabbit would be about 1 tablespoon per 2 lbs of body weight per day in one meal or divided into two or more.
Fruits can also be fed in small amounts. In the wild these would be special high calorie foods obtained only at certain times of the year. Fruits make great training treats! You also might choose to hand-feed the fruit portion of the diet as part of developing a close bond with your bunny and also to make sure he has an appetite every day. It is a great way to see if your bunny is feeling good when you observe if he takes his fruit treat every morning! If he doesn't want to eat his treat, it is time to call your veterinarian. Remember that dried fruits are about 3times as concentrated as the fresh variety so feed less of those. Rabbits, like many animals naturally gravitate towards high calorie foods such as those high in sugar or starch. This is a protective device from the wild days when they could never be sure when or if they would get the next meal. When a plant would produce fruit, it is for a limited time and all the animals in the area would want to gobble these gems up quickly! This means that rabbits cannot limit themselves when given sugary or starchy foods if left to their own devices! Overfeeding fruits can result in a weight gain or GI upset so it is up to you to feed these foods in limited amounts. An approximate amount of fruit to feed your rabbit is a teaspoon per 2 lbs of body weight daily in one feeding or divided into multiple feedings.
What are the basics of a good house rabbit diet?
A rabbit's diet should be made up of fresh hay (timothy or oat), good quality pellets, water and fresh vegetables. Anything beyond that is a "treat" and should be given in limited quantities.
Is feeding hay important?
Hay is essential to a rabbit's good health, providing roughage which reduces the danger of hairballs and other blockages. Apple tree twigs also provide good roughage, but not to the exclusion of hay.
What makes a good pellet?
Pellets should be fresh, and should be relatively high in fiber (18% minimum fiber). Do not purchase more than 6 weeks worth of feed at a time, as it will become spoiled. Pellets should make up less of a rabbit's diet as he or she grows older, and hay should be available 24 hours a day.
What kinds of veggies should I feed my rabbit?
When shopping for vegetables, look for a selection of different veggies--look for both dark leafy veggies and root vegetables, and try to get different colors. Stay away from beans and rhubarb. Here's a suggested veggie list.
IMPORTANT: Before introducing any fresh foods to a rabbit it is best if he has been eating grass hay for a minimum of 2 weeks. The grass hay will help to get his GI tract motility and flora in good working order so that he will be able to accept new foods more easily. When introducing new fresh foods to any rabbit's diet it is best to go slowly to allow the gastrointestinal tract and all its important microorganisms to adjust. Introduce one new food every three days and keep a watch on the stools. It is rare for a rabbit that has been on a hay diet first, to have any problems using this method, but if you note softer stools that persist over a couple of days then you might want to remove that food from your bunny's diet. Keep a list as you go of the foods that your rabbit has successfully eaten you will then have a handy shopping list when you go to the store!
LIST OF POSSIBLE FOODS TO FEED
NOTE: It is always preferable to buy organic produce if at all possible. If collecting wild foods such as dandelion greens, make sure they are from a pesticide-free area. All fresh foods regardless of the source should be washed or scrubbed (in the case of hard vegetables) before serving them to your rabbit.
These foods should make up about 75% of the fresh portion of your rabbit's diet (about 1packed cup per 2 lbs of body weight per day).
Leafy Greens I (need to be rotated due to oxalic acid content and only 1 out of 3 varieties of greens a day should be from this list)
- Mustard greens
- Beet greens
- Swiss chard
- Radish tops
- Sprouts (from 1 to 6 days after sprouting, sprouts have higher levels of alkaloids)
Leafy Greens II (low in oxalic acid)
- Carrot tops
- Cucumber leaves
- Kale (all types)
- Red or green lettuce
- Romaine lettuce
- Spring greens
- Turnip greens
- Dandelion greens
- Mint (any variety)
- Basil (any variety)
- Raspberry leaves
- Bok Choy
- Fennel (the leafy tops as well as the base)
- Borage leaves
- Dill leaves
- Yu choy
NON-LEAFY VEGETABLES These should be no more than about 15 % of the diet (About 1 tablespoon per 2 lbs of bodyweight per day).
- Broccoli (leaves and stems)
- Edible flowers (roses, nasturtiums, pansies, hibiscus)
- Bell peppers (any color)
- Chinese pea pods (the flat kind without large peas)
- Brussel sprouts
- Cabbage (any type)
- Mushrooms (any cultivated type)
- Summer squash
- Zucchini squash
FRUITS These should be no more than 10% of the diet (about 1 teaspoon per 2 lbs of body weight per day). NOTE: unless otherwise stated it is more nutritious to leave the skin on the fruit (particularly if organic); just wash thoroughly. IF you are in doubt about the source of the fruit and you are concerned about chemicals in the skin, then remove it.
- Apple (any variety)
- Cherries (any variety)
- Berries (any type)
- Berries (uncooked)
- Pineapple (remove skin)
- Banana (remove peel; no more than about 2 1/8 inch slices a day for a 5 lb rabbit…they LOVEthis!)
- Melons (any - can include peel and seeds)
- Star Fruit
What quantities of food should I feed babies and "teenagers"?
- Birth to 3 weeks--mother's milk
- 3 to 4 weeks--mother's milk, nibbles of alfalfa and pellets
- 4 to 7 weeks--mother's milk, access to alfalfa and pellets
- 7 weeks to 7 months -- pellets, unlimited hay (plus see 12 weeks below)
- 12 weeks--introduce vegetables (one at a time, quantities under 1/2 oz.)
What quantities of food should I feed young adults? (7 months to 1 year)
- Introduce timothy hay, grass hay, and oat hays, decrease alfalfa
- Decrease pellets to 1/2 cup per 6 lbs. body weight
- Decrease daily vegetables gradually
- Fruit daily ration no more than 1 oz. to 2 oz. per 6 lbs. body weight (because of calories)
What quantities of food should I feed mature adults? (1 to 5 years)
- Unlimited timothy, grass hay, oat hay, straw
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup pellets per 6 lbs. body weight (depending on metabolism and/or proportionate to veggies)
- Minimum 2 cups chopped vegetables per 6 lbs. body weight
- Fruit daily ration no more than 2 oz. (2 TBL) per 6 lbs. body weight.
What quantities of food should I feed senior rabbits? (Over 6 years)
- If sufficient weight is maintained, continue adult diet
- Frail, older rabbits may need unrestricted pellets to keep weight up. Alfalfa can be given to underweight rabbits, only if calcium levels are normal. Annual blood workups are highly recommended for geriatric rabbits.
If I feed fewer pellets, how do I compensate?
When you feed a lower quantity of pellets, you must replace the nutritional value without the calories, which is done by increasing the vegetables. Also, a variety of hay and straw must be encouraged all day; we do this by offering fresh hay a couple of times a day.
Primary Author(s): Marinell Harriman and Susan A. Brown, DVM Sources: HRH, various articles from the HRJ, RHN