Rabbits are very popular pets due to their small size, quiet nature, and adorable fluffy faces. Rabbits can be excellent pets for people who have the ability to give them the care they need. Unfortunately, some of the most common reasons rabbits are brought to the veterinarian are related to husbandry, mainly nutrition. It is important for rabbit owners to understand the nutritional needs of rabbits, learn what to feed them, and ensure their rabbit is staying healthy.
Feeding your rabbit
What to feed
Rabbits are herbivores, meaning they eat plant products. They are hindgut fermenters, like horses. Hindgut fermenters have a large cecum, which is part of the intestine. The cecum acts like a fermentation vat for plant material, where plants are digested so the nutrients in them can be used.
Rabbits require lots of high-quality hay in their diets. Timothy hay and orchard grass are great, nutritious choices. Alfalfa and clover hay are not good options for adult rabbits, as they are too high in protein and calcium, but growing bunnies (under 8 months of age) should be provided with free-choice alfalfa hay.
Hay should be stored in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark place. Exposure to heat and sunlight can cause the hay to lose nutrients. Hay should be fed within 6 months of harvest, when it is freshest and most nutritious.
Rabbits also need a variety of fresh greenery. Dark, leafy greens such as basil, beet tops, bok choy, broccoli greens, carrot tops, cilantro, dandelion greens, dill, endive, kale, kohlrabi, romaine lettuce, and watercress are excellent options. Grass can also be a good choice, but it should be hand-pulled rather than mown with a lawn mower. Mustard greens, parsley, spinach, and Swiss chard are high in calcium, and these foods have long been cautioned against. However, there is limited scientific research showing that these greens are harmful to rabbits.
Iceberg lettuce is nutritionally inadequate and provides next to nothing to a rabbit’s diet; it should not be fed. Onions, garlic, and leeks can cause anemia in rabbits, which can be life-threatening, so these should be avoided as well.
Pellets can be another component of a rabbit’s diet, though they are not required. Pellets should contain lots of crude fiber (more than 18% by dry matter) and indigestible fiber (more than 12% DM). The fat content of pellets should be between 2.5-4% DM, and protein should be between 12-16% DM.
Pellets should be stored in a sealed container in a cool, dry, dark place. Exposure to heat and sunlight can cause the pellets to lose nutrients rapidly. Pellets should be fed within 3 months of manufacture; several vitamins will no longer be viable after this point.
Young bunnies (under 8 months of age) should be provided with alfalfa pellets free-choice.
How to deliver it
Rabbits are a foraging species and therefore require some enrichment when it comes to their meals. Hiding pellets and greens, placing food in different locations, and scattering hay encourage grazing and foraging behaviors.
Eating habits of rabbits
Rabbits are grazers; they eat small amounts many times throughout the day. Rabbits should always have fresh hay available to meet their needs.
How much to feed
Rabbits require an unlimited amount of high-quality hay. It is important to monitor how much your rabbit typically eats in one day, so they hay isn’t sitting out and going bad. Monitoring their intake will also help you recognize issues like appetite loss faster.
They should also receive a handful of washed, fresh greens each day. Be sure to remove any uneaten greens within a few hours, as they can spoil.
Rabbits can have a small serving of pellets each day as well. This should be less than or equal to ¼ cup of pellets per 5lb of body weight daily. Eating too many pellets and simple sugars can cause prolonged fermentation in the cecum, which can lead to serous illness. Rabbits who eat too many pellets can also become obese. Technically, adult rabbits do not require pellets if they are eating high-quality hay and fresh greens.
Treats should be very limited: less than or equal to 1 tablespoon per 5lb of body weight each day. Too many treats can cause serious illness and obesity.
Safe treat options for rabbits include fresh fruits and vegetables such as apples, bell peppers, berries, broccoli, carrots, and cauliflower. Though these treats are safe and contain natural fiber, they are still high in sugar and should be limited.
Unsafe treats include most commercial treats and human foods. Biscuits, bread, cereal, crackers, nuts, raisins, seeds, and yogurt drops are high in sugars and do not contain fiber. Therefore, they should be avoided.
Changing the diet
Changing your rabbit to a new type of hay or pellet can cause digestive upset. If you need to change the diet, you should do so very gradually, over the course of a week or longer.
This process is similar to changing the diet of dogs and cats, so you can visit How to transition your pet to a new diet for more details.
Providing water for your rabbit
Rabbits require about 120mL of water per kilogram of body weight daily (about 2oz per pound). Unlimited fresh, clean water should be provided daily. Tap water is safe for rabbits as long as it is potable (safe for humans to drink). You can also provide your rabbit with filtered or bottled water at your preference.
A large, low-lipped bowl is the most natural way to provide water to your rabbit. Some rabbits may get a wet chin or dewlap when drinking from a bowl. If the rabbit does not groom herself well, the wet fur can lead to skin problems. Helping these rabbits out by wiping them a few times per day with a dry towel can help prevent dermatitis. Rabbits with skin conditions should see a veterinarian.
Some rabbits may knock bowls over and might do better with a dish that attaches to the side of their cage or enclosure.
Dropper bottles are often not a great choice for rabbits. They may break their teeth trying to use them, and they often cannot get enough volume from the spout so they may become dehydrated. Water bottles are also not intuitive; rabbits may not understand how to use them. It is best to stick with a bowl setup when providing water for your rabbit.
Body condition scoring your rabbit
Obesity is a big problem for rabbits who receive too many pellets and treats. It is important to know how to assess your rabbit’s body condition and weight to ensure they are not becoming overweight or underweight.
There are no official guidelines for body condition scoring rabbits, but it should be similar to body condition scoring other species; you can visit How to body condition score to learn more. Overall, you should be able to feel your rabbit’s ribs by gently rubbing their sides, and you should not feel too much of a fat covering.
Rabbits should be weighed regularly (once a month). They are very good at hiding illness, so weight loss can be the first sign of a problem. Smaller rabbits can be weighed on a gram scale, while larger rabbits may need a baby scale. You can always bring your rabbit to the veterinarian for regular weight checks, as they have the right equipment to get accurate weight readings.
Exercising your rabbit
Having time for exercise is very important for rabbits. Rabbits should be allowed to play outside their cage at least once per day. Rabbits are inquisitive and may chew on things they shouldn’t; it’s a good idea to supervise your rabbit when they are out of the cage, especially if the room is not “rabbit-proofed.” Environmental enrichment is also a must: toys, tunnels, and wood blocks for chewing are great additions to a rabbit pen or room.
Some rabbits also love friends. Other rabbits are the obvious choice, but many rabbits also enjoy the company of cats or small dogs. If your rabbit is playing with another pet, it’s probably a good idea to supervise them.
Many rabbits also do well outside on a harness and leash or in a pen. If you take your rabbit outside, ask their usual veterinarian about flea and tick preventative.
Keeping your rabbit's mouth healthy
Rabbits, like horses and cows, have hypsodont teeth. This means their teeth continuously erupt (“grow”) throughout their life. Eating a diet high in roughage (plant material) helps rabbits grind their teeth down and keep them healthy.
Malocclusion is a very common dental problem in rabbits. This means the teeth don’t line up properly and become overgrown. This can lead to issues such as loss of appetite, weight loss, mouth sores, and broken teeth. Brachycephalic rabbits, those with smushed-in faces, often have more dental problems than other rabbits.
Rabbits should see the veterinarian once a year for a full physical exam that includes a thorough oral exam. Rabbits with dental issues should visit the vet more often and may require regular tooth trimming or filing so they don’t become too overgrown.
Providing a diet full of high-quality hay will help prevent dental issues. Rabbits will also chew on wood blocks, toys, and sticks to keep their teeth healthy.
Assessing your rabbit's poop
Pet parents should get in the habit of looking at their pets’ poop, no matter if they are a dog, cat, or rabbit. Knowing what’s normal for your individual pet can be very important!
Rabbits are unique in that they have two different types of feces: day feces and night feces. Feces passed in the daytime are hard, dry, round balls. Night feces (cecotropes) are dark, soft, and come out in clusters. Cecotropes have twice the protein, more B-vitamins, and less fiber than day feces. They are highly nutritious, so rabbits eat them, typically as soon as they are passed. Seeing cecotropes in the cage during daytime can indicate medical issues, and these rabbits should see the veterinarian to diagnose the cause.
Rabbits who do not poop for an extended period of time (longer than a couple of hours) may have a serious medical issue called hypomotility. These rabbits should be brought to the veterinarian immediately, as hypomotility can quickly lead to death.
Diarrhea in rabbits is also a medical emergency. Diarrhea can indicate several infections or digestive issues, and can lead to death.
Providing rabbits with unlimited high-quality hay and lots of fresh greens will help keep their poops healthy.
Technically, rabbits cannot vomit. They have a very tight sphincter between their esophagus and stomach that makes vomiting nearly impossible. However, if your rabbit does truly vomit, it is a life-threatening medical emergency, and they should see a veterinarian immediately.
Hairballs are a common problem for rabbits. Rabbits, like cats, groom themselves very regularly, and may get hairballs lodged in their digestive tract. Since rabbits cannot vomit, you will not usually see hairballs in their cage or pen. Hairballs can instead cause other issues like loss of appetite or hypomotility. Feeding your rabbit lots of high-quality hay, fresh greens, and very limited pellets will ensure their diet is high in fiber, which will help hairballs pass through the digestive system. Helping your rabbit groom herself by brushing her often will also help limit the amount of fur she ingests.
Hand et al. Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 5th edition. Chapter 70.
Oxbow Animal Health. Rabbits Blog.
University of Guelph. Feeding Your Pet Bunny.
VCA Hospitals. Feeding Your Rabbit.
Wortinger & Burns. Nutrition and Disease Management for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses, 2nd edition. Chapter 44.