Rabbits and Diet- Feeding your Truly Vegan Pet Properly
Historically rabbits have been one of the easiest pet-like animals to feed. As everyone seems to know, rabbits eat rabbit pellets. However, historically speaking, rabbits were raised primarily as food and breeding animals (or as lab animals), not as house pets. For this reason, feeding them properly has not been a big concern, as long as they developed large amounts of meat and fat quickly. A life longer than a year or two was not expected or even desired.
But today rabbits are quickly increasing in popularity as true pets and the desire to keep them healthy and happy for a normal life span of 10-12 years has increased as well. Sadly, information about their dietary needs have not kept up with the times and many pet rabbits end up severely malnourished or over-nourished. This article is designed to give the rabbit pet owner a practical guideline on how to feed their vegetarian pets.
Many vegetarian or vegan pet owners seem intent on feeding their pet dogs and cats as they eat, to maintain some proper consistent lifestyle perhaps. This can be successfully managed with dogs though not without some difficulty, but not at all with cats. But if you really want a true vegan pet, why not get a rabbit? Rabbits are true vegan pets. You should realize, however, that feeding them ‘fruits and vegetables’ without any thoughts as to what the foods you are giving them are doing to them, you may not be doing your pet rabbits any favors, even if on a vegan diet. Rabbits have VERY specific dietary needs that may even surprise a vegan owner.
Rabbit Digestive Tract
In terms of digestion, sometimes it’s helpful to think of rabbits as small, fuzzy horses. Rabbits are hind gut fermenters (most digestion takes place in the cecum), similar to horses, and have delicate gastrointestinal tracts as horses do. Their digestive system is specifically designed to chew and digest grasses and leaves and that’s about it. In this respect they differ somewhat from horses - they should NEVER be feed oats or sweet feed, or anything but hay and greens. Feeding them anything more, whether they like it or not, is akin to ‘killing them with kindness’. Rabbits have evolved to extract the nutrients they need out of very little energy available, and offering them more may result in an obese pet with a host of potential serious digestive issues.
Primary Digestive Issues
The main four issues of improper rabbit digestion are overgrown teeth, liver disease, enterotoxemia and ileus. Overgrown incissors are primarily a genetic or sometimes an injury-related problem and proper diet will have little effect in this area. But overgrown molars are usually a dietary problem and will be discussed briefly below when I talk about grass hay.
Rabbit with overgrown lower incissors (left); overgrown upper and lower incissors (right photo Wikipedia)
Fatty liver disease is a problem that results from excess calories, obesity and subsequent fat accumulation in the liver. This is a very serious problem and leads to a potentially fatal anorexia. Fortunately this is not nearly as common as some of the other dietary diseases rabbits get.
Enterotoxemia is an overgrowth of bacteria (called dsybiosis) in the rabbit’s intestines, usually from improper diet (eating starches and sugars for example), improper use of antibiotics, severe parasite loads, or secondarily from other overwhelming diseases. But by far the most common cause is the first one, improper diet. The symptoms of enterotoxemia are usually a watery diarrhea and a very sick, painful bunny. Even with treatment, many of these rabbits die. This is another disease much easier and better to prevent than to have to treat.
But the number one rabbit digestive ailment in pet rabbits is gut stasis, or ileus. Ileus means the intestinal tract has stopped moving (or is static). We used to think this situation was due to ‘hairballs’ or a ‘blockage’ but it turns out neither is the true problem. True blockages are uncommon in rabbits and hairballs are almost never an issue. The ultimate cause of gut stasis is usually a lack of fiber, or poor fiber quality, too-short fiber length, dysbiosis, or an excess of starches in the diet. Obesity and inactivity also play a role in the development of ileus, though the relationship is not completely clear. An unmoving gut can quickly go from bad to worse, as these rabbits feel overly full and are painful and so have no interest in eating or drinking. They then quickly begin to become dehydrated, toxic and hypothermic. Without proper treatment, these rabbits will often die a very miserable death. They need fluids, pain medications and syringe feeding. To not only keep your pet rabbits happy, healthy and comfortable, but also to avoid costly veterinary visits, we strongly recommend feeding rabbits properly!
For more on GI stasis/ileus: http://www.lbah.com/rabbits/gistasis.htm
True blockages: these can occur but are rare. Rabbits with intestinal blockages present suddenly very weak and extremely bloated, with stomachs full of air. Blockages are generally made up of excessive quantities of hair, hay but almost always also some non-food items such as cloth, carpet fiber or ingested plastic or metal. These rabbits almost always require emergency surgery or they rarely will survive their blockage. Most simply present as suddenly dead. Rabbit intestinal surgeries don’t always go well, so we strongly recommend prevention rather than treatment. Do NOT allow rabbits to munch on carpet, cloth, plastic or metal.
Rabbits have evolved a unique way of getting their nutrition from the meagerest of food items. At night, between bouts of sleeping, rabbits will ingest their night feces (aka cecotropes). The cecum of rabbit produces some smelly, green, mucus-covered pellets during a complex digestive process which concentrates the available nutrients from the ingested food items into a form that can then be absorbed by the small intestines. However, to get these nutrients from the cecum to the small intestines, these cecotropes have to basically go out the rear entrance and back in the front door again. During the quiet of the night when they are no longer foraging and are just resting, they will ingest these cecotropes directly from their anus. The cecotropes are covered with a protective mucus which allows them to pass through the rabbit’s stomach on the way to the intestines. Rabbit stomachs have an incredibly low pH (aka very acidic environment) which breaks down most materials and kills almost all bacteria that happen to end up there. Without this mucus covering, the rabbit stomach would probably denature all the nutrients and kill all the useful bacteria in the cecotropes and there would be no benefit to this circular digestive strategy. But as it is, it works amazingly well and efficiently. Messing with this complex digestive system is to invoke disaster.
two shots of Cecotropes (dark in left photo, brown in right) along with normal rabbit stools (pale and fibrous in both photos- supplied by permission from bunnygroomer.com)
Why mention this? Obese rabbits often do not or simply cannot eat their cecotropes. Many pet owners will misdiagnose their rabbits as having diarrhea when they discover their fat little bunnies having smeared, moist feces all over their rear ends and on the bedding. These are often uneaten cecotropes. If this situation is not remedied (ie. these rabbits don’t lose weight soon) they could end up with severe cases of malnutrition, dysbiosis and severe illness.
Here is a link to an article that has a nice photo of normal rabbit stools next to some cecotropes so you can see the difference. Please note this article is somewhat behind the times, otherwise, when it comes to feeding recommendations: http://dianasrabbitrescue.info/Rabbit_Rescue_Bunny_Medical.htm
Grass Hay- the mainstay of all rabbit diets
The bulk of a rabbit’s diet should be grass hay. Grass hay has several beneficial characteristics necessary for proper bunny nutrition. The first is that grass hays take a lot of work to chew and have a lot of silica in them. Rabbit teeth, like horse teeth, grow all their lives and need to be kept worn down to keep from over-growing. For this reason, it is best if a rabbit spends most of its waking hours chewing. And indeed rabbit teeth, jaws and diet are designed specifically for this situation. In the wild a rabbit’s day is pretty much spent eating, hiding, running and sleeping. There is little time for recreational activity. This lifestyle keeps a rabbit lean and its teeth a healthy length. In captivity, rabbits tend to have more ‘free time’ and access to calories, so the tendency is to play more and chew less. If fed a high calorie food, such as alfalfa hay or pellets, what eating they do can lead to obesity. Obesity leads to liver disease and intestinal maladies. Whether they overeat or not, an intake of a concentrated calorie source such as pellets or grain will often lead to less chewing, and the likelihood for dental problems increases. And if a pet gets too many calories, and/or gets bored from a lack of need to constantly eat, they may ‘get into trouble’ (too much time on their hands, so to speak). This occurs from a pet deciding to nibble on available furniture, carpeting, clothing, bedding, toxic plants etc. So it is extremely important your pet bunny’s busily eating a low calorie diet of hay (and leaves, too; see below).
Probably the only thing that might be better to eat than hay is fresh grass- high in silicates, high in fiber as well as good fiber length, and relatively high in moisture. (photo Wikipedia)
The other reason a rabbit should be fed grass hay is for the fiber quantity and quality. Rabbit intestinal tracts NEED a lot of lengthy, indigestible fiber to work properly. Fiber length is important as the longer the fiber strands, the better they will stimulate proper intestinal movement (motility) and digestion. So short-fiber-length food items (like pellets), though possibly containing plenty of fiber, may still lead to digestive problems.
Grass hay (sort of generic) - the primary ingredient for most if not all pet rabbit diets.
Hay should be fed to rabbits from the time they are weaned until the time they die. Rabbits weaned onto hay will usually accept it well and eat it from then on without a problem. It is very important that baby bunnies be weaned onto hay as those weaned onto only pellets, and/or later fed exclusively pellets, are much less likely to make a smooth transition onto hay later in life. And then one may then end up battling digestive problems in their pet bunnies for a long time.
Why Grass Hay?
There are many kinds of hay. Most people are familiar with alfalfa hay, and that is the hay most people associate with the word hay. However, there are several other kinds of hay and it turns out some of them are much preferred over alfalfa as the hay to feed rabbits.
Alfalfa hay (fresh, and bundled for dry use- left- photo Wikipedia); right photo is of barley grass (photo Wikipedia)
Hays are divided up into two main categories: Grass Hays and Legume Hays. The latter, as the name suggests, produce legumes (legumes include beans, peas, peanuts, and two common hays: clover and alfalfa) all which are extremely rich in proteins, fats and often calcium. Feeding a hay that is high in these nutrients to a rabbit can cause digestive (and potentially urinary problems) as well as lead to obesity. You should note that most commercial rabbit pellets are made from alfalfa (a legume hay).
clover hay is another common legume hay
Timothy before it is harvested into hay (left); right is a bag of timothy hay (good) with a lot of dried mango fruit (not so good). This sort of unecessary and inadvisable addition to a bag of food is done completely as a marketing ploy, as the hay alone is much better for rabbits
Grass hays include the following varieties: timothy, orchard, meadow, Bermuda, brome, wheat, rye, oat and barley. These hays are very high in fiber, low in calories, low in calcium, low in protein and most are low in starches. Though most rabbit societies and rabbit experts find no problems with feeding rabbits the ‘cereal’ hays (last four mentioned), I recommend these the least of the grass hays as the wheat, rye, oats and barley are hays grown primarily for their seeds, which are very starchy food items and NOT good for the normal movement of a rabbit’s small intestinal tract. If you insist on feeding these types of grass hays, I strongly recommend you at least shake out as much of the grain as possible into the trash and feed whatever is left over. Rabbits fed ‘shaken’ cereal hay may end up on the thin side due to some of these hays having relatively low nutrient contents without their seeds. In my opinion it is best to simply avoid these hays, and feed the other forms of grass hay listed above. Wheat grass harvested before it sets seed is an exception and probably is an excellent grass hay. It is often available as an edible hay for cats (aka cat grass) and us (to be used in a wheat grass drinks). Some companies (notably Oxbow) seems to be very 'rabbit friendly' and offers several good rabbit foods, including an oat hay that is harvested before it goes to seed- this is also an excellent hay for rabbits, and can be purchased on line. Note that ALL hays have seeds, but the seeds seem to make up a very minor portion of the other grass hays, either because of the time of cutting the hay or the miniscule size of the seeds themselves.
Oat hay is a very commonly recommended hay for rabbits, but with all the oats in it, it is a very potentially starchy and high-protein diet (neither are great things for rabbits)
wheat hat tends to be full of protein and fat-rich seeds- NOT good bunny food (left), but wheat grass, or wheat hay harvested prior to seed formation is good for rabbits
Orchard grass is an exceptional food and I was pleasantly surprised to see this on the shelf of a pet store (left); timothy hay (right) is often sold as fodder for rabbits and some rodents, though often in such small bags that it might appear to be offered only as a treat, unfortunately.
Grass hays are available from many sources and one can even reliably find timothy hay in small bags in many pet stores. However this source of timothy hay is not always best as these pet-store bags of hay can sit on the store shelves too long and either mold, or become nearly void of nutritional value. It is best to get your hays from a fresher source (feed store, horse barn, or the farm itself if available). In many parts of the country, particularly in cities, grass hays may be less available. Just try to get as fresh a hay as possible, and if grass hays are not available, alfalfa hay is still a better choice than feeding alfalfa pellets.
Non-ntavie ornamental grasses can also be good diets for rabbits, but you might want to do some internet searches of nutrient values just in case some have excessive mineral contents. These Carex sp., native to New Zealand, seem to be fairly commonly available as most larger nurseries.
Avoid feeding rabbits moldy or damp hay. These can contain several very serious toxins that can make rabbits very ill. Learn to smell your hays and you will be able to detect moldy or bad hay pretty easily. Hay should ideally not be stored in a closed bag, but left open (this prevents mold formation). Hay ages pretty quickly. For this reason I do not recommend buying it by the bale to feed rabbits (unless you have a LOT of rabbits) as it will likely go bad or be weak in nutritional value, or possibly even moldy by the time you get to the end of the bale. Also hay tends to be pooped on by other animals (rodents, raccoons, birds etc.) so you might avoid taking hay from the very top of an uncovered pile in a barn situation. Many animal stools can contain fecal parasites, some which are very bad for rabbits.
Green Leafy Foods
The other food item you want to always offer your pet rabbit is green leafy vegetables. Note I did not say just vegetables. Most vegetables that are not green and leafy are not acceptable for rabbits except perhaps as treats (see below). Note also I did not say just green vegetables. The word leafy is just as important but one that many people seem so gloss over, and then think it’s OK to feed their rabbits beans, peas, artichokes, peppers etc. ‘Green leafy’ is the preferred term. Feed these cleaned of pesticides (bacteria on food is rarely a problem with rabbits as their acid stomach will kill almost all bacterial contaminants).
If you have a rabbit that is not used to eating greens, suddenly introducing these into the diet may result in your rabbit getting soft stools. Normally this is not a problem, but if it persists more than a few days, withdraw these items and re-introduce them one by one gradually. Soft stool from eating greens is usually temporary and just requires a short acclimation period. However if soft stool persists it may cause dermatitis if soft stools soil your pet’s rump. Try then to only add one food at a time slowly and see if you can determine what the offending food item is, and avoid it from then on. Though rare, some rabbits just won’t tolerate certain vegetables.
Not always known for its nutritional value, lettuces are safe and relatively decent forms of green leafy vegetation to feed rabbits along with their hay (though I would recommend a good deal of variety along with feeding lettuces)
Some green leafy vegetables are very high in oxylates, and though high oxylate content can be a real problem for larger herbivores, there so far is not much evidence that they are for smaller ones. However, to be on the safe side, it is probably best to limit foods with a lot of oxylates (such as parsley, kale, spinach etc.) to a few times a week and not every day.
Kale and dandilion greens are very nutritious green leafy vegetables, but may be a bit high in oxylates to feed exclusively
Some rabbits also have a tendency to form bladder stones, though whether or not this is due mostly to diet or to other factors (genetics, stress, etc.) is not known for sure. But if you have a pet rabbit that has a history of bladder stones are excessive calcium sludging in the urine, it might be best to feed greens not excessively high in calcium. This is only a suggestion, not a strong recommendation (yet).
Bladder stone in a rabbit on radiograph (left) and same stone after having been surgically removed (right)
Nearly all commercial rabbit diets consist of pellets. Most are made of alfalfa pellets, though some of the better ones are made from Timothy Hay. Many brands sell pellets mixed with other food items.
Two different kinds of pellets being sold at pet store near me- most I saw for sale were alfalfa pellets (left), but some pellets were made of timothy (right)
The problem with pellets are multiple:
They require less chewing and thus less tooth wear and therefore can lead to potential dental problems (overgrown teeth).
They often contain too many calories (this pertains primarily to alfalfa pellets, the most common ones available on the market- some companies now make timothy pellets) and this can easily lead to obesity, which in turns leads to liver disease and ileus.
They contain too short a length of an indigestible fiber which then can lead to decreased intestinal motility and can eventually ileus.
Their extremely dry make up can potentially lead to dehydration and bladder disease
And worst of all, many commercial pellets also contain many other food items (these often sold as ‘premium diets’) such as banana chips, oats, seeds and nuts etc. These added food items may be particularly tasty to a rabbit, but are certainly not among the recommended foods for healthy rabbit digestion. Rabbits fed these premium diets are much more likely to become obese and have digestive problems. And many rabbits compound this by selecting the tastier non-pellets over the pellets in these diets. Please NEVER feed these foods!
here are just 4 brands of 'premium pellet' mixes for rabbits
Why do pet stores sell pellets if they are not partciularly good for rabbits? The main reason is ignorance. A more interesting question is why to pet stores sell pellet mixes with all sorts of grains, fruiits and nuts in them when they actually do know those are not good for rabbits? Well, why do supermarkets sell donuts when they are not good for us? Two reasons: we will buy them and we like to eat them. This is the same reason pet stores sell pellet varieties- owners buy them and bunnies eat them. It is as simple as that. I asked this question once of a representative of one of the main producers of rabbit pellets. The answer he gave me surprised me, but it was basically the one I just gave you- people want these foods (he said they ‘demand them’) and rabbits will eat them. Companies that sell this stuff to unsuspecting consumers while actually knowing it is not good for rabbits. But these foods sell and make them money. So buyer beware: the responsibility is upon you to make the proper food choices for your rabbit, since the food companies are obviously not going to do it.
When is it ‘acceptable’ to feed pellets? Sometimes if a rabbit is underweight for some reason (usually an illness), additional pelleted food in the diet can help put on some extra ounces (as long as it is not the bulk of the diet, though). Young (less than 4 months) rabbits may need a bit of extra calories if they are on the thin side. Or if you live in an area of the country where hay is extremely difficult to find, feeding of a good quality timothy pellet along with green leafy vegetables can be an acceptable, though somewhat risky, compromise. If you and your veterinarian have concluded that your pet rabbit needs some pellets, try to at least get fresh timothy based pellets (readily available on line) that are as high in fiber and low in fat as possible may be the best you can offer your rabbit under the circumstances. And in a pinch, most rabbits will tolerate a super rich diet of high calcium, high protein alfalfa pellets for a short time. But there are few excuses for not feeding green leafy vegetables to your pet rabbit also as those are available pretty much anywhere.
Water is an essential nutrient and probably the most important one on the planet. Rabbits need a lot of water particularly if they are eating almost all hay and are not big leaf eaters. Note that rabbits that do eat a lot of green leafy vegetation will tend to drink a lot less water, as much of the water they need comes from their food.
Rabbits will drink water from bowls and/or water bottles. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. Bowls get filled with debris quickly and get dirty, requiring cleaning at least once a day if not more often. But water bowls tend to allow bunnies to drink more water, as rabbits sometimes are reluctant to slowly lick sipper tubes for long enough periods of time in order to get all the water they need. So rabbits drinking exclusively from water bottles may sometimes lean towards being chronically dehydrated. Water bottles on the other hand stay pretty clean and allow one to pay less attention to the water situation in your rabbit’s enclosure (which can be a bad thing as well as a convenience). It is harder to ignore a dry water bowl than an empty water bottle. Sipper tube tips tend to collect some really nasty bacteria that could potentially infect your pet’s mouth and so should be sent through the dishwasher cycle weekly for sterilization. We recommend offering pet rabbits water from both sources, and keeping water bowls as clean as possible.
Other Foods (also known as treats)
Notice that all these foods listed below are NOT grass hay or leafy vegetables so do NOT fit into the healthy rabbit diet makeup. But feeding them in very small amounts does not seem to cause a problem. We do not condone the offering of treats for rabbits, as there is little point in doing so. But if owners feel the overwhelming need, they should do so cautiously and conservatively.
Treat vegetables include carrots, yams, broccoli, turnips, radishes, pea pods (without the peas), alfalfa or beans sprouts etc. Note that all these food items tend to have too little fiber and/or too much sugar or starch for rabbits and should never be fed as a major part of any rabbit diet. Yes, that includes Bugs Bunny’s favorite food, the carrot. Trade those out for carrot tops instead.
Carrots, squashes and peppers are not horrible foods to offer rabbits as treats, but should not be fed in any large quantities- perhaps a bite every few days or so
Fruits have a lot of sugar in them and only are acceptable as minute, infrequent treats. Be particularly wary of offering bananas and grapes as these two fruits reportedly have a high addiction factor for rabbits, and bunnies fed these will crave them and not eat their other foods as well.
Pineapple and Papaya
These two fruits, and their juices, were once thought to be important additions to a pet rabbit diet because they had strong acidic juices that supposedly helped dissolve ingested hair that would otherwise cause a hairball or blockage. First of all, neither fruit has juices acidic enough to possibly digest hair no matter how much one gives to a rabbit. Rabbit stomach juices are far more acidic than either of these fruits, and even those stomach secretions cannot dissolve most hair. Secondly, rabbits almost never develop hairballs anyway. With a normal, high- fiber diet, all hair moves on through a rabbit’s digestive tract without any problem. These juices and fruits are very high in sugar, increasing the likelihood of obesity, dysbiosis and liver disease, and are not recommended as part of a good rabbit diet.
These two in particular are commonly recommended fruits in many rabbit books and websites. I do NOT recommend these items.
These are also completely unnecessary and possibly even harmful when given to rabbits so should be avoided. Cat laxatives have historically been the primary products given to rabbits, but also Vaseline, mineral oil and even some products that stimulate diarrhea (eg lactulose) have been used. None are effective or ever necessary and some are quite dangerous.
Some foods should simply never be fed to rabbits in any quantity. These include beans, peas, cereals and grains, refined sugar foods (candies, cookies etc.), chocolate, onions, garlic, avocado, bread, cereal and corn. The listing of grains on this no-no list keeps me from strongly recommending a grain hay (such as oat or barely hay) as a good dietary source for rabbits, by the way.
Some rabbits eat quite a bit of dog food left out for the other household pets. This is a horrible food for rabbits and should be avoided. Corn is another item rabbits should never have even once.
Candied fruit (left) and seed treats (right) are also on the 'no-no' list
Feeding rabbits properly is not difficult or even that time consuming. And most common rabbit illnesses can be easily avoided if one offers the proper diet. I hope that over time companies that insist on making bad foods for rabbits will relent and try to make their money elsewhere, and that pet stores may eventually become educated enough to know not to sell these things for rabbits. And, with time, all the myths and improper lore about feeding and caring for rabbits will become obvious falsehoods. Perhaps then having a healthy pet rabbit live over 10 years will not be such an unusual situation.
It must be noted that there is a LOT of information AND misinformation about feeding rabbits on the internet. Much of it will disagree with what is stated in this article. I encourage you to read as much as possible, but realize that changing the world’s views on how to feed something (this pertains to all pets, food source animals and even ourselves as well) is a slow and steady process, with many good and reputable sources being caught up in the middle of what is now known to be correct and what the majority of the public and published information says. And keep in perspective that what is now known to be ‘correct’ can always change, and likely will (though I hope we eventually get it right) as we learn more and more about nutrition and biology.
For more on keeping rabbits and adopting them visit toomanyrabbits.com
For more information on rabbit diets, from Dr. Susan Brown (a leading expert on this subject) see here: http://www.bhrabbitrescue.org/docs/RabbitCare.pdf (this link needs to be copied and pasted, sorry)