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Understanding Your Rabbit's Dietary Needs

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A rabbit’s dietary requirements differ slightly depending on its age and living area and environment.  Young rabbits require more calcium and carbohydrates than adults rabbits for growth. Rabbits that live indoors need more vitamin D-rich foods than rabbits with access to direct sunlight.  Determining the correct diet for a rabbit companion can be difficult for a new pet owner, especially with the variety of “expert” advice available.

A surprising number of people do not feed their pet rabbits the proper diet. Celina Andrade, a House Rabbit Society supervisor in California, says that she “meet[s] people who feed their rabbits the ‘wrong things’ all the time … 99 percent of what they sell in most major pet stores are the wrong foods or poor-quality foods.”  It is important to keep a wild rabbit’s diet in mind when considering what a pet rabbit should eat. Wild rabbits do not have access to pellets, cereal, or large amounts of fruit and vegetables.  They generally eat grasses and some flowering plants.

The bare necessities:

A pet rabbit's staple diet should consist of the following three necessary food items:

• Unlimited amount of timothy, oat and grass hay: Rabbits need fiber to keep their digestive tract moving. Without fiber, their digestive tract shuts down, which is painful and can lead to death in a relatively short time. A rabbit should never go more than six hours without eating fiber-rich, low-protein foods.

• Daily variety of greens and vegetables. Rabbits, like other animals, need a daily dose of vitamins and nutrients from natural sources. A variety of green, leafy vegetables provides these much needed nutrients and acts as a special treat for your friend.

• Fortified alfalfa or timothy pellets: These pellets contain vitamins and nutrients found in fruits and vegetables. If you do not feed your rabbit daily vegetables, adding a small handful of pellets is necessary. The type of pellet to feed depends on the condition and age of the rabbit. Underweight rabbits or bunnies younger than 7 months old should be given alfalfa pellets daily. After the rabbit has reached adulthood or the desired weight, the alfalfa pellets should be slowly changed to high-quality timothy-based pellets to prevent obesity and excess calcium intake. 

Veggies that can be fed to pet rabbits:
• Cilantro
• Parsley
• Romaine, red leaf, and green leaf lettuces
• Celery, including the leaves
• Kale
• Collard greens
• Green bell peppers
• Mustard greens

Treats

Only small amounts of treats should be given to prevent your rabbit from becoming overweight or having gastrointestinal upset from excessive sugars and fat. For example, give only a slice or two of apple, or a 1-inch slice of banana or carrot.  Too many treats overfills the rabbit’s stomach and prevents intake of the fiber content needed to keep the digestive system moving.  Many all-natural, high-fiber treats are available online through rabbit-friendly retailers.

Bad for bunnies

Many foods that people regularly eat or consider treats are usually not healthy for rabbits.  Nuts contain too much protein and can cause digestive upset as well as fatty liver problems.  Chocolate and onions are poisonous, as they are to most animals, and potatoes are guaranteed to cause obesity, because they fill a rabbit’s stomach and don’t provide the much needed fiber. To prevent food-related health problems, do not give your rabbit any of the following items:

• Chocolate
• Onions
• Iceberg lettuce
• Potatoes
• Radishes
• Rhubarb
• Cereal
• Seeds
• Nuts
• Bread
• Crackers

Benefits of proper nutrition

Providing rabbits with the proper nutrition is crucial to their health and well-being. Rabbits fed the proper diet are less likely to develop tooth root abscesses and malocclusions, fatty livers, and obesity. If your rabbit changes its eating habits (eg, stops eating hay), you should contact a rabbit-savvy veterinarian as soon as possible.  This can be a sign of an illness, such as arthritis, tooth overgrowth or cancer. Visit the House Rabbit Society at www.rabbit.org for a plethora of information, or contact your local exotic animal hospital.

Credit: Reviewed by Amy I. Attas, V.M.D.
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