PHOTO: Paulette Johnson
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January 9, 2020

Bugs Bunny didn’t do the rabbit world any favors by perpetuating the stereotype that rabbits spend their days eating carrots and making wisecracks. I’ve spent more than 20 years with rabbits, and I can attest that I’ve never heard one make a sarcastic comment, nor do my rabbits devour carrots all day.

So if they’re not eating carrots, what do rabbits spend their days eating? Are they supposed to eat pellets or vegetables or what? Don’t worry. Feeding rabbits is as easy as one, two, three, four, five. Let’s take a look at some tips to get you going.

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1. Start With Hay

Don’t underestimate the importance of hay in your rabbit’s daily diet. Hay tends to rank lower than pelleted feed in the minds of many rabbit owners, but hay is very important. Here’s why: Hay provides your rabbits with a wonderful source of fiber, which helps prevent gastrointestinal problems and keeps the gut flora healthy. Rabbits love to chew, and hay provides ample opportunity for rabbits to put those (continually growing) teeth to good use.

Grass hay or alfalfa? Both types have supporters, and your choice could come down to personal preference and the availability of either in your area. I feed grass hay to my rabbits because I like to give my rabbits free-choice access to hay—as much as they want—and grass hay lets me do this without fear of the digestive problems that can occur from consuming too much rich alfalfa hay.

The quality of the hay is paramount. Choose the best hay you can find, and avoid hay that is dusty, moldy or excessively weedy. Find sweet-smelling hay with a nice greenish color, and your rabbits will be delighted. 

2. Add Pelleted Feed

Rabbits need more than hay, though. Another essential component of your rabbit’s daily diet is pellets.

Rabbits need a well-rounded diet that includes appropriate amounts of fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. A quick trip to a feed-supply store will reveal a wide variety of commercially produced pelleted feeds, and these help take the guesswork out of providing proper basic nutrition for your rabbits.

Pelleted feed comes in many formulas designed to meet the needs of different types of rabbits, and your rabbits’ individual needs depend on a number of factors, including age.

The protein content of pelleted feed varies, so you might find feeds with protein amounts from 12 to 18 percent. For adult bucks and non-lactating does, a feed with 12 to 16 percent protein is sufficient in most cases, while lactating does can benefit from a formula that contains as much as 18 percent protein.

Pay attention to the fiber percentage in the pelleted formula as well. Rabbits benefit from a high-fiber diet—which is why hay is so important—so look for a fiber percentage that is ideally at least 18 percent.

How much pelleted feed should you give each rabbit? My general rule is 1 ounce of pellets per pound of body weight per day, with the understanding that you might need to adjust this according to each individual rabbit’s body condition.

3. Emphasize Water

One of the most important elements of feeding rabbits isn’t food at all: It’s water. Your rabbits need access to fresh, clean water at all times—especially at feeding time. So whether you provide this water via crocks, bowls, bottles or an automatic watering system, double-check at least twice a day that your rabbits have fresh water.

Rabbits can be very suspicious of changes in water, so if you’re traveling to shows with your rabbit or transporting new rabbits home, bring along water they’re accustomed to drinking, or gradually switch to bottled spring water before traveling.

4. What About Carrots?

I know what you’re wondering: “When are we going to get to the part about carrots?”

Here’s the deal: While it’s usually fine to feed small amounts of some fruits and vegetables to your adult rabbits, view these as treats, and feed them only in moderation.

Along with carrots, your rabbits might enjoy apples, pears or strawberries, but always introduce any food very slowly and in small amounts to allow your rabbit to become accustomed to the change in diet. (And no lettuce for rabbits! Their digestive systems don’t tolerate lettuce very well, and iceberg lettuce can cause diarrhea.)

For rabbits younger than 6 months, it’s best to skip the fruits and vegetables because of the increased risk of gastrointestinal upset. Wait until your bunnies are older than 6 months before introducing these foods into their diet.

5. Go Green

In addition to fruits and vegetables, you can also provide greens as a treat for your rabbit. Mine are crazy about dandelions (leaves and flowers), but fresh, hand-picked blades of grass are also a fun treat. (Never feed grass clippings from the lawn because clippings can ferment and/or get moldy and digestive upset can occur.)

Introduce greens over the course of a few days, starting with small amounts and increasing slowly. Providing a small portion each day is a better idea than giving your rabbits a big bunch of dandelion greens once a week.

Two more things to note: Avoid feeding greens to rabbits younger than 6 months of age (for the reasons mentioned previously), and pick only dandelions or grass on your own property in areas that you know to be free of any type of chemical that could be poisonous to your rabbits.

Here’s a bonus tip when feeding: Rabbits thrive on a predictable schedule. They quickly learn routines and expect to have their meals delivered at the appropriate time. So set a schedule, and do your best to stick to it. Your rabbits will thank you.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2019 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.

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