Livestock Q&A: Nutritional Advice on Rabbits

Rabbits are herbivores and have some unusual digestive functions. Here's what to feed them and how to spot gastrointestinal problems.

by Dr. Lyle G. McNeal
PHOTO: Shutterstock

Q: I’m just getting started in raising rabbits. What nutritional advice can you offer?

A: Rabbits are herbivores, so they consume only plant material, especially fibrous plants. They should never be fed meat scraps or byproducts. Rabbits are cecal digesters and can’t vomit or chew cud like ruminants. Because they like and consume high fiber or cellulosic plant material, such as hay, the cecum might not break it down fully for complete digestion. The partially digested material is often passed out of the large colon in the form of small soft pellets called cecotropes, or “midnight dew,” which the rabbit can consume and pass through the digestive tract with more digestibility, along with higher nutrient absorption via this second go-round.

While farmers might be disturbed when they see their rabbits eating their own feces, cecotrope ingestion is a normal and important component of sustaining good nutritional intake for rabbits.

GI Problems

Gastrointestinal digestive issues require immediate veterinary care because they can quickly lead to a painful death if left untreated. Signs or symptoms include:

  • lack of appetite or refusal to eat
  • inability or failure to pass fecal pellets, or passing smaller and drier-than-usual pellets
  • large, doughy abdomen and hair in fecal pellets due to the accumulation of hair in the GI tract
  • dehydration
  • diarrhea and/or blood in feces
  • GI obstruction due to eating nonfood items, such as carpet or plastic
  • GI adhesions or obstruction due to adhesions from previous surgical procedures, such as spaying
  • general overall stress
  • urinary tract disorders
  • insufficient crude fiber intake in diet


In “How to Feed Your Rabbit,” Lisa Karr-Lilienthal, Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska, writes that rabbits should be provided with a pelleted diet daily. “You may also choose to feed a home-prepared diet of fresh vegetables and greens,” she writes. “Adult rabbits should be fed based on label guidelines for the diet that you have chosen. In general, this means about 1⁄4 cup of pellets per 5 pounds of body weight. … Watch your rabbit to ensure it is not losing or gaining weight, and adjust the amount of food offered accordingly.” You might give young, pregnant and nursing rabbits an excess of food so that they can eat as much as they want during the course of the day and night.

Grass hay, a source of long-strand fiber, is vital to the digestive health of rabbits, according to “Feeding Your Rabbit” by the University of Nebraska Extension.“It prevents obesity, dental disease, boredom and diarrhea. Grass hay should be available to rabbits at all times. The following grass hays can be fed free choice: timothy, orchard grass, brome, oat hay or prairie hay.”

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Don’t overlook the importance of water. Be sure to provide your rabbits with clean, fresh water at all times.

This story originally appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of Hobby Farms.

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