Rabbits are becoming popular house pets, but good information about their care, especially about their nutrition, can be hard to find. Nutrition matters, however, because the majority of medical conditions in pet rabbits are due to poor nutrition.
Wild rabbits generally eat a mixture of grasses, shrubs, and other plant material. Rabbits have a unique digestive tract requiring this type of high fiber plant material. Pet rabbits can meet this requirement by eating grass hay such as timothy or brome. Grass hay is rich in nutrients, provides fiber for a healthy gastrointestinal tract, and provides chewing activity for proper wear of the continuously growing teeth. Grass hay can be purchased at most pet stores and should be fed freely to your rabbit. Alfalfa hay is higher in fat and calcium and can lead to health problems in some rabbits. It should generally not be substituted for grass hay unless directed by your veterinarian.
Green foods are as important as hay in your rabbit’s diet. Green foods represent the “leaf” part of the diet and provide the same benefits as hay, but with a wider variety of micronutrients and water. If you have not previously fed your rabbit green foods, begin by gradually adding one type at a time to avoid the development of soft stools. The goal should be 1-2 cups per day. Some examples of green foods include dandelion greens, parsley, romaine, collard greens, endive, mustard greens, leaf lettuce, carrot or beet tops, kale, broccoli, and baby greens.
Historically, rabbit pellets were developed for industry rabbits to provide a highly concentrated food that was easy to feed. However, feeding pellets exclusively to pet rabbits can lead to a number of problems including obesity, poor gastrointestinal motility, dental disease, and ultimately a shortened life span. Pellets are not necessary in your rabbit’s diet, though many people still choose to feed a limited amount as a treat.
Rabbits in the wild also periodically have access to fruits and vegetables. House rabbits enjoy these foods as well, but such treat foods should be limited to 1 tablespoon per day. These foods may include fruits (such as berries, melons, bananas, apples, or pineapples) and vegetables (such as squash or carrots). Foods that are high in starch, sugar or fat should be avoided. You should never feed your rabbit certain foods, such as beans, corn, wheat, oats, breads, cereals, seeds, peas, chocolate, or anything that contains caffeine or alcohol.
Vitamins and other supplements are not necessary. Rabbits have a unique digestive tract which includes a structure called the cecum. The cecum contains organisms that produce important nutrients and vitamins in the form of special droppings called cecotropes. These droppings are passed in the morning and eaten by your rabbit. You should alert your veterinarian if you notice a large number of these droppings remaining in your rabbit’s cage.
Finally, provide clean, fresh water at all times in either a water bottle or bowl. Your rabbit should have a physical examination annually and all diet changes should be discussed with your veterinarian. Feeding an appropriate diet will decrease the risk of many diseases and allow you to share a longer life with your pet rabbit.