So You Think That’s a Healthy Diet for a Pet Rabbit?

Pelleted food should constitute only a tiny portion of a healthy rabbit diet. They need hay, hay and more hay! Plus, some fresh veggies.

Rabbits need a lot more than store-bought pelleted food. By: xxxxx/123rf
Rabbits need more than store-bought pelleted food. By: francesco83/123rf

Rabbits make fantastic house pets, but many people don’t know much about their diets.

If you are used to dogs and kitties, you go to the pet food aisle and buy dog and cat food. So if you introduce a bunny into your fur family, you go buy rabbit food, right?

Wrong. Pelleted rabbit diets should constitute only a tiny portion of a healthy rabbit diet. Many purists feed no pellets at all. Rabbits are miniature herbivores.

They need hay, hay and more hay! Add to that some great veggies, and your rabbit is off and thumping.

Many of the house bunnies I see are obese. This is not just from lack of exercise. It is usually from the rabbit enjoying the never-empty bowl of pellets.

Gastrointestinal disease in pet rabbits is a huge problem. Here are some major guidelines on feeding a pet rabbit to keep that extremely involved and complicated bunny gut-healthy!

Hay

Grass hay, such as timothy, oat, brome, and wheat, should be available to your rabbit at all times. If you are lucky enough to get fresh hay, go for it. Good companies like Oxbow and American Pet Diner, however, sell high quality hay for rabbits.

Mix your grass hays to make sure your rabbit is getting all the nutrients. Grass hays are a great well-balanced source of Vitamin A and D, calcium and protein. Eating hay promotes healthy teeth and gut. The rabbit GI tract is prone to problems in motility and impaction if not fed a god deal of hay.

Alfalfa hay is too high in protein and calcium as a main source of hay. Alfalfa is not a grass but a legume, like peas and beans, which should also be avoided.

Vegetables

If you want to feed a pet a natural vegetarian diet, get a rabbit! The average 4- to 6-pound rabbit should get somewhere in the neighborhood of 3 to 4 cups of leafy greens and fresh veggies a day.

The House Rabbit Society is one of the best sources for rabbit info on the net. I am listing their very thorough list of veggies and fruits here. Check out their site for diet and all rabbit advice.

Leafy Greens

This is the most important category of fresh food, comprising about 75 percent of the fresh diet.

  • Parsley
  • Spinach
  • Mustard greens
  • Beet greens
  • Swiss chard
  • Radish tops
  • Sprouts
  • Leafy Greens II (low in oxalic acid)
  • Arugula
  • Carrot tops
  • Endive
  • Escarole
  • Frisee lettuce
  • Kale
  • Red or green lettuce
  • Romaine
  • Turnip greens
  • Dandelion greens
  • Mint
  • Basil
  • Watercress
  • Wheatgrass
  • Chicory
  • Raspberry leaves
  • Cilantro
  • Radicchio
  • Bok choy
  • Fennel
  • Dill leaves
  • Yu choy

Iceberg lettuce has no nutritional value.

Feed fresh vegetables. A rabbit is even more susceptible to problems from veggies “on the fringe” of freshness than your own family. Another tip: they love their greens moist and this gives them additional hydration.

The key to the above list is variety and rotation. Nutrient composition and oxalic acid content is varied in the greens listed above. Feeding 3 types of leafy greens a day, and changing up those greens the following week, gives your rabbit a tasty and healthy variety.

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Non-Leafy Vegetables

Use these in moderation. These are foods that we usually have in our fridges, so be careful not to feed too much of them. Non-leafy veggies should comprise no more than 15 percent of the diet, which is about 1 tablespoon per 2 pounds of bunny weight.

  • Carrots
  • Broccoli
  • Edible flowers like nasturtiums, pansies and hibiscus
  • Celery
  • Bell peppers
  • Chinese pea pods
  • Brussel sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Summer squash
  • Zucchini

Rabbits love the fresh herbs listed. If you can grow fresh parsley and basil, peppermint, cilantro, and dill, you will have a very happy honey bunny. If you grow them in pots in your house, don’t keep the pots at bunny height if you expect to have any basil left for your own pesto!

Fresh Fruit

Fresh fruit should be considered a treat for your rabbit, not to exceed 1 teaspoon per 2 pounds of body weight. A 6-pound bun-bun gets 3 teaspoons of berries, peaches or apples a day. This isn’t much! Please heed the warning.

Too much fruit can result in weight gain and GI upset because of the sugar and starch content.

  • Apple (no stems or seeds)
  • Cherries (no pits)
  • Pear
  • Peach
  • Plum
  • Kiwi
  • Papaya
  • Mango
  • Berries
  • Pineapple
  • Banana
  • Melon
  • Apricot
  • Currants
  • Nectarine

Pellets

Pellet diets were invented for the commercial rabbit industry. Your beloved pet rabbit will not enjoy a long and healthy lifespan if fed a pelleted diet exclusively.

Most experienced rabbit folks recommend no more than 1/8 cup of quality pellets per 5 pounds of rabbit per day. Many expert rabbit veterinarians consider pellets a “treat” food and leave it out of the basic diet completely.

A pellet diet, fed on a very limited basis, should have at least 22 percent crude fiber, and not contain dried fruit, seeds, nuts and colored junk that makes you buy it. Many pellet diets are alfalfa based. You want to look for timothy-based pellets.

I think having a small farm animal in the kitchen is a blast! Providing abundant fresh hay and vegetables makes me feel healthy, too. Watching Snuggles munch on that grass hay and play with his veggies is a lot more fun than filling a bowl full of gross little brown pellets.

Happy munching!

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This pet health content was written by a veterinarian.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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