What to feed your pet rabbit
A rabbit requires a diet consisting of dry food, lots of vegetables and as much hay as they will eat. Most people have some idea of what to feed their pet rabbit, but unfortunately their ideas are often based on what the local pet shop sells or the notion that rabbits eat lots of carrots and not a whole lot else.
Rabbits have very sensitive tummies so what you feed them is very important. Gastro-intestinal issues are common in rabbits, they cost a lot of money to treat and can be fatal. A lot of tummy troubles in rabbits can be avoided by simply feeding them the correct foods.
Dry food is an important part of a rabbit's diet, but many are surprised to learn that it should actually be a small part of the diet, more like a complement to their veggies.
Another thing that surprises many people is that rabbits should never be fed muesli style foods. Most pet shops sell them and almost all of them are branded as the perfect food for your bunny, but they are in fact very very bad for your bun.
Muesli encourages selective eating, where your rabbit will only eat the bits it wants out of the food and leave the rest. This means that your rabbit is not getting a complete diet at all and often the rabbit will pick out the sweet things to eat and leave the other slightly more healthy stuff behind.
Muesli style foods are also very bad for a rabbits tummy, many of them contain ingredients that rabbits simply shouldn't eat. Things like seeds should never be in a rabbit's diet and these foods also often have a high fat, low protein content which does nothing for your rabbits health.
General rule of thumb - if the food is multi-coloured, don't feed it to your rabbit!
Good quality pellets
So if not muesli, what dry food should you give your rabbit?
The answer is a high-quality pellet style food. My two get Excel pellets which were recommended to me by my vet, but there are plenty of other decent brands on the market. Oxbow are a popular brand in America where the Excel ones might not be available.
Look for something with a high protein and fibre content and low fat. Fibre is one of the most important things in your rabbits diet as their digestive systems must always be active. If their tummies stop, bunnies can die quite quickly - often within 24 hours if veterinary intervention isn't sought.
These are the pellets my vet recommends, I buy this big bag and it lasts the two of them ages. It works out a lot cheaper to buy in bulk too.
Vegetables should be a big part of your rabbit's diet, but you need to know which ones to give them.
A common misconception is that rabbits should eat a lot of carrots. In fact carrots should be a very small part of your rabbits diet because they are high in sugar. They should be fed more as a treat than as a staple part of the diet.
Salad leaves are great, but you still need to be careful. Iceberg lettuce is a big no no for bunnies, its got far too much water and not enough nutrients and it can actually give rabbits a runny tummy. Other varieties of lettuce are great though and you can add small amounts of things like spinach and kale to the mix to give them variety.
If you are unsure if a particular vegetable is safe for your rabbit, the house rabbit society has a comprehensive list here. The list also gives a guide to how much to feed your rabbit based on their body weight which comes in very handy, especially if you are new to owning a rabbit.
Hay, hay and more hay
Rabbits should have unlimited access to a good quality hay. Around 80% of your rabbit's diet should be hay so always make sure they have some available so they can graze on it throughout the day.
Hay helps rabbits grind down their back teeth due to the motion required for them to chew it. Next to tummy troubles, teeth problems are likely the most common health issue with rabbits. Molar spurs are common and expensive to treat (trust me I know, one of mine has recurring ones), rabbits with spurs may stop eating and you likely wont notice there is a problem until this point because rabbits hide pain very well. Once a rabbit has stopped eating, it really is a race against the clock to get them eating again before the damage becomes irreversible.
Hay is also very important for digestive health, it helps keep the digestive system going and can help anything in the gut that shouldn't be there work its way through. Rabbits physically cant vomit or cough anything up, meaning they cant cough up fur balls the way a cat does. When they groom they ingest hair and hay keeps it moving through the digestive tract allowing it to pass through without causing a blockage.
Different types of hay
You may be surprised to learn that there are many different types of hay and that some are better for your rabbit than others. Alfalfa hay is great for young bunnies, but it shouldn't be fed to adult buns due to the high calorie content. At around twelve weeks you should transition your bun slowly from alfalfa to a hay more suitable for an adult such as timothy or orchard hay.
Most bunny owners will say that timothy hay is the best hay for adult bunnies, but you need to buy a good quality one. The other problem is that rabbits are fussy creatures and may not eat a particular type or brand of hay. It can take a while for you to find a hay that is not only good for your bun, but that they actually like to eat too.
A lot of rabbit owners feed a mixture of hays at the same time, or rotate hay types to keep their rabbits interested in eating it. My two are quite fussy and I tend to swap between timothy and meadow hays regularly to keep them interested.
The type of hay is not as important as the amount though so if you cannot get your bun to eat any brand of timothy hay but they will eat a tonne of meadow hay it might be best to just carry on giving them the meadow or maybe mix the two. In time you will figure out what your bunnies preference is and you can always work on adding different hays to the mix.
A good quality timothy hay
Fruit should be a small part of your rabbits diet, used more as a treat than a regular foodstuff. Fruit is high in sugar which is bad for your bun, but they will likely enjoy a small amount from time to time.
Apples are a favourite of lots of buns but be sure to take out the core and seeds before giving a small chunk to your bun. Many berries can be eaten by rabbits, check the house rabbit society's list for ideas of what is safe.
Most rabbits will go nuts for bananas, again these should be fed sparingly but getting your rabbit used to eating bananas may just go in your favour. If your rabbit gets ill and needs medicine it will likely be a real struggle to get them to take it. Some rabbits will let you syringe feed them medicine but many will not tolerate it and obviously its important to give them medicine if they need it. Bananas are your friend here, you can mash a small amount of banana in a small dish, add the medicine and mix it in. Eight times out of ten your bun will eat the yummy banana without realising that the horrible medicine is even in there.
A varied diet
The most important thing is that rabbits eat a healthy, varied diet. If rabbits stop eating it becomes an emergency within a matter of hours and a life-threatening condition known as GI-stasis can set in quickly.
Never ever restrict your rabbits access to hay, as well as being good for them, hay is what rabbits graze on between meals to keep their tummies full. You may also find rabbits use their hay as bedding, or even the toilet but that's ok too as long as they are eating good amounts of the stuff too.
A small amount of pellets and a good amount of veggies is the best way to go, again the house rabbit society has guidelines on the amounts of each to feed your bun based on their weight which you may find helpful.
Following these tips should help your bun lead a healthy happy life, along with regular vet checks of course!