It should come as no surprise but a rabbit's diet is vegetarian! In the wild, they browse mostly on grass (and cereal crops) but also nibble tree bark, herbs, vegetables and hedge plants. Biologically, rabbits’ digestions are set up for a constant supply of material, so you must never leave your pet with nothing to eat!
I could also include water under this article on diet but there's very little say about water - except your rabbit needs to have constant access to fresh, clean water.
In this article, I’m only going to discuss what diet you should be feeding your rabbit and not all the other things your rabbit will eat anyway unless you can stop him, such as electric cables, doors, frames, your mail, wallpaper or stray clothing. See under rabbit proofing for how to avoid these dangerous additions to the diet! Your rabbit will also eat paper bedding and cardboard, but as far as is known, plain unprinted paper or cardboard is perfectly digestible by rabbits - not a very nourishing diet, perhaps, but fairly safe.
Rabbits have just one stomach, unlike other grazers like cattle, sheep and goats, so to deal with their hard-to-digest cellulose-based diet, they have evolved a fascinating method of fully digesting their food. Rather than store it in a fermentation vat (like ruminants), they recycle food through their guts twice over – the first time through produces a soft moist pellet which the rabbit immediately eats again, and the second time through it is thoroughly digested to produce the familiar hard dry pellet left in the litter tray. This may at first sound a revolting practice but it’s the way your bunny has evolved and needs to act in order to digest food properly. On this second time through, your rabbit can absorb most of her mineral and vitamin requirements along with additional protein and carbohydrates from her diet – if your bunny can’t recycle her pellets properly, she’ll be going short on the important vitamins especially.
In order to get at those moist first-time-through pellets, your bunny needs to be able to fold up and take them directly from his or her bottom – so keep your bunny slim and fit! Fat bunnies can’t reach to properly recycle their pellets.
Rabbits need a constant supply of food – their digestive systems need to keep moving at all times. If your rabbit suffers a ‘stoppage’, it’s vitally important to get to veterinary help urgently – check here under Vet Facts for more details. Whatever diet you and your rabbit end up working out between you, constant access to something to nibble is an important factor!
So what should you be feeding your bunny to give him the best diet possible? As closely as you can, you should be trying to mimic what his ancestors have eaten for millions of years; a mixed and varied diet of fresh, good-quality food, with a low calorie intake and a constant supply. For most of us, that means a diet based around good-quality hay supplemented with a little concentrated rabbit food and whatever fresh greens we can find (or afford!)
It is important that you limit your bunny’s access to rabbit pellets or mix; too much of this high-calorie food and your rabbit will be fat in no time! It can also cause diarrhoea, and in a rabbit that’s a very serious problem – see this page under Vet Facts for details of how to avoid or treat it. Read the instructions the food manufacturer has put on the packet and you’ll see that most recommend feeding no more than 10% of your bunny’s weight per day. For an average 1.5kg house rabbit, that’s 150g of commercial food per day. Weigh this amount on your kitchen scales and have a good look at it; find a dish that fits that amount so you won’t be tempted to overfeed, or get a measuring cup that’s clearly marked. You can feed less than this if you think your bunny is ‘doing too well’ on his ration – I feed about 5% by weight and my bunnies are fine.
In order to keep my bunnies from just gulping down their ration of ‘hard’ food in one binge, I put their pellet food into a dog treat ball – this means they have to roll the ball around the floor in order to get their food out, and it both slows them down to just a couple of pellets at a time and means they get a fair bit of exercise chasing the ball around. Rabbits very quickly learn to nudge the ball around the floor with their noses to get the food out. This also helps to keep them occupied and staves off boredom!
If you can feed fresh green food, then your bunny will be very grateful. Be careful introducing new greens into the diet if your bunny isn’t used to it – offer a little bit of something new and gradually increase the amounts if your rabbit likes it. If she ignores it, of course, don’t bother offering it again! If you have more than one bunny, you may well find that one rabbit loves what another scorns. Your bunny may also eat part of the plant you don’t expect – I recently gave mine some fresh green wheat that had grown in my mother’s garden from some mixed corn her hens hadn’t picked up, and the rabbits devoured the stem and leaves and left the seeds behind!
In terms of what sorts of green food you can give rabbits, then look for the things they eat in the wild; all sorts of grass and cereal are safe for your pet. Make sure you cut or pick the grass yourself, and never feed lawn mowings – they’re shredded too fine by the mower and can compact or ferment inside your bunny, making him very ill or even killing him. Clover, dandelions, shepherd’s purse and chickweed are also favourites, along with bramble leaves and buds, raspberry leaves and buds, strawberry leaves, carrot tops, lettuce (feed in small quantities – they contain opium-like chemicals and can cause diarrhoea!) Mine also enjoy corn plants that grow from missed bird food, the shoots from Jerusalem artichokes, parsley, sowthistle, groundsel, a little sorrel, hawthorn leaves, apples and apple wood, pears, cauliflower and broccoli (leaves and flowers), Brussels sprouts, pak choi, and occasionally spinach in moderation. They will also eat salad packs from the supermarket if you don’t have time or access to go collect food from a garden!
Rabbits hate all members of the onion family – if you have trouble with wild rabbits in your vegetables, try planting onions, shallots, leeks, spring onions and/or garlic around the outside of your vegetable beds (or whole garden!). This has worked for me, members of my family and friends I’ve advised so give it a try!
If you’re not sure about your plant identification skills, find a friend or gardener who knows and can show you, or find a good gardening book.
Be careful where you gather green food from, too – your bunny won’t be healthy if fed plants which have had weedkiller, pesticides or too much fertiliser on them. If you gather wild plants from hedges, you need to bear this in mind. If you’re lucky enough to grow your own or gather from a friend who grows their own, you will know exactly what’s gone onto the plants you’re giving your rabbit.
Once you’ve introduced fresh greens into your bunny’s diet, you can work up to as much as you like of this food. I’ve fed rabbits in the past entirely on green food and they were very healthy, happy rabbits. It is amazing how enormous a volume of fresh greenery your rabbit will munch through in a day though – be prepared to bring several armfuls or a full sack of greens home per rabbit per day! Just make sure you never change your rabbit’s diet suddenly.
If you are feeding fresh greens, make sure you remove any uneaten food after twenty-four hours, as after that time it will start to rot.
For those of us who don’t have the time or ability to fetch home sacks of greens every day, hay is a good substitute. At the moment I’m feeding mine on Excel’s Herbage - meadow hay with dandelion and marigold flowers – which they adore. Make sure the hay you get is good-quality and free of dust: rabbits have sensitive lungs and dust can quickly lead to infections or allergies. Good hay is slightly greenish, not dull brown, and should contain stems and seed heads but no roots. You may find the occasional thistle in there – the prickles usually attach to a human hand rather than a rabbit, as far as I can tell. If it’s a commercially packed hay, it’ll come wrapped in plastic – make sure your bunnies can’t get at the wrapping, of course! You may be lucky enough to find a good quality hay supplier nearer to home if you live near a farmer – but check the hay carefully. Any smell of mould or dust when you put your hands on it, or if it’s crunchy and crumbly instead of dry but a little bendy in the stems, and your bunny will be at risk eating it.
To sum up, the secret of feeding your rabbit a healthy, nutritious diet which will supply everything he needs is to avoid sudden change, to ration the calories strictly, to make sure there’s always something to nibble, and to provide plenty of variety together with constant clean water.