Updated: Dec 11, 2020
We all know the importance of a healthy and balanced diet, and can easily distinguish between a healthy option and an unhealthy one, even if we decide to choose the chocolate bar over the apple. But it can be harder to make the correct choices for rabbits. There are many health problems associated with poor diets in domestic rabbits and pet shop shelves are filled with unsuitable, inappropriate and, in some cases, dangerous feeds and treats. Many items are packed with sugars and even items we consider as healthy for humans, such as carrot, apple, banana etc, aren't actually healthy for rabbits, due to their high sugar content.
Poor diets in rabbits leads to obesity which increases the risk of flystrike, a very dangerous and life threatening condition. It increases the risk of dental spurs developing, causing painful mouth ulcers. There can be a reduction in healthy gut function, leading to frequent bouts of stasis and increasing the risk of intestinal blockages, both of which can be fatal if not treated immediately. It can also cause an over production of cecotropes (the sticky smelly poos which rabbits eat directly from the anus), which again increases the risk of flystrike.
For optimal health and well-being it is really important for rabbits to receive a healthy diet to help minimise the above risks and it is really easy, and inexpensive, to get their diets right.
Hay Hay and More Hay
80-90% of a rabbit's diet should be comprised of quality long stranded hay. In fact, hay is the only part of their diet which can, and should, be fed ad-lib. For optimum gut and dental health a rabbit should consume roughly it’s own body size in hay everyday. There are many different types of hay available, meadow and timothy being the most common. Timothy hay is a little sweeter and generally preferred by rabbits, but meadow is just as suitable. If you search online you can find a wide array of different hays and the only one which shouldn't be fed ad lib to adult rabbits is Alfa hay, due to the higher calcium levels.
Choosing The Right Hay
We would generally not recommend the pre-packed hay commonly found in pet shops. In the vast majority of cases the hay has been chopped, shortening the strands. Shorter strands take less time to eat and reduces the side to side grinding action of cheek teeth. Rabbits teeth grow continually and are worn down by the grinding action of constantly chewing hay and grass. When not provided with the opportunity to chew suitable hay, cheek teeth over grow and create sharp dental spurs which rub on their cheeks and tongues causing painful ulcers. Although dental spurs are very common in rabbits and some breeds are far more prone to dental issues, you can seriously reduce the risk of dental problems by providing suitable eating hay and save a lot of money on costly dental treatment. Chopped, short stranded hay is especially common with pre-packed meadow hay which can be very finely chopped, making it totally unsuitable for eating. There are some brands which do make suitable eating hay but these tend to be more expensive and it is far cheaper to order online with specialist companies and the hay is generally better quality. The other option, if you have the storage space and local availability, is to buy baled hay directly from a farmer or local agricultural merchant. This is by far the cheapest way and we pay around £4.00 a bale from a local farm to feed the rabbits at the rescue.
There are some great online shops which offer a wide variety of suitable eating hay. Some of these companies even offer sample packets. We recommend:
A rabbit eating sufficient hay will produce large poos which are easy to crumble. They can vary between dark and golden brown in colour, depending on the hay and other aspects of their diets. If rabbits are producing small hard dark poos this is a clear indication that they are not eating enough hay and lacking in dietary fibre.
How To Feed Hay
It is important to provide suitable hay feeders, this will help keep the hay fresh and unsoiled. As rabbits like to eat and poop at the same time it's a great idea to put a litter tray underneath a hay feeder.
You are going to struggle to find a suitable hay feeder in a pet shop. The vast majority of the hay feeders available are far too small to hold a sufficient amount. But there are some great hay rack hacks which are easily available and inexpensive. At the rescue we provide rabbits with two separate hay feeders. In their 'hutch' areas we have used wire letter box cages which are easily found on line. They have been screwed on to doors or hutch walls and have a flip up lid making it easy for us to empty and refill them. In the 'run' areas we have used wire hanging baskets held up by a simple screw in mug hook, again easily found and ordered online. Other people have used plastic bag holders which have been attached to the side of pens, hutches and runs. You can also buy some great handmade large hay feeders on ebay and from Manor Pet Housing. There are even 'hay bars' which have a built-in litter tray directly in front of the feeder.
Hay should always be available and any uneaten hay should be removed and fully replaced with fresh hay at least every other day. You don't need to waste uneaten hay from hay racks, as it can be reused in litter trays and sleeping areas.
How To Encourage Your Rabbits To Eat Hay
If your rabbits aren't eating enough hay there are a number of things you can do to change this. I would always recommend that you visit a rabbit savvy vet for a dental check before you do anything else. A rabbit with painful spurs is just not going to eat hay as it is simply too painful. As a prey species rabbits hide pain, and illness, incredibly well and even a trained eye can easily miss early signs that something is wrong. In a lot of cases a rabbit will only start to visibly display obvious symptoms when conditions are advanced and urgent veterinary care is critical. With this in mind, it is common for owners to be totally unaware that their rabbit is in pain from dental spurs and not just being a fussy eater. Once a vet has ruled out spurs, or if they have been discovered, the necessary dental work carried out, you can start to make changes to their diet to increase hay consumption.
One of the most common reasons for low hay intake is simply that owners are over feeding other elements of a rabbit's diet. Although rabbits are mini poop factories and can produce over 300 poops in 24 hours, just like humans, a full belly is a full belly, and they simply won't eat the hay as they have filled up on sweeter and tastier items.
Sadly we have a lot of rabbits arrive with us at the rescue who haven't been given constant access to hay or simply aren't eating it as they have also been provided with a huge bowl of pellets, whole carrots, and a variety of other unsuitable treats. We can tell by the consistency of the poos they produce in the first 24-48 hours in our care. By stripping back all other elements of their diet to suitable levels, hay intake generally increases dramatically within the first few days and poo consistency improves just as quickly. By the end of the first week they are producing beautiful large crumbling poos and munching through hay throughout the day without complaint.
We have had far more fussy rabbits who simply refuse to eat hay, and in one case, refused to eat anything other than very specific parts of a terrible rabbit muesli brand. He was a real challenge as he would go into stasis if offered anything else. But eventually we even managed to get him to eat his hay and more suitable pellets. So I'm a firm believer that it is possible with any rabbit. We managed to convert him in the end by mixing the muesli feed and pellets in a plastic container and leaving it on a radiator for a few hours. This transferred the molasses on to the pellets and gradually he started to eat the pellets. We did the same with the hay, allowing the sweetness of the molasses to mix with the hay. Very slowly, over a long period of time we reduced the amount of muesli mixed in, reduced the amount of time we left it on the radiator and eventually phased out the muesli altogether. This took over 8 months and to date he has been the most difficult rabbit we've ever encountered.
If you have ruled out or treated spurs, stripped back other elements of the diet and hay intake still remains low, try different types of hay. Mix and match and see which your rabbit prefers. Leave piles of hay around their enclosure; generally place piles in locations which will annoy the rabbit, such as tunnel entrances, and pop holes into sleeping areas and boxes. This encourages them to chew at the hay to get it out of the way. As they start to nibble at it to break it up, they will eventually start to eat it rather than drop it. Fill litter boxes with fresh hay on a daily basis and rather than flattening it down, fluff it up around the edges or in the middle so it is mouth height and do the same in sleeping areas. If all of the above fails, nip to the supermarket and buy some dried parsley, basil, and/or coriander, sprinkle this over batches of hay in a carrier bag and leave that on a radiator for ½ an hour to warm up and mix the flavours of the herbs. Slowly reduce the amount of dried herbs until your rabbit is happily eating plain unadulterated hay.
The Remaining 10-20% of a Healthy Diet
If you have had real issues with encouraging your rabbit to eat enough hay I would recommend that when stripping back a diet, you feed 90% hay, 5% pellets and 5% fresh foods and treats. If your rabbit is generally a good hay eater then you can opt for 80% hay, 5% pellets and 13% suitable fresh foods and 2% treats. The best way to monitor the amount of fibre being consumed from hay is via poos. If poos reduce in quantity or quality cut back on fresh foods and treats to a minimum of 5%.
I've mentioned poo a lot already, rabbit owners become obsessed with their rabbits' daily offering as it's one of the best ways to assess overall health. A change in the size, shape, consistency and amount can indicate the beginning of stasis, dental problems, and other health problems which will require veterinary treatment. We become so proud of our rabbits for producing a batch of perfect poos, we'd be happy to display them on the fridge.
There are lots of different types of rabbit feed available in pet shops, and just like the huge array of human food available in supermarkets, not everything is healthy.
When choosing a commercial feed the first thing to do is remove ALL muesli mixes from the equation. These not only encourage selective feeding, where a rabbit will eat the parts they prefer and leave other parts. They are also generally higher in sugars, packed with grains, and contain little to no beneficial fibre. Many owners choose muesli mixes as they seem more attractive with their bright colours, and are generally a lot cheaper. As many owners drastically over feed a commercial mix, it's not surprising that they are put off switching to a good quality pellet due to price. A balanced healthy diet requires so little commercial mix, that a 2kg bag of pellets will last 2 rabbits around 1 month.
There are two different types of pellet feed available: extruded and cold pressed. Extruded pellets are created via a cooking process and cold pressed are created using high pressure to squeeze ingredients together. Extruded pellets create a more side to side grinding action when consumed and cold pressed create an up and down chewing motion. As a result, extruded is generally accepted as the better choice for dental health.
The ingredients also need to be carefully considered when choosing a pellet brand. Many of the cheaper pellets use grains as their main ingredient and grains are low in fibre. To make the best choice for our rabbits we should select a brand which lists hays and grasses as the main ingredient. When looking at labels, the main ingredients are listed first. You also want to look at the fibre content which should be at least 15% preferably more.
It is generally accepted that the best brand for overall health is Supreme Science Selective, followed by Burgess Excel Light. Supreme now also produce a grain free version of their rabbit selective pellet which is also a good option.
A healthy adult rabbit rabbit requires 15g of pellets per kilo of body weight every day. So an average sized rabbit weighing around 2kg will require 30g, this equates roughly to 1 level tablespoon. This doesn't seem like much at all, but as the vast majority of their diet should consist of hay, this small daily offering of pellets is quite sufficient. This can be fed as a single meal or split between two meals.
Here at the rescue we use two commercially produced feeds and spilt them between a breakfast meal and a late afternoon meal. In the mornings our rabbits are given 2 Science Selective Fibafirst sticks. These can be fed as a stand alone commercial diet, used as treats or as part of their daily feed. In the afternoon they get a small amount of Science Selective pellets. Despite this small offering we are currently having to closely monitor a few of our rabbits who are getting a little podgy!
We believe that it is important to provide rabbits with a daily portion of pellets. To provide the correct nutrition via a pellet free diet is very difficult and will require owners to be incredibly dedicated and forage for a wide variety of different plants and weeds. Offering a small amount of pellets on a daily basis will ensure that your rabbits are getting the correct vitamins and minerals to promote overall health.
Generally when we think of fresh foods for rabbits the first items owners tend to think of are supermarket vegetables and fruit. In fact the best choices we can make are foraged plants and weeds. But you do need to be confident that you are correctly identity plants and only offer safe items. There is a great Facebook group to help you (https://www.facebook.com/groups/wildnutritionforrabbits/) and a wonderful book available in selecting the best forage. You can even dry batches of forage to feed over winter. Some of the most favoured forage items are:
-Sicky willies also known as clevers
-Willow - leaves and branches, should not be given if rabbits are on metacam
-Apple tree leaves and branches - ensure that the tree has not been treated with pesticides
-Fresh picked grass - do not use grass which has been cut with a mower or strimmer. This starts to ferment really quickly due to the cutting method and can cause digestive upset.
Sadly we don't all have the option to forage for our rabbit's dinner and a supermarket is our only option. If this is the case, the potted fresh herbs make a great choice. Parsley, basil, and coriander are all enjoyed by rabbits and are low in sugar. Rabbits can also be offered small amounts of green veg like spring greens, kale, and cabbage, however, these are very gassy and some rabbits simply cannot tolerate them.
Treats and Extras
We all love to treat our pets and I'm certainly not telling you to stop, but you do need to be very selective about the treats offered to rabbits. There are so many unsuitable treats available in pet shops, in fact the vast majority of them really aren't suitable for rabbits and can be dangerous. Anything containing grains and seeds is a definite no no, especially dried corn! They have very little nutritional value, corn can't even be digested by rabbits, and often cause intestinal blockages. This is more likely to occur when a rabbit is already unwell, stressed, or suffering from an underlying condition. You may have been giving your rabbits these items for years without any problem, but that doesn't mean that you should continue. Many pet shop treats also contain dairy products which again can't be digested by rabbits and a lot of them are incredibly high in sugar. There are now some amazing treats available to spoil our rabbits, so you still have plenty of choice.
Dried Forage / grass
There is now a wide selection of dried forage available and these make a great addition to a rabbit's diet. You can also easily get a freeze dried grass such as Readigrass, or Graze On. It is important to note that such dried grasses should not be fed as a hay substitute. The drying process makes them much richer and sweeter than fresh grass, and even more so when compared to hay. They will have very short strands, Readigrass has the longest cut but this is still incredibly short when compared to hay. We do give our rabbits a small handful of Readigrass each day, along with their Fibafirst sticks. We have adapted suet block feeders for wild birds, which make brilliant feeders for dried grass and forage. Removing the hanging chain from the feeder and hanging them in hutch areas with a small screw in mug hook.
Supreme Science Selective now have a great range of treats suitable for rabbits. They produce sticks, similar to fibafirst and little rings. All of the rabbits here really enjoy them.
Fenugreek Crunchies are enough to drive your rabbits crazy. They utterly adore these and all of our rabbits soon learn the sound of the packet crackling.
Hay Cookies, although messy, they are another favourite here at the rescue. Again these should not be used as a replacement for hay and should only be given as an occasional treat. Rabbits will happily fill up on a cookie, rather than eating long stranded hay from the hay rack, having a detrimental effect on dental health.
Despite popular belief, carrots shouldn't be fed to rabbits in large quantities. In fact, a rabbit should only have a thin slice about the size of a 2p once or twice a week.
Fresh banana is a firm favourite with bunnies. Again like carrots, a 2p sized slice once a week is the limit. But it's great to watch the banana butt twitch. You may have never noticed, but rabbits twitch their bums when they are eating something that they really enjoy. This twitch becomes very pronounced when they are eating banana. Strawberry, again only a very small amount once a week. But this is another firm favourite.
It is worth adding that it is a choice between carrot, banana, and strawberry on a weekly basis. Rabbits should not be given all three in the course of a week.
We recommend that water is provided in a bowl, rather than a bottle. Bottles are much harder to drink from and harder to clean. Research has shown that rabbits tend to drink more when provided with a bowl, compared to a bottle and are therefore better hydrated. Using a heavy ceramic bowl will prevent them from tipping it over. We converted from bottles to bowls a few years ago and certainly wouldn't switch back.
It's very important not to make sudden changes to your rabbits' diet, other than increasing the amount of hay offered. Suddenly changing a commercial diet or drastically increasing the amount of fresh food, can lead to digestive upset and stasis. When introducing new foods or switching brands of commercial feeds, it's important to do it slowly, gradually increasing the amount offered over a period of days.
I have in no way provided an extensive list of suitable fresh forage, fresh supermarket veg, or treats. Rather I have included items which are generally easily available. I would always recommend The Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund for anyone looking for reliable and up to date information about rabbit care and welfare. Their website is packed with information to help you improve the overall health and welfare of your rabbits. https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk
If you have found this article helpful, please consider making a donation towards our work at Nibbles. We are West Wales' only specialist rabbit and rodent rescue and totally reliant on donations and fundraising to keep the centre open and running. We can't do what we do, without the support from wonderful people just like you!