Rabbits in the wild all over the world successfully consume a wide variety of plant material. Various types of dry and fresh grasses and plants with leaves comprise the largest portion of the wild rabbit's diet. Rabbits will also eat tree bark, tender twigs and sprouts, fruits, seeds and other nutritious foods in small amounts. This is important to know when we decide what is a healthy diet for our house rabbits.
The majority of the house rabbit diet should be composed of grass hay (any variety) that is rich in Vitamin A and D as well as calcium, protein and other nutrients. Eating hay promotes healthy teeth and gastrointestinal tract and should be available to your rabbit at all times. Varying the type of grass hay or mixing hays is a great idea (such as timothy, orchard, brome, etc). Avoid the use of alfalfa hay as the primary source of hay because it is very high in calories and protein, far more then the average house rabbit needs. Alfalfa is not a grass, but rather a legume in the pea and bean family.
Fresh foods are also an important part of your rabbit's diet and they provide additional nutrients as well as different textures and tastes, which are enriching for your friend. Fresh foods also provide more moisture in the diet, which is good for kidney and bladder function. The bulk of fresh foods should be made up of leafy greens (about 75% of the fresh part of the diet). Any leafy green that is safe for a human or a horse to eat is safe for a rabbit to consume. An approximate amount to feed would be around one packed cup of greens for 2 pounds of rabbit body weight once a day or divided into multiple feedings a day.
Many plants contain naturally occurring chemicals called alkaloids, which are mild toxins that protect plants in the wild. The one most talked about with rabbits is oxalic acid and it is completely harmless to animals or humans when consumed in small amounts. The amount of oxalic acid within each plant can vary significantly due to several factors including the composition of the soil the plant grew in, the time of year and the age of the plant. Most of the fresh vegetables we feed rabbits have a low to zero level of oxalic acid, but a few - most notably parsley, mustard greens and spinach - have relatively high levels. (Note that kale, which is often implicated as a high oxalate food, is actually low in oxalates.) The toxicity of oxalic acid comes with feeding large quantities of foods high in this chemical and can result in tingling of the skin and mouth, and over time damage to the kidneys. These foods are nutritious and do not need to be excluded from the diet if you feed them appropriately.
I recommend feeding a minimum of at least three types of leafy greens a day (and only one of them should be from the group listed above). Don’t feed the same greens all the time from week to week; if possible, mix it up. For instance if you feed parsley this week, then leave it out next week and use something else. Rotating the greens will also give your bunny variety in taste, texture and general nutrition!
Some folks are concerned that rabbits need to acquire a significant amount of vitamin A from greens. As mentioned above, hay is rich in vitamin A, so it is unnecessary to be concerned about the specific vitamin A content of the greens. Just for information though, kale is extremely rich in vitamin A as well as most of the leaf lettuces. And while we are on the subject of vitamins, rabbits make their own vitamin C in their bodies, unlike humans who have to get vitamin C through their diet. You may know that dark green leafy vegetables and red peppers have more vitamin C per weight then citrus fruits!
Some people are concerned about feeding foods that cause gastrointestinal (GI) gas in people such as broccoli. A rabbit's GI tract is not the same as a human's and many of the foods that may cause gas in people do not cause gas in rabbits. The most common types of foods that create havoc in the rabbit's GI tract are those high in starch and sugars because they create a change in the pH of the cecum; they eventually can throw the whole system off. The result can be serious GI disease. Foods that are notorious for causing rabbit GI problems when fed improperly are grains of any kind and legumes (beans, peas, etc). Even starchy root vegetables and fruits, if fed to excess with their high load of sugars and starch, could be a problem and should only be fed as a very small part of the diet.
There has also been discussion about feeding vegetables that are goitrogenic (causing a goiter) in humans, most notoriously those in the broccoli/cabbage family. One study done on rabbits indicated that it would take several weeks of exclusively feeding huge quantities of these foods to see any abnormalities in the blood. This diet is so far removed from normal feeding instructions for rabbits that there is no cause for concern in feeding these nutritious foods.
Beyond leafy greens you can feed other vegetables such as root vegetables or "flowers," such as broccoli and cauliflower. These foods are often higher in starch or sugars and should be fed in lesser amounts then the leafy greens. Avoid foods in the onion family such as leeks, chives and onions because they could cause blood abnormalities. A good amount of “other” vegetables (non-leafy greens) would be about 1 tablespoon of per 2 pounds of body weight per day in one meal or divided into two or more.
Fruits can also be fed in small amounts. In the wild these would be special high-calorie foods obtained only at certain times of the year. Fruit makes great training treats! You also might choose to hand-feed the fruit portion of the diet as part of developing a close bond with your bunny and to make sure he has an appetite every day. It is a great way to see if your bunny is feeling good when you observe if he takes his fruit treat every morning! If he doesn't want to eat his treat, it is time to call your veterinarian. Remember that dried fruits are about three times as concentrated as the fresh variety, so feed less of those.
Like many animals, rabbits naturally gravitate towards high-calorie foods such as those high in sugar or starch. This is a protective device from the wild days when they could never be sure when or if they would get the next meal. When a plant produces fruit, it is for a limited time and all the animals in the area would want to gobble these gems up quickly. This means that rabbits cannot limit themselves when given sugary or starchy foods if left to their own devices! Overfeeding fruits can result in a weight gain or GI upset so it is up to you to feed fruits in limited amounts. An approximate amount of fruit to provide is a teaspoon per 2 pounds of body weight daily in one feeding or divided into multiple feedings.
Before introducing any fresh foods to a rabbit, it is best if he has been eating grass hay for a minimum of 2 weeks. The grass hay will help to get his GI tract motility and flora in good working order so that he will be able to accept new foods more easily. When introducing new fresh foods to any rabbit's diet, it is best to go slowly to allow the gastrointestinal tract and all its important microorganisms to adjust. Introduce one new food every three days and keep a watch on the stools.
It is rare for a rabbit who has been on a hay diet first to have any problems using this method, but if you note softer stools that persist over a couple of days then you might want to remove that food from your bunny's diet. Keep a list of the foods that your rabbit has successfully eaten so you will have a handy shopping list.
List of Possible Foods to Give
Note: It is always preferable to buy organic produce if at all possible. If collecting wild foods such as dandelion greens, make sure they are from a pesticide-free area. All fresh foods regardless of the source should be washed (or scrubbed in the case of hard vegetables) before serving them to your rabbit.
These foods should make up about 75% of the fresh portion of your rabbit's diet (about 1 packed cup per 2 pounds of body weight per day).
Leafy Greens I
(need to be rotated due to oxalic acid content and only one out of three varieties of greens a day should be from this list)
- Mustard greens
- Beet greens
- Swiss chard
- Radish tops
- Sprouts (from 1 to 6 days after sprouting, sprouts have higher levels of alkaloids)
Leafy Greens II
(low in oxalic acid)
- Carrot tops
- Cucumber leaves
- Frisee Lettuce
- Kale (all types)
- Red or green lettuce
- Romaine lettuce
- Spring greens
- Turnip greens
- Dandelion greens
- Mint (any variety)
- Basil (any variety)
- Raspberry leaves
- Bok Choy
- Fennel (the leafy tops as well as the base)
- Borage leaves
- Dill leaves
- Yu choy
These should be no more then about 15 percent of the diet (about 1 tablespoon per 2 pounds of body weight per day).
- Broccoli (leaves and stems)
- Edible flowers (roses, nasturtiums, pansies, hibiscus)
- Bell peppers (any color)
- Chinese pea pods (the flat kind without large peas)
- Brussels sprouts
- Cabbage (any type)
- Mushrooms (any cultivated type)
- Summer squash
- Zucchini squash
These should be no more then 10% of the diet (about 1 teaspoon per 2 pounds of body weight per day).
Note: Unless otherwise stated, it is more nutritious to leave the skin on the fruit (particularly if organic). Just wash them thoroughly. IF you are in doubt about the source of the fruit and you are concerned about chemicals in the skin, then remove it.
- Apple (any variety)
- Cherries (any variety)
- Berries (any type)
- Berries (uncooked)
- Pineapple (remove skin)
- Banana (remove peel - no more then about two 1/8-inch slices a day for a 5-pound rabbit…they LOVE this!)
- Melons (any - can include peel and seeds)
- Star fruit