Just like people, bunnies enjoy a good meal. A nice mix of Timothy Hay, pellets and fresh water will make your rabbit healthy and happy.
Fresh hay should make up the bulk of your rabbit's diet and needs to be readily available at all times. Adult rabbits can eat timothy, grass, and oat hays, while younger rabbits should be fed alfalfa. Alfalfa should not be given to adult rabbits (older than 6 months) because of the higher protein and sugar content. Hay is important for rabbits because it provides the essential fiber needed for good digestive health and it helps wear down a rabbit's teeth (which continuously grow) for good dental health. Placing hay at one end of a litter box will also encourage the use of the litter box, as rabbits tend to eat hay and poop at the same time.
When choosing hay, make sure it looks and smells fresh. Do not choose a hay that looks brown or moldy or no longer smells like fresh cut grass. Store hay in a dry place in a container that allows air flow to keep it from getting moldy. Buying hay in bulk from a local farmer tends to be much more economical than buying bags from a pet store.
water must always be available to your rabbit. If you have a cage, a
hanging water bottle is a fine option. Rabbits will also drink from a
water bowl. On a hot day you can drop an ice cube or two in your rabbits
These should be purchased so that they are fresh, as bunnies will turn their noses up at stale pellets. Look for pellets that are high in fiber and low in protein. You will need to limit your rabbit's pellet intake as he/she ages. Pellets that are high in protein can lead to obesity and other health issues in rabbits.
A good quality rabbit pellet made from alfalfa forage and wheat middlings and a good quality grass hay is all they really need. Ask for a starter supply of food where you purchase your bunny and be sure to get the name and protein content used. Rabbit pellets are available in 16%, 17%, 18% and 20% protein. 16 and 17 percent are the most common with the higher protein reserved for fattening fryers and maintenance of does with large litters.
The key is to select one feed and STICK TO IT! All rabbit pellets are not created equal! Abrupt change of diet can cause diarrhea and death overnight! Adding new foods (different brand of pellets, fresh fruits or vegetables etc.) of any kind can prompt a bout of diarrhea.
WHAT DO I DO IF MY RABBIT GETS DIARRHEA FROM CHANGING FEED?
If your rabbit develops diarrhea from feed change, remove all pelleted feed at once. Feed only hay and old fashioned Quaker Oats. Offer strong tea to drink. Anti-gas treatments can be recommended by your veterinarian (a treatment for human infants that is available at any drug store) could offer some immediate relief. If the condition lasts more than 12 hours after removing pellets, get your rabbit to a vet and request subcutaneous fluids be administered for dehydration. Many vets will suggest antibiotics but when diarrhea is caused by a change of feed the antibiotics may make the condition worse. Be sure your vet knows that you changed the rabbit's diet.
If you have started using a feed and perhaps leave town and take the bunny along, suddenly discovering you left the food at home, DO NOT, under any circumstances, run down to the first pet store you find and buy something off the shelf! Feed your bunny a bland diet of dry bread and dry Old Fashioned (not Quick) Quaker Oatmeal (yes, people food) until you return home. You will save yourself a lot of heartaches.
If the feed your bunny was raised on is not available in your area, be sure to mix the starter feed with the new feed and switch over gradually, adding dry Quaker Oatmeal or straw to minimize stomach upset.
HOW MUCH DO THEY EAT?
Once again there are variables based on weather, age of the bunny, amount of exercise and good common sense!
The basic rule is one ounce of pellets per pound of body weight. A 2 pound dwarf would get 2 oz or 1/4 cup per day. See "Don't Fill the Feeder" below..
Babies up to 3 months of age may have as much as they want to eat providing it doesn't upset their stomach. START SLOWLY! Environmental changes as subtle as the water can upset a young bunnies's digestive system so start with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of feed morning and night the first day and then gradually increase the amount a few tablespoons at a time until you find what he will clean up at a given feeding.
Youngsters that have just been taken away from their mother appreciate a little piece of bread with milk poured over it for a week or two to help them wean gradually. Any kind of bread and any kind of milk is okay. If you find your baby eating the bread and milk and not the pellets, don't worry. It's like giving a child milk and cookies and wondering why they don't want spinach! If the bunny is still ignoring the pellets after a week or two, slowly decrease the bread and milk and he will make the transition just fine.
Never feed more pellets, hay or straw than they will consume in 8 hours. Once the feed is exposed to daylight and air, it begins to loose nutrients and absorb moisture which makes it less palatable.
DON'T FILL THE FEEDER!
The best indicator of your rabbit's health is his appetite. He won't eat if he doesn't feel well. If the feeder is kept full all the time, you won't know until it's too late that something is wrong.
Healthy rabbits appetites will increase slightly in cooler weather and decrease in warmer weather but are pretty consistent in dietary requirements.
From the age of three to four months, gradually begin to decrease the food to the adult portion using the following guideline:
An easy formula for an adult rabbit would be ONE OUNCE OF FOOD PER DAY PER POUND OF BODY WEIGHT.
For example a 2 pound Netherland Dwarf would get 2 oz. or a 1/4 cup; a 4 pound Holland Lop would get 4 oz. or 1/2 cup; a 6 pound Mini Lop would get 6 oz. or 3/4 cup; a 12 pound French Lop would get 12 oz. or 1-1/2 cups.
Remember these are general guidelines for a caged rabbit. I would rather see a bunny a little too lean than too fat. Like people, they live longer if they don't get too fat. Similarly, each will metabolize what they eat differently.
The best guide is how your rabbits looks and feels. My basic guide to tell if one is too fat is to see if I can get a handful of loose skin over its' back. If not, its too fat! If I can feel every bone down its spine, it's too thin. Some breeds tend to be beefier than others. If you buy from a breeder, ask to feel what a good weight rabbit should feel like, then go from there.
There is no substitute for common sense! If you're feeding the scheduled amount and your rabbit feels too thin or too fat, adjust the quantity accordingly. If he still feels too fat or too thin, consult your vet to rule out parasites or a metabolic disorder.
WHAT ABOUT WATER?
A rabbit can live for quite a while without food but it cannot live without water. Lots of fresh water should always be available.
Changes in water can sometimes upset a young bunny's tummy. It isn't necessary to use bottled water but just be aware that changing from well water to chlorinated city water or vice versa can take a little getting used to. Limiting feed for the first few days and supplementing with a bland diet of oatmeal will help reduce the stress.
IS GRASS OKAY TO EAT?
Yes, if it hasn't been sprayed with pesticides or recently treated with weed killers or Ammonia Sulphate.
NEVER FEED GRASS CLIPPINGS ! They tend to get "hot" and ferment quickly.
WHAT ABOUT HAY?
Hay, preferably grass hay, should be fed daily or weekly (at the very least) as an additional source of roughage.
Timothy and other grass hays are good roughage without too many calories and may be feed free choice. Be sure they haven't been sprayed. Some sprays that aren't toxic to large livestock can be tough on bunnies. Timothy is readily available at most Pet Stores .
Alfalfa is good treat for all ages but is too rich in calcium and protein to be fed every day. The pellets are Alfalfa based and adding fresh Alfalfa can cause an overload.
Oat Hay is tough on tender baby tummies unless you pick off the oat kernels. It is fine for adults and they like it for a variety.
Pea or Bean Hay is a favorite of rabbits but is not always easy to find and has a tendency to have mold which can be toxic. Again, this is very rich and should only be used as a treat.
Other good grass hays include Orchard Grass, Rye Grass, Meadow grass, Coastal bermuda, and Blue grass. Pasture grasses are sometimes okay but may contain noxious weeds. Never feed any part of a bale that looks different than the rest.
WHAT ABOUT VEGETABLES?
NO LETTUCE OR CELERY EVER, EVER, EVER !!!!
A wild rabbit or back yard bunny can get into the vegetable patch and eat lettuce or celery and when it gets an upset stomach it can go off and find a Dandelion green or mint leaf to make it well. A domestic rabbit in a cage can't tell you it doesn't feel well until it develops diarrhea and then IT CAN BE TOO LATE.
The key to feeding ANYTHING is MODERATION! Start out slowly offering very small pieces and only introduce ONE new treat on any given day. Bunnies under the age of 3 months should not have ANY FRUITS OR VEGETABLES.
A baby carrot or small apple slice or small (quarter size) banana slice are the safest to start with (in small pieces) at the age of 3 months.
NO OTHER FRUITS OR VEGETABLES UNTIL SIX MONTHS IF AGE should be fed in order to allow the digestive system time to develop fully. Then, as with a human baby, introduce new foods (except lettuce and celery) slowly in very small amounts.
Apples, pears, fresh pineapple, fresh papaya, kiwi, citrus of all kinds and watermelon seem to be favorite snacks. Strawberries seem to be on the "least favorite" list although they do like the strawberry leaves. The crunchier the better for the sake of their teeth. But go easy on sweet foods.
Greens such as fresh spinach, kale, chard, parsley are welcome treats as well but be very careful not to overdo it for fear of the onset of diarrhea. Kale is okay in small quantities on occasion. Be cautious of foods that give you gas! It does the same thing to your bunny! OUCH! Dark green leafy vegetables are high in oxylates that can lead to bladder sludge and stones so if you feel you must feed greens, do it sparingly!
I do not feed my rabbits ANY green vegetables and they are happy, healthy and live long lives. The only greens they get are hay and apple wood. I believe that the vegetable diets promoted by many rescue groups and even vets are the cause of the growing number of cases of GI Stasis. When rabbits become bloated with gas the gut loses motility and shut down follows. In over 25 years we have had only one case of gut wool block only the rare case of gut slowdown in large sedentary rabbits. In our effort to keep our rabbits healthy we often tend to over do it and cause more problems than pleasure.
Just remember, all things in moderation!
Some rabbits don't excrete calcium efficiently and can develop a condition known as bladder sludge where the calcium if not excreted and the bladder fills with the calcium sludge. The following foods should be avoided if your rabbit has been diagnosed with bladder sludge.
Foods that contain oxalates that can produce bladder sludge:
The following are some examples of the most common sources of oxalates, arranged by food group. It is important to note that the leaves of a plant almost always contain higher oxalate levels than the roots, stems, and stalks.
•Fruits ◦blackberries, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, currants, kiwi fruit, concord (purple) grapes, figs, tangerines, and plums
•Vegetables: spinach, Swiss chard, beet greens, collards, okra, parsley, and leeks are among the most oxlate-dense vegetables. Celery, green beans, rutabagas, and summer squash would be considered moderately dense in oxalates.
•Nuts and seeds ◦almonds, cashews, and peanuts
•Legumes ◦soybeans, tofu
At the first sign of a soft or runny bowel movement, take the fruit or vegetable away and feed plain straw, dry oatmeal or dry bread.
DO THEY NEED SALT?
Sometimes. It's a good idea to have it available to them. Most commercial feeds contain adequate amounts of salt and many rabbits will ignore the salt lick but I assume they're the best judge of whether they need it or not so it's there if they want some. A salt lick can rust the cage so put it in a little bowl or in the feeder to protect the cage. Feeders are less expensive to replace than the cage!
DO THEY NEED VITAMINS?
A good quality rabbit food should have all they need and if they get fruits and vegetables from time to time it shouldn't be necessary.
All the comments and opinions you will find here are based on my experience, personal study, research, and raising my rabbits. What works for me may not work for others. The information here is based on my experience with my herd of Lionheads, Holland Lops and Netherland Dwarf rabbits which are all dwarf breeds. I have NO experience with larger giant breeds and am not addressing them here as they may have very different dietary requirements.