The subject of diet is often very confusing for pet owner and breeder alike, everyone has a different opinion of what is best and they are all different! I base my recommendations on personal experience, listening to differing opinions, and lots of reading & research. The best way to sort through all the differing diet information is to consider the whys and hows. I believe there are several diet options for rabbits that are all equally effective. In the end it is up to you to create a feeding plan tailored to your pet. The option I've always used is a pellet based diet and that is the one I will focus on.
Water The most important nutrient your rabbit needs is water, access to clean fresh water should always be available. Water can be kept in a bowl or crock, or in a water bottle. I find a water bottle is better for keeping a rabbit's dewlap dry, it also can't be tipped over by bunny. If you use a crock or bowl be sure it is secured so it doesn't get spilled. Be sure to keep bowls or bottles clean and free of bacteria, disinfect often. If your rabbit can't get water he won't eat and even going "off-feed" for 24 hours can be serious for your rabbit. If your rabbit's food level hasn't gone down over 24 hours the first thing you should check is that he has water and can get to it.
As the name suggests pellets are the main component of this diet option. A fresh, quality commercial rabbit pellet is fed in limited quantities. The key to successfully feeding this diet is to limit the amount of pellets. This means if bunny eats all his pellets you do not refill the dish until the next feeding time (* unless he is a youngster and still growing). Overfeeding pellets leads to obesity and other digestive system problems. An overweight rabbit is an unhealthy rabbit, the overfeeding of pellets is most often the cause of diet problems in pet rabbits. One of the most attractive features to feeding a pellet based diet is it is easier to provide your rabbit with all the nutrients he needs in a convenient manner. Of course just because you feed a pellet based diet it doesn't mean you can't supplement it with hay, vegetables, fruits, and treats.
Some other factors you should keep in mind are: feed a good commercial rabbit pellet that is not soft and "crumbly". Do not keep feed for longer than 6-8 weeks because it will lose nutrients and palatability, always buy small quantities. Be sure feed is not moldy or has foreign substances in it. Keep feed stored in a dry cool place and protected from rodents. Also be sure to sift the feed to eliminate the "dust" from the pellets. Sometimes sneezing is caused by feed dust and is not a sign of disease. Please be sure to use fresh, quality pellets. Too often a pet owner will use feed that is old or not a good quality and will then start to see problems with their rabbit. I do not recommend buying pellets from supermarkets or department stores unless they can provide the date the feed arrived there. The time it takes to get the feed to the store may result in old feed by the time bunny gets it and of course that would be a problem. A feed store, rabbit equipment company, or breeder are excellent choices for fresh, quality feed. Contact your local breeder for recommendations on the best local places to purchase feed and what brands are good.
Critics of pellet based diets often argue that they were formulated for fast weight gain in meat rabbits and therefore not a good choice for pets. This however does not take into account the different feed formulas on the market. Most of the major pellet manufacturers offer different pellet formulations for more than just commercial uses. These pellets have different amounts of fiber and protein in order to achieve the desired effects and the pet owner is certainly able to find a mix just right for their rabbit. I use a show formula, which is 15% protein and 20% fiber.
These varying pellet formulas give the pet owner a greater choice and you are better able to provide a healthy diet for your rabbit. But you still need to check the label on the brand of feed you choose. You need to check the percentage of fiber, protein, and fat. The National Research Council lists minimum rabbit nutrient requirements for a maintenance diet as 14% crude fiber, 2 % fat, and crude protein 12%. Always check the labels on the feed you buy and only buy feeds that at least meet or better yet, exceed the above minimum amount of fiber, but keep protein and fat level low. Fiber level of 15%-17% is adequate (1). A level greater than 17% retards weight gain which would be desirable in a neutered pet rabbit and fiber levels of 22.5% and higher are used for reducing obesity and hairballs.(1)
Protein levels should be 15%-19% according to Harkness & Wagner(1). Be sure the fiber level is greater than the protein level. Too high protein in the diet creates a greater amount of ammonia in the urine. It would be better to keep protein closer to 15%.
Fat levels should be low, around 3% or less. The higher the fat content of a pellet the worse it is for your bunny (obesity). Avoid pellets with lots of nuts, seeds, etc. in it, they are not good to feed due to a high fat content. Fat does have a role in diet because it is a source of energy and helps increase the feed palatability. You may also wish to monitor the calcium levels in the pellet, some believe that high calcium levels in the diet along with other factors including excessive vitamin D can lead to problems with bladder stones and kidney damage (1). The National Research Council lists calcium needs as .6%. It is best to find a good feed and stay with it, rabbit digestive systems can be thrown off with changes in feed. If you make a change do so gradually. Change of feed over a week is usually fine.
How Much Feed?
After you have a good quality pellet how much do you feed? Again there are varying opinions but it is my experience that you have to end up making adjustments for your individual rabbit. When bunny is young and growing he should be "free-fed" that is given all he will eat, but when he has reached adulthood (5-6 mos. small breeds, 5-8 mos. medium & large breeds, 8-12 mos. giant breeds) you must limit pellets. ARBA recommends at maturity, 2-3 oz of pellets per day for small breeds, 6-8oz. for medium sized breeds, and 8-10oz for large breeds. In the Harkness & Wagner book they recommend a limited once a day pellet feeding of 3-4 oz (2/3 Cup) for a medium sized rabbit to maintain a constant weight. I feed my Netherland Dwarfs around 2-3 oz. daily, again some eat less and some a bit more.
Monika Wegler's book (4) has some interesting recommendations. The daily diet for rabbits up to 6.5 lbs. includes unlimited hay, 1-1.8 oz. pellets, up to 3 oz greens or up to 6 oz green vegetables. She also adds every second or third day a grain source such as whole-wheat or oat flakes and once a week some fruit and dry bread. The diet amounts I've offered should help guide you in determining how much your rabbit needs. Note that with the Wegler diet the pellets are very limited but hay is given in unlimited amounts to provide enough nutrients and fiber. Vegetables are also given in large amounts in order to satisfy the same nutritional needs. So when making adjustments for your rabbit be sure to balance pellets, hay, and vegetables. Most rabbit raisers use fruits and grains only as treats.
As I said before just because you're using pellets as the basis of the diet that doesn't mean bunny can't have supplements. It is important to monitor the rabbit's weight and assess the body condition to prevent obesity. Checking body condition is merely feeling your rabbit over his back and hindquarters. If bunny is bony and thin you aren't feeding enough. If the back and hindquarters can't be felt because of a thick layer of fat, you're feeding too much. Investing in a small scale to accurately measure weight isn't a bad idea and may prove helpful to the new bunny owner. You should weigh bunny once a month and write the weight down to for future comparison. It would also be useful to find out what the weight range is for your breed of rabbit. Show weights are listed in the ARBA Standard of Perfection which can be a guide or you can contact a local breeder.
We give our pets treats to help in training, show love, strengthen bonds, reward, and keep the pet interested in their environment. Treats can be given but do not exceed 1/4 of the entire days rations in treats or supplements (1 tsp. Is a good amount in most cases). Treats should be fed in moderation as they increase the amount of calories and fat in the diet. You must also consider the size and activity level of your rabbit, the less active the fewer treats that should be given. Treats and fresh greens should be avoided until adulthood to prevent any possible enteric conditions. Some people do start greens early but it is not recommended because the period between 8 weeks old to 3 months is often when problems occur as bunny's digestive system changes. Avoid feeding treats that are salty or "sugary", too much sugar in a rabbits diet may cause enterotoxemia (severe diarrhea and possibly death). Be careful to only give a little and stop if your bunny develops diarrhea. Don't introduce more than one treat at a time, if bunny's system doesn't agree with it you will know exactly which foods to avoid. Avoid Iceberg lettuce, it tends to contain too much water and isn't very good to give to your bunny (diarrhea may be the result). Avocado may be toxic. Raw corn can cause problems and many stay away from any corn. Be careful with foods that can cause gas such as the cabbage group, you may only wish to give a tiny amount. Also never give fruit or vegetables that have pesticides on them, are fermented, moldy, or rotting. If you don't know where the food came from (and what might be on it) don't feed it!
Vegetables and herbs can be given in larger amounts than fruits, supplements, and other treats without causing problems or obesity. Limit fruit to 1 heaping tablespoon per 4 pounds of adult weight. If you feed greens and succulents free choice you can cut down on the amount of pellets by 50% without causing a problem (2). Greens are also good for rabbits off feed to stimulate appetite and keep them hydrated. Most greens are high in water content so large quantities must be fed to meet nutritional needs if they are the only source of nutrients. Be very careful with starchy treats or those high in carbohydrates, including grains. Starch is the major carbohydrate in grains and too much can cause an overgrowth, or explosion, in the beneficial bacteria present in the cecum, and that leads to major problems. Grains include: plant seeds, corn, wheat, barley, millet, rice, oats, rye, and buckwheat. Oats and barley are lower in energy and higher in fiber, probably the reason many people give a small amount of oats to bunnies under 6 months old and to those suffering with diarrhea. Corn and wheat are high energy grains, which means if they are fed it is only in tiny amounts once in a great while. Oats and corn have the highest fat content(2). According to Rabbit Production grains are "essentially devoid of calcium", so you won't have to worry about what amount of calcium they are adding to bunny's diet. Here is a list of treats that should be fed in small amounts (1 tsp. or less): oats, oatmeal, nuts, sunflower seeds, barley, linseed, commercial supplement (i.e. Doc's Rabbit Enhancer, Showbloom, follow the label instructions on these), Calf Manna, cereal (i.e. Cheerios, bran, corn flakes), and dry bread.
Pet stores also carry commercial treats and as the market for pet rabbits grows so will the different types of treats sold. These treats range from vegetable based to grain based treats but not all are good for bunny. Always check the ingredients listed on the label and listed in order of amounts. If they list ingredients that are high in protein, fat, low in fiber, sugar or fat first they should be avoided.
If you feed bunny a commercial pellet he will get all the minerals and vitamins he needs but you may want to add a supplement like Doc's Rabbit Enhancer which contains odor-bloc to neutralize ammonia levels in rabbit waste, papaya plus enzymes to aid in elimination of fur block, probiotics to replenish beneficial bacterial flora in the rabbit's intestinal tract, and an appetite stimulator. You can also add vitamin and electrolyte supplements during times of stress and as an aid when treating disease. You also don't need to use a salt lick or block if you're feeding pellets. The pellets will contain all the salt bunny needs. If you add salt to the diet care must be taken to provide all the water bunny wants or you risk salt poisoning (7).
Yes there are foods you have to be careful of in addition to the other items mentioned before. The following information comes from Rabbit Production (2). You shouldn't feed rabbits the following raw: soybeans, broad beans, common beans, pinto, navy, or kidney beans. Raw beans contain lectins which can damage intestinal walls and reduce nutrient absorption. Lectins are destroyed by cooking. Cabbage, cauliflower, kale, rape, mustard can be fed in moderate amounts because they contain goitrogens which inhibits synthesis of a thyroid hormone. Spinach and chard in moderate amounts are okay because they contain oxalates, the substance that makes rhubarb leaves toxic. Some weeds such as milkweed and nightshade are toxic as are garden plants such as lupines, delphiniums, and foxgloves. You should contact your local Co-operative Extension office for a list of toxic plants in your area. Rabbits should be kept away from houseplants unless you're sure they aren't poisonous.
Hay is a good source of fiber and fiber is very important in a rabbit's diet. It is thought to provide protection for the intestines, prevent fur chewing, and prevent enteric conditions by preventing hindgut overload (2). Hindgut overload refers to the condition where too much dietary carbohydrate causes an overgrowth of the normal bacteria found in the cecum, and leads to entereotoxemia (severe diarrhea). Enteric conditions are a leading cause of death in rabbits so you can see the importance of taking simple steps to prevent it.
In addition, too little roughage in the diet may cause cecal impaction (2). Cecal impaction is like constipation, digesting food gets caught in the system and causes a blockage for the rabbit. The passage of food through the digestive system is known as gut motility. A decrease in motility may lead to cecal impaction. This condition is life threatening, treatment may include hydrating the rabbit to get the system moving again or in the worst case surgery which is very risky and often unsuccessful. The rabbit doesn't digest fiber efficiently and it is quickly passed through the digestive system, which is the reason why hay is important to gut motility. Often a rabbit with cecal impaction is given hay to get the gut moving again and the food matter through.
Timothy grass or mixed grass hay (fescue, rye, pasture grass, mountain fescue, oat or wheat hay) (6) is the best to give and it can be given in unlimited amounts. Even a little hay is beneficial for rabbits if you want to limit the amount they get. Alfalfa Hay (also called legumes) contains a higher amount of protein and calcium and is good to give to outdoor bunnies and growing young. It is often not advised to feed indoor house rabbits this kind of hay because they may get too much calcium and gain weight on it. Alfalfa is the primary ingredient in pellets. You could also feed a mix of alfalfa hay and grass hay as long as it is mostly made up of the grass. Grass hays have a lower nutritional value than legumes but are also lower in protein and calcium. The calcium levels in general are .2-.4% (2). Providing hay daily is also a good way to prevent hairballs (Trichobezoars), diarrhea, and gives bunny something to chew on. Store hay in a cool dry place and discard if it gets wet or moldy.
An interesting aspect of bunny's diet is referred to as coprophagy, this is the process of producing and eating special fecal material (cecotropes). At certain times of the day rabbits produce fecal material that is softer than regular feces and "clumpy", these are also called "night feces". These cecotropes provide rabbits with additional nutrients and the rabbit knows when they are being produced and will eat these directly from the anus. This is a normal and important behavior so don't worry if you catch bunny doing this! If traveling with your bunny be sure to take along his pellets and water, even a change in water can disrupt the digestive system and it's better to be safe than sorry. Rabbit can be very finicky eaters and if something doesn't taste right to them they won't eat or drink it.
Unfortunately the internet is mostly full of "advice" from rabbit "rescue" groups or "house" rabbit groups. Much of this information is inaccurate. These groups started out promoting a diet composed of mainly hay and vegetables with pellets added in small amounts. They often would write that pellets weren't needed in a rabbit diet. They had nothing to back them up, no studies, no research, nothing. The veterinarians they got to recommend these diets also contributed nothing as far as backing up this radical diet. Some even misrepresented commercial pellets, saying they were only made to fatten meat rabbits up quickly, therefore were not good to feed pet rabbits. This completely ignored the large segment of the rabbit community who raise rabbits for show. It disregarded the many varying pellet formulas available to all rabbit owners.
In addition these "experts" would write that most pet rabbits they see with health problems are fed pellets. They failed to follow up to find out what type of pellets were being fed, the amount, and other factors that would be important to determining the true cause of the health problems. Where you buy feed, the formula the company uses, how much you feed all matter. Not every pellet is created equal, some stuff on the market is not good, or it could be good but has sat on store shelves for ages and lost it's nutrients. The veterinarians would just say it was the pellets. Now I'm reading more garbage that feeding pellets cause teeth problems. There isn't credible evidence that this is true.
Recently these same groups have started adjusting their diet recommendations, adding pellets as being important. I suspect the rationale behind the push for a non-pellet diet had to do with making a name for new groups, getting money in the form of donations by coming up with things that contradicted all that went before, and was being recommended by Breeders and our organizations. Pellets were designed to provide a proper diet for rabbits, long term. Feed companies put money into researching their pellets. They have done the research to back up the validity of a pellet based diet. We still have nothing that shows a hay/veggie diet is best or even works long term to maintain health. I suggest pet owners ignore groups that sport "rescue" or "house" in their name. Ask them to prove their theories, with facts, research, articles published by objective 3rd parties vs in house publication. You will soon find out what I have, they can't.