Feeding Rabbits for Optimum Nutrition

Feeding rabbits a healthy mixture of pellets, hay and a few treats will keep them happy and strong.

How-To-Raise-Rabbits-Cover

“How to Raise Rabbits” by Samantha and Daniel Johnson guides readers through rabbit operations for showing, breeding, livestock, or pets.

Courtesy Voyageur Press

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Whether your goal is to raise one rabbit or a larger herd, the expert advice in How to Raise Rabbits (Voyageur Press, 2008) will tell you all you need to know. With more than 200 color photographs, the book covers all aspects of raising rabbits, including organic and free-range rabbitries. Learn how to choose and buy the right rabbits for you, breed your rabbits, show rabbits at fairs and more. In this excerpt from Chapter 4, “Feeding Your Rabbits,” learn how to keep your rabbits healthy and happy with a proper diet. 

Wouldn’t it be delightfully simple if you could just toss a few carrots in each cage and head off to work for the day? No hay, no pellets, no measuring! While feeding rabbits isn’t quite as easy as that, it really isn’t terribly difficult either. Once you’ve established a feeding program that works for you and your rabbits, your daily feedings should be simple and straightforward.

Basic rabbit nutrition

As with all types of livestock animals, rabbits need a well rounded diet that fulfills all of the necessary requirements for basic nutrition. This means that their diet must include ample sources of fiber, protein, vitamins, and minerals. With the wide variety of pelleted feeds that are available today, it’s easier than ever to provide proper basic nutrition for your rabbits, but a well-rounded diet also contains other important elements: water and hay. Let’s discuss the components of feeding rabbits a healthy diet.

Rabbit pellets

If you ask a group of rabbit breeders what they feed their rabbits, I can pretty much guarantee that the vast majority of them will reply that they feed some type of pellets. Pelleted feed has become the industry standard for many reasons.

Using pellets takes the guesswork out of providing a diet for your rabbits. With a quick examination of the tag, you will know exactly what is included in each and every feeding. Pellets are easy to measure, which ensures that you are able to feed the same amount each day, and they are an easy way to provide all of the nutrients that your rabbits need for optimum health and growth.

There are many companies that produce rabbit pellets, and it seems that each type is supported by legions of rabbit breeders who believe strongly in the benefits and quality of their chosen product. It can be a little overwhelming to flip through the latest Domestic Rabbits magazine and read through the ads for rabbit feeds. Each one is endorsed by rabbit breeders, exhibitors, and judges, and each feed is seemingly better than the last. How, then, do you determine which feed will best suit your needs?

Your location is undoubtedly one consideration. Not all feed companies have distributors all over the country, so your choices may be limited somewhat by your region and what is available locally. With that in mind, it might be a good idea to talk with some of the successful breeders in your area. Ask them about their choice of feed and whether or not they are satisfied with it. I recently discussed feed with four breeders and received three different answers with regard to their suggestion for “the best feed.” In fact, one person highly recommended the very feed that another person specifically said not to use! How’s that for contradictory advice?

Even after you have settled upon a brand of feed to purchase, there is still the decision of which type of feed will best suit your needs. Each manufacturer typically produces more than one type of feed with subtle differences in protein and fiber amounts. For instance, protein amounts in pelleted feed can vary from approximately 12 percent all the way up to 18 percent. Many breeders settle upon a feed in the middle, with 16 percent protein. Eighteen percent protein is considered by some breeders to be unnecessary at best and unhealthy at worst. Some say that this type of feed can cause diarrhea. Others feel that a feed with 18 percent protein gives an added boost to young rabbits that are growing rapidly. Rabbits that have reached maturity and are not bringing up a litter (bucks and non-lactating does) may be just fine on a pellet with a lower protein percentage of perhaps 14 percent.

A fiber percentage of at least 18 percent is considered to be a good choice, although a higher percentage can be good as well. Fiber is such an important part of a rabbit’s diet and is therefore an important factor in your choice of pellet, particularly if you will not be supplementing with additional hay.

After settling upon a type of feed, your next question will inevitably be, how much do I feed each rabbit? This decision is best described as one part science and one part art. That is, you can start off with a formula for calculating each animal’s feed ration, but you will quickly begin adjusting this base amount to compensate for many other factors, not the least of which is the rabbit’s present condition.

Generally speaking, you can begin with a base feed ration of 1 ounce per pound, meaning that if you have a 5-pound Dutch rabbit, you may want to start with a base ration of 5 ounces of pellets each day. Always consider the type and amount of feed that the rabbit was previously used to eating and make your adjustments slowly and carefully over the course of several days. If it appears that the rabbit is gaining weight too quickly and becoming too plump, you might want to reduce the base feed ration to 4 ounces. On the other hand, if the rabbit is looking a bit on the slender side, you might consider increasing the ration to 6 or 7 ounces until the rabbit has put on a bit more weight. Similarly, if your rabbit has finished eating his entire portion in a few minutes and is climbing the cage walls looking for more, you should probably consider feeding him a bit more, or at the very least giving him some additional hay to munch on.

Another guideline to go by is how quickly your rabbits eat (or don’t eat) the pellets you’ve given them. If half of the pellets are still in the feeder when it comes time to feed again, you’re probably feeding that particular rabbit too much, and you might consider reducing its daily ration until you’ve reached a portion that it’s able to easily consume in a much shorter period of time. The exception to this guideline is that if the feed has somehow gotten wet or otherwise damaged, the rabbit will not eat it regardless of how hungry it is. If your rabbit has finished eating its entire portion in a few minutes and is eagerly searching for more, you should consider a small increase in its portion or supply additional hay to munch on.

There are a couple of exceptions to the “one ounce per pound” rule of thumb. It is usually recommended that a nursing doe should be allowed all the pellets she can eat. Again, increase the amounts a bit at a time, and wait until a few days post-kindling to begin increasing her rations. For the several weeks that she will be nursing her litter, she needs greatly increased amounts of food to keep herself in good condition and to provide milk for her growing litter. Another exception to the rule are weanling kits. While you’ll always have that vague worry of enteritis (digestive illness) looming in the back of your mind, it’s important for growing kits to have access to ample amounts of pellets. These babies grow quickly!

Other types of grains

Some breeders prefer to create their own mixture of feed for their rabbits, rather than relying solely upon a commercial pellet. The type of grain mixture depends on each breeder’s personal preferences and experiences, but it may include oats, barley, and sunflower seeds. Sometimes these grains are mixed in with a commercial pellet, and sometimes they are not. While this is a more time-consuming feeding process, some breeders strongly believe in the good results that they obtain by specializing and fine-tuning their feed. I have experimented with this type of mixed feed and quickly found it to be far less efficient than feeding pellets. I had one rabbit that learned to love her sunflower seeds but didn’t care for her oats. After only a few days of finding a feeder with leftover oats and all of the sunflower seeds picked out, I switched her back to pelleted feed with sunflower seeds as an added treat.

Hay

If there is one topic that we would really like to emphasize, hay would be it. Hay is surprisingly overlooked by many rabbit breeders, yet it has so many positive benefits for a rabbit. Hay is an excellent source of fiber, which is extremely important to your rabbit’s diet and has been proven to reduce the risk of enteritis. Hay provides a form of roughage so that your rabbits will have the option of munching on something throughout the day, as well as a way to help relieve boredom. Rabbits love to chew, and hay provides them with an ample opportunity to chew to their heart’s content.

Why is hay sometimes overlooked? Bags of pelleted feeds can be a bit misleading through their claims that the pelleted feed is a complete feed and that no supplements (including hay) are necessary for the health and well-being of a rabbit. While this may be literally true, this overlooks the additional benefits that hay can bring to a rabbit’s diet regardless of whether it is scientifically necessary.

Hay is not always readily accessible to breeders, particularly those in the city or suburban areas. Even if hay is available, it is sometimes very expensive to obtain, and it’s not always easy to locate hay that has not been sprayed with harmful chemicals.

One drawback of which many breeders complain is the mess associated with feeding hay. Bits of hay dust and small stems inevitably sprinkle the rabbitry floor, and there is generally some wasted hay when rabbits are fed in the cage, although hay racks can help to cut down on spills and waste. Then there is the added time to feed hay to each rabbit at feeding time.

However, despite these drawbacks, hay has a multitude of positive benefits! This is especially true for weanling rabbits, as the increased fiber in their diets from the hay is very important in protecting them from enteritis. It’s very interesting to watch the young rabbits at feeding time and to note that many of them will hop back and forth across their cage, munching a bite of hay, then a few pellets, and then some more hay. They seem to appreciate and enjoy the variety. The added fiber that is found in hay is also extremely beneficial for Angora rabbits, as it helps to keep their digestive system running smoothly and free of fur balls (wool blockages in the stomach or intestines).

Choosing hay 

Locating hay can be difficult in some areas, though it’s easily accessible in the more rural parts of the United States. When selecting hay for your rabbits, one important criterion is that the hay should be free of chemicals. In addition, you will want hay that has been properly stored and protected from rain. Round bales, which are popular with horse breeders, are not a feasible choice for the rabbit breeder because their immense size makes them impossible to move without a tractor. They simply aren’t practical for use with rabbits. Therefore you will be on the lookout for small square bales that you can feed in small amounts. You will also want to purchase hay that is of good quality and meets the following criteria: a sweet, fresh smell; a greenish color (not brown, yellow, gray, or black); and low dust. Look for hay that is free of weeds, as some weeds may be harmful for your rabbits. You may occasionally find a hay bale that has a dead snake, mouse, or frog inside that was accidentally baled into the hay. Immediately discard any contaminated bales and never feed the hay to your rabbits.

Types of hay 

You essentially have a choice between two types of hay: grass and alfalfa. As with so many topics in rabbit raising, there are advocates for both types of hay. Some breeders swear by alfalfa hay and recommend it wholeheartedly; others feel that grass hay is far and away the best choice for feeding rabbits. Which piece of advice is correct?

To compare the two hay types in extremely simplistic terms, alfalfa hay is typically higher in protein and lower in fiber, and grass hay is typically higher in fiber and lower in protein. Therefore, your choice may depend slightly upon the type of pellet that you’ve decided to feed. If your pelleted feed is a little lower in fiber, you may want to select grass hay in order to boost your rabbits’ fiber intake. On the other hand, if you’re feeding a pellet that is high in fiber but is perhaps not quite as high in protein, you might want to select alfalfa hay in order to boost the amount of protein in your rabbits’ diet. Your choice of hay might also depend on what is available in your area. Or you can mix the best of both worlds and look for a grass/alfalfa mix hay to enable you to feed a lovely combination of the two types.

Vegetables and fruits

Fruits and vegetables provide variety and added nutrition to your rabbits’ diet, but it’s usually recommended that these special treats be fed as supplements to your rabbits’ daily ration rather than the bulk of it. Always remember to introduce new foods slowly and in small amounts until your rabbits have become accustomed to the change in their daily fare.

Carrots are a universally accepted rabbit treat. Apples are also very popular with rabbits (remove the seeds), and apple wood branches are an especially satisfying treat. Dandelion leaves, which are usually available in abundance during the spring months, are also very popular with rabbits, as is lettuce (except for iceberg lettuce, which should not be fed to them). In addition to apples, other fruits that are safe for rabbits (in moderation) include raspberries, strawberries, and pears. You can brighten your rabbits’ day by presenting them with one of these special treats!

Rabbit treats

Fruits and vegetables are probably your best choice for treats for your rabbits. One other safe option would be a small slice of bread, but foods containing sugar (cookies, yogurt drops, etc.) are really not the best to feed your rabbits. The fruits and vegetables mentioned in the previous section are much safer and healthier options.

Water

We must not overlook the importance of water to your rabbits’ basic nutrition and health. Water is truly the single most important thing that you can provide for your rabbits. They cannot eat without it, so always double-check your waterers at feeding time. Make sure that the bottles are filled and the nozzles are working properly, or that your water crocks are full. Refresh the water often to keep it fresh and clean, and regularly wash your water bottles or crocks to keep them sparkling clean. It’s amazing how quickly water crocks can become dusty and grimy (or hairy if you have a wooly breed), so keep them cleaned regularly to encourage your rabbits to drink as much as they wish.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from How to Raise Rabbits by Samantha and Daniel Johnson, published by Voyageur Press, 2008.