Section 4: The need for a suitable diet
It is your responsibility to ensure that your rabbits are fed an appropriate diet. Rabbits are herbivores, which means that they eat plants. They need a diet that is high in fibre to wear down their continuously growing teeth, keep their digestive tract functioning properly and help prevent them from becoming bored. The way their digestive system works means that they need to eat continuously, so appropriate food should be available to them 24 hours a day.
Your rabbits' daily diet should consist mainly of large quantities of good quality, dust-free feeding hay and/or dried/fresh grass that will provide the necessary fibre for the rabbits. This should make up at least 80% of each rabbit's daily food intake and they should have access to this throughout the day and night. As a guide, an amount equivalent to each rabbit's body size should be provided each day. However, the amount required will also be dependent on the amount of exercise each individual rabbit gets, so it will be important to keep an eye on your rabbits over time to make sure they are fit and healthy and do not become over- or under-weight (see below).
A small amount of high quality specialist rabbit food such as extruded nuggets or pellets should also be given to ensure that the rabbits receive beneficial nutrients and minerals that may not always be achieved in the domestic setting via the feeding of hay. However, this should make up no more than 5-10% of their daily food intake. (Current recommended maximum is 25g of nuggets / pellets per kg of rabbit per day.)
Muesli-type food has been linked to digestive and dental problems in rabbits so should not be used. If your rabbits are currently fed a muesli diet, it is recommended that they be transitioned slowly (over 14-28 days) onto nuggets or pellets.
Washed leafy green vegetables, herbs and weeds should also be offered. Suitable green plants include broccoli, parsley, watercress, celery leaves and kale. Safe wild plants include chickweed, bramble, raspberry, blackberry and strawberry leaves, and dandelions. Twigs from non-toxic trees that have not been treated with pesticides can be provided for environmental enrichment, to allow your rabbits to remove the bark as they would in the wild.
You should always make sure you know the identity of any plant, and that it is suitable for rabbits, before providing it as food. (Again, the RWAF webpage about poisonous plants is useful here – see page 12.) When foraging for plants, it is important to avoid those growing on the sides of roads, as they could be contaminated with exhaust fumes, and to ensure that they are free from herbicides and pesticides. Lawnmower clippings should never be given to rabbits, as these can upset their stomachs and make them very ill, even causing death if they are not treated immediately by a vet.
Rabbits can suffer from obesity, and teeth and gut problems, caused by inappropriate diets and overfeeding. Although we often think of rabbits eating carrots, these are not suitable as part of their daily diet. Root vegetables and fruit can be provided to your rabbits, but they should only be given occasionally and in small quantities as they can be high in sugar. Don't give your rabbits too many special rabbit treats, and sticky, sugary treats should be avoided as they can harm a rabbit's teeth and also lead to obesity. Foods and treat items which contain ingredients such as seeds, nuts and corn can pose a choking hazard and risk of gut impaction so should be avoided.
This looks cute, but you should always make sure you have enough feeding points for all your rabbits so they don't have to crowd around one.Rabbits are very sensitive to any change in their diet so any alterations must be introduced gradually. When introducing new foods, it is a good idea to introduce them one at a time and provide only small quantities, so you can monitor your rabbits for any ill-effects. This is especially important when weaning rabbits and introducing them to green plants.
Place all food and fresh water well away from your rabbits' toilet area. Any food that has gone mouldy should be removed as soon as it is discovered.
Your rabbits must always have access to fresh, clean water. This can be provided in either a metal-tipped feeding bottle, a water bowl, or both. Some rabbits have a strong preference for one or the other, so when you first bring your rabbits home, it is a good idea to offer water in both a bowl and a feeding bottle to find out which they prefer. (Research suggests most rabbits prefer bowls and will drink more if a bowl is provided.) If water is presented in a new, unfamiliar way, your rabbits might refuse to drink and become dehydrated.
Both bowls and bottles should be checked at least twice daily to ensure that sufficient fresh, clean water is always available. In cold weather, make sure that the water has not frozen. In warmer weather, make sure that algae has not built up. Both bottles and bowls should be cleaned and refilled daily. Bottles should be checked for leaks and air blocks, and to make sure that the water is coming out of them properly. If bowls are your rabbits' preferred option, it is a good idea to have more than one available, and to use heavy, ceramic bowls, so they are less likely to be knocked over.
Rabbits on a largely dry diet should drink around 50-100ml of water per kilogram of rabbit per day. You should keep an eye on your rabbits' water consumption, as any increase can be a sign of ill health requiring veterinary attention.
Rabbits maximise the nutrition they get from their food by passing partially digested food out of their bodies as soft pellets (called caecotrophs), which they then eat and re-digest. The caecotrophs contain lots of essential vitamins and protein and rabbits should not be discouraged from eating them. If these caecotrophs become very runny, there's a change in their appearance, you start seeing lots of them (suggesting that your rabbit is not eating them) or your rabbit stops producing them, veterinary advice should be sought. Rabbits also produce hard brown round droppings that they do not usually eat. Again, if fewer hard brown round droppings than normal are being produced, this may indicate ill health, and veterinary advice should be sought.
Your rabbits should not be too fat or too thin. Ideally you should easily be able to feel their ribs. Female rabbits will often have large dewlaps under their chin even if they are not overweight, and this is normal. Adjust how much you feed your rabbits to make sure that they do not become over or underweight. Obese rabbits can find it difficult to groom themselves or eat their caecotrophs, which can lead to flystrike (See section 7). Ensuring that they have enough space to exercise in will also contribute to their maintaining an appropriate bodyweight.
The pictures on the following page provide a useful reference guide.
Other Dietary Needs
Sometimes rabbits have different dietary needs, such as when they are very young or old, or recovering from an illness or if they are pregnant. Your vet will be able to advise you about this.