There are a lot of myths out there that confuse people about what a healthy rabbit diet should be. Popular culture and outdated rabbit care practices can lead well-meaning caretakers to make the wrong decisions about their rabbit’s diet. Let’s look at some of the most common myths about a rabbit’s diet and see what we can do to correct these misperceptions.
A rabbit’s diet is incredibly important to their health. A healthy diet ensures that rabbits get enough nutrients and maintain a balanced gut. Some of the most common illnesses in rabbits, Gastrointestinal Stasis (GI Stasis) and malocclusions (overgrown teeth), can usually be prevented simply by improving your rabbit’s daily diet.
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Myth 1: Carrots are healthy for rabbits
Over and over again the media shows imagery of rabbits and carrots together. It’s no wonder that people assume rabbits are supposed to eat carrots as their main food source. However, a carrot-based diet is actually incredibly unhealthy for rabbits.
Carrots are very sugary foods along with most other fruits and vegetables, especially for rabbits. They need to have a diet that is very high in fiber, making hay the healthiest way to feed a rabbit. The excess of the sugar that’s found in fruits and vegetables can end up causing an imbalance in a rabbit’s gut. In large amounts they can potentially cause a number of preventable illnesses in rabbits.
But this doesn’t mean rabbits can’t have any carrots at all. Instead, carrots should be offered as special treats for rabbits. There is some truth in the myth, rabbits do love carrots. Even if it’s not healthy to give your rabbit carrots all day long, you can still treat them to a little bit every day. Just make sure to cut it up into small pieces and only give your rabbit about 1-2 tablespoons of these yummy treats per day.
I love to give my rabbits some pieces of dried carrot as yummy treats. I get them from my (and my rabbit’s!) favorite online store, Small Pet Select. I found them about a year ago and have been really impressed with the quality of their products. So go ahead and get your rabbit some dried carrot slices, just don’t give them too much at once. (and you can get 15% off your order at Small Pet Select by using the code BUNNYLADY at checkout)
Myth 2: Rabbits need pellets as their main food source
Many people, including myself, have made the mistake of feeding our rabbits on a diet of mainly dry food rabbit pellets. Unfortunately this is often a recipe for weight gain and tooth problems in rabbits. Even healthy brands of pellets should not be given to rabbits in excess, and should only be a small portion of a balanced and healthy rabbit diet.
Pellets were originally manufactured as a way to feed rabbits that were being raised for meat. These pellets were a cheap way to feed the rabbits that would also get them to gain weight very quickly.
Nowadays, there are many companies that have fortified their rabbit pellet formulas so that they provide more nutritional value for our pet rabbits. You can get the plain brown pellets (not the colorful fruity mixes) that have added vitamins, protein, and nutrients. I recommend Oxbow’s Garden Select Rabbit Food, since this has the best ingredient list and a healthy balance of added nutrients.
However it’s still recommended that pellets only make up about 5% of a rabbit’s overall diet. Instead grass-based hay (such as timothy hay) and fresh leafy greens should make up the majority of a rabbits diet.
Since rabbits come in all different sizes, the amount of pellets you give your rabbit on a daily basis can vary significantly. How do you know how much to give your rabbit?
|Weight of rabbit||Amount of pellets daily|
|2 lbs||2 Tbsp|
|3 lbs||3 Tbsp|
|4 lbs||¼ cup|
|5 lbs||1 Tbsp + ¼ cup|
|6 lbs||2 Tbsp + ¼ cup|
|7 lbs||3 Tbsp + ¼ cup|
|8 lbs||½ cup|
|9 lbs||1 Tbsp + ½ cup|
|10 lbs||2 Tbsp + ½ cup|
Myth 3: Lettuce is a healthy food for rabbits
Leafy greens are an important part of a rabbit’s diet, but not all types of greens are healthy for rabbits. Lettuce in a prime example of this. More specifically, Iceberg lettuce.
Iceberg lettuce is one of the few types of leafy greens that should be avoided when looking for a healthy food for rabbits. At best, iceberg lettuce is a meal of empty calories. Iceberg lettuce has a high water content and a low nutrient density. This means that rabbits gain very little nutritional value from eating iceberg lettuce. They fill up on it and are not able to gain many nutrients in the process. This also means that the rabbit will no longer be hungry to eat hay, which is an essential part of their daily diet.
Iceberg lettuce also contains a small amount of a chemical known as lactucarium. If given consistently over time, this chemical can be bad for a rabbit’s digestive system. It can potentially cause severe gastrointestinal complications, so it’s best to completely avoid giving your rabbit iceberg lettuce.
But what about other types of lettuce and leafy greens? Leafy lettuces (such as romaine, butter, leafy red, and leafy green) are safe to give to your pet rabbit. However, you still don’t want these to be the main source of your rabbit’s diet. Timothy hay and other grass-based hays should be your rabbit’s main food source, but it is healthy to give your rabbit a couple cups of leafy green vegetables every day.
Myth 4: Alfalfa hay is perfectly fine for rabbits
Hay should absolutely be the main part of your rabbit’s diet. However, alfalfa hay is one type that should be avoided in an adult rabbit diet. Alfalfa is a legume hay that is very high in protein and calcium content. It can cause quick weight gain in rabbits and can contribute to kidney conditions, such as bladder sludge and bladder stones.
Instead you should opt to give your rabbit grass-based hays. Timothy is generally considered to be best for rabbits because of its extremely high fiber content. Again, I can’t recommend Small Pet Select enough. They have a great selection of very fresh hay that they’ll ship to you. My rabbit loves their 2nd Cutting Timothy Hay (and don’t forget to take 15% off your order with the code BUNNYLADY).
However there are many other types of hay you can also give your rabbit. You can combine a couple different types of hay to give your rabbit a more variant diet with more nutrients.
Try a combination of these types of hay:
The exception to this rule is a young rabbit diet. Young rabbits are still growing and the calcium and protein content in alfalfa hay is ideal for promoting healthy weight gain and strong bones. However, once a rabbit reaches 6-12 months old they should be transitioned to a timothy-based diet.
Myth 5: Rabbits should be given milk to drink
This is a frustrating myth that I see all the time in books and movies. A well meaning main character finds an abandoned rabbit (or cat) and gives them a bowl of milk to drink. This is not healthy for rabbits. In fact, it’s not healthy for any animal. Humans are the only ones that regularly drink milk as adults.
Even baby rabbits who rely on their mother’s milk (2 months and younger) should not be given cow’s milk to drink. Cow’s milk does not have the same nutritional makeup as rabbit milk and would not be easily digestible for rabbits. Instead, rabbits should be given water to drink. Daily fresh water is very important for keeping rabbits healthy and hydrated.
Myth 6: Rabbits will refuse to eat a plant that’s poisonous
House rabbits don’t always have the ability to discern what is good for them to eat. Most of the time our pet rabbits grow up without having to make these choices for themselves. They are happy to eat what is given to them. This means that some rabbits never stop to think about what they’re eating and may end up going after plants that are poisonous to them.
This means you need to be careful to check that any houseplants or garden plants that your rabbit has access to are not toxic to them. Keep any houseplants away from your rabbit’s reach.
You should also double check every new leafy green that you give your rabbit to make sure it is safe for rabbit consumption. If your rabbit ever eats from plants on your lawn or in your garden, you also want to make sure any fertilizer or pesticides that you use are not harmful to rabbits.
Myth 7: Treats sold in pet stores are good for rabbits
Sadly, many types of bagged treats and treat mixes that are sold at pet stores and marketed for rabbits are not actually good for them. This includes everything from yogurt treats to sugared dried fruit and mixes that contain a variety of nuts and legumes. The high sugar content as well as nuts, seeds, corn and peas are bad for a rabbit’s digestion and should not be given as treats.
The types of pet store treats that are actually okay to give to rabbits are the flavored baked hay treats, Oxbow’s Simple Rewards. Many people pass these over because they are not as colorful and appetizing to our human brains, but these these still taste great to rabbits.
Baked hay treats have a high hay content with only a little bit of sweet flavoring, making them much healthier for rabbits. You can also give your rabbit portions of fresh or dried fruits and vegetables as treats.
Myth 8: Rabbits should be given water in a bottle
Those upside down spout water bottles are a convenient way to give water to rabbits. They tend to be less sloppy, making clean-up easier. However, these water bottles are not ideal for rabbits. The small spout limits the amount of water a rabbit can get at a time, and it takes a lot of extra effort to drink when they need to.
Instead, it is much better to give rabbits their water in a bowl. This is a much more natural way for rabbits to drink, and the ready access encourages good hydration in rabbits. Some rabbits do have a habit of flipping over their water bowl, so you’ll want to get them a heavy ceramic water bowl.
If your rabbit still manages to flip their water bowl over on a regular basis, then you may need to consider getting them a large spout water bottle, but this should be seen as a last resort, not a first option.
Myth 9: Cheerios are okay for rabbits to eat
Many caretakers give their rabbits human foods as treats, like cereal and bread. These processed grain foods are very unhealthy for rabbits and should be avoided. When foods are processed they lose most of the nutritional value that rabbits can get out of them. You are left with a product that is mostly starch and sugar, two things that should not be a large part of a rabbit’s diet.
In general it is best to avoid giving your rabbit anything that is normally considered a human food, with the exception of fresh or dried fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens. Anything that has been cooked or processed does not maintain nutrients and fiber in a way that will be useful to a rabbit’s digestion. If you want to give your rabbit a little treat, stay away from the cheerios and give them a little piece of banana instead.
- “Rabbit Food.” House Rabbit Society. https://rabbit.org/faq-diet.
- “What Can Rabbits Eat.” RSPCA. https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/rabbits/diet/myths.