Every so often I will see a TV show or movie where a stray animal is rescued. The first thing this very caring new pet owner does is give the animal a bowl of milk. These shows are all trying to depict kind and well-meaning people, but it’s a myth that animals, rabbits included, should be given milk to stay healthy. The reality is that this practice can be very dangerous, especially for rabbits.
Can rabbits drink milk? You should not give rabbits milk to drink. Adult rabbits are lactose intolerant and milk products are bad for the rabbit’s digestive system. Baby rabbits should also not have cow’s milk because it is very different from the milk they get from their mothers.
Instead of giving rabbits milk, we should work to keep our rabbits hydrated by providing them with plenty of water. Even baby rabbits have very specific care that should not include any cow’s milk. So what are the best ways for keeping our rabbits healthy and hydrated?
Milk is bad for rabbits
Although it may seem that milk should be healthy for pets because it is a healthy drink for most humans, milk is potentially a very dangerous drink for rabbits. In fact, humans are pretty much the only species that regularly drinks the milk of other animals.
Cow’s milk is made to support the nutritional needs of a baby cow, and generally has a lot of differences from the milk of other species. So animals, like rabbits, who produce milk with a completely different nutritional makeup, cannot get any nutritional value out of a cows milk.
Rabbits, like many other mammals, are lactose intolerant once they reach adulthood. This means they cannot properly digest the main protein that makes up milk and other dairy products. If rabbits have dairy products on a regular basis, they are more likely to develop gastrointestinal (GI) stasis or have other gut complications.
There is one exception to the no dairy rule for adult rabbits. If your rabbit is having diarrhea, your vet may recommend that you feed your rabbit yogurt that has been diluted in water. This can help rebalance the bacterial growth in your rabbits intestines. However, you should never give your rabbit yogurt without specific instructions from your rabbit-savvy vet. It is very possible that you will do more harm than good.
Oh no! My rabbit just drank a little bit of milk
Don’t panic just yet. Milk is definitely not good for your rabbit, but they’re not going to keel over from having it once. If your rabbit managed to steal a lick from your cereal bowl in the morning, it’s unlikely that there will be significant damage to their digestion. Just don’t let your rabbit do that every morning!
If you’ve been giving your rabbit a lot of milk to drink on a regular basis, you’re going to want to stop and replace it with water. You’ll also want to keep a very close eye on their eating and pooping habits. Rabbits should be eating hay regularly throughout the day and their poop should be round, hard pellets. If you notice that they are not eating or haven’t pooped in the last 12 hours, try to get your rabbit to the vet as soon as you can.
Water is the best for rabbits
The best drink to give any rabbit is just plain water. Tap water works just fine, but you can also use purified water if that’s what you prefer. If the water is safe for humans to drink, then it’s also safe for rabbits.
How much water do rabbits need
Rabbits actually drink a surprisingly large amount of water. They should be drinking about as much water as a small dog would drink in a day. That comes out to around 1-2 cups of water per day.
But, of course, the amount of water a rabbit drinks will vary depending on a number of factors. Larger rabbits will drink more water, as well as rabbits that are pregnant. Rabbits are also likely to drink more in the hotter months of the year or if they are very active rabbits.
I also want to point out that rabbit food, especially fresh leafy greens, have a significant amount of water in them. So if you’re worried that your rabbit doesn’t seem to be drinking as much water as you expect, it could be because they are getting enough water from the rest of their diet.
Water bottle vs. water bowl
Water bowls are generally considered a better option for rabbits than bottles. Rabbit bowls are more natural, and easier for rabbits to use. They encourage good hydration, since it takes less work for your rabbit to get the water they need.
That being said, sometimes water bowls won’t work for specific rabbit situations. Some rabbits have the habit of flipping their food and water bowls over. This not only leads to an annoying mess to clean up, but if your rabbit flips the bowl when you’re not home, they won’t have water for the rest of the day.
Some rabbits are also very sloppy drinkers. They get water all on their chin when they drink from a bowl which leads to matted fur and skin irritation.
In these scenarios, it’s better to replace a rabbit’s water bowl with a hanging water bottle. Attach the bottle to the cage or pen so that the spout is right around their head level.
Excessive thirst or not drinking at all
If a rabbit is not drinking at all it likely means they are sick. Not drinking will cause them to dehydrate even further ultimately causing their condition to worsen.
Excessive thirst is a sign of kidney failure, diabetes, urinary tract infections, or other issues related to organ failures. If your rabbit seems to be drinking a lot more than usual, and it’s not because the weather has gotten warmer or their diet has recently been changed, this could be a sign of a serious issue.
I know someone who noticed her rabbit was drinking a lot more than usual. This turned out to be an early sign a liver torsion and her bun required emergency surgery. But luckily she was able to get help in time and her little bun has completely recovered. So keep an eye on your rabbits drinking behavior, you could notice an early sign of a serious illness.
Other liquids rabbits can drink
Water is best for rabbits, but it’s not the only liquid they’re allowed to drink. Your bunny might enjoy getting a lick of your herbal tea. Or a rabbit recovering from surgery could be encouraged to drink more with just a few drops of flavoring in their water bowl.
There could be occasions where you want to encourage your rabbit to drink more water. Or you might just want to give them a yummy healthy treat. You can try adding just a little bit of unsweetened carrot or apple juice to your rabbit’s bowl to see if they’ll be more interested in drinking.
Teas that are okay for a rabbit to drink
Some herbal teas are also okay for your rabbit to have a taste of. If you’re a tea person, then you know I’m talking about tisanes. The herbal “tea,” should actually not contain any tea leaves or caffeine at all.
Before you give any tea to your rabbit, make sure that the tea isn’t too hot and does not contain any extra ingredients that will be harmful to your rabbit. Some teas that are safe for rabbits include:
- Lemon balm
There are many types of rabbit treats on the market that are not actually good for rabbits. Yogurt treats, in particular, are one of the worst treats you can give to your rabbit over the long term.
A rabbit will almost certainly try to gobble these up because of how sweet they are, but rabbits will try to eat a lot of things that are not good for them. Yogurt treats are made up of mostly sugar and dairy. Not only do these treats have absolutely no nutritional value for your rabbit, they are likely to cause the rabbit to develop painful gut conditions that are potentially fatal. Even if your rabbit manages to escape any serious gut problems, they are likely to develop tooth decay over time.
Should baby rabbits have milk?
Baby rabbits are not yet lactose intolerant, but they should not be given cow’s milk. Baby rabbits will naturally drink their mother’s milk. They depend on the nutrition available in the milk to grow into healthy young rabbits. Rabbit milk is nutritionally very different from cow’s milk though, so baby rabbits are not able to digest cows milk properly.
Sometimes rabbits will be orphaned though. The mom will get sick or she might reject her babies. If you have orphaned rabbits who, therefore, cannot drink their own mother’s milk, you still want to avoid cows milk. There are other options for this scenario that the baby rabbit will be able to digest better and get the nutrition they need. The best option is to try to find another nursing female rabbit. But if that’s not possible, there are ways to syringe feed baby rabbits in emergencies.
If you find a nest of baby wild rabbits, you should leave it alone. The mother rabbit will only come around to feed the babies once or twice a day, to prevent predators from finding the nest. In most cases the baby bunnies are just fine and don’t need any help from you.
Milk alternatives for orphaned baby rabbits
Instead of using cow’s milk, the best alternatives to use are kitten formula or goat’s milk. Milk replacer for puppies is also an option if you can’t find one of the former. These are higher in protein content and calories than cow’s milk, which make them much closer to the nutritional makeup of rabbit’s milk.
Once the orphaned rabbit opens their eyes, around the 10 day mark, and starts to move around on their own, then you might be able to start giving them formula in a bowl rather than syringe feeding them. The orphaned rabbit should only be given milk until they are about 6-8 weeks old. At this point they should be transitioned to water.
Sadly, if a rabbit is orphaned there are high chances that they will not survive. Baby rabbits are very fragile, especially their digestion, and it’s just too easy for something to go wrong. The House Rabbit Society offers some advice to care for an orphaned rabbit.
As a word of hope, I can say it is possible for inexperienced handlers to help a baby bunny survive. When I was a teenager, my family took on the care of an orphaned baby rabbit. My mother took the lead and got advice from a Wildlife Rehabber organization and a local rabbit vet.
Despite our lack of experience in raising baby rabbits, we were able to keep that baby bunny alive. In the end, she lived to be 9-and-a-half years old!
What do rabbits eat?
A rabbit’s diet should consist mainly of grass-based hay and fresh leafy greens. A small amount of pellets is also okay, but not necessary. Treats, such as carrots and bananas, should be kept to a minimum.
Why does rabbit pee smell?
Rabbit pee has a relatively high concentration of ammonia. It can have a pretty pungent smell, especially when it’s first released. The pee from male rabbits usually smells more than female rabbits, especially if they haven’t been neutered.
What is GI Stasis?
Gastrointestinal (GI) Stasis is a very dangerous condition for a rabbit. The movement of food through their gut slows down or comes to a halt as the rabbit stops eating or pooping. If not dealt with, this is a potentially fatal condition for a rabbit.
- “Can rabbits eat yogurt or dairy products?” Medirabbit.com, www.medirabbit.com/EN/GI_diseases/Food/yogurt.htm.
- “Orphaned Baby Bunnies: Wild and Domestic.” House Rabbit Society, Jan. 22, 2013, rabbit.org/faq-orphaned-baby-bunnies.
- Whitman, Sarah. “What Kind of Milk to Give Newborn Bunnies?” Pets on Mom, animals.mom.me/kind-milk-give-newborn-bunnies-10208.html.