While some people see wild rabbits as pests that they need to keep out of their garden, many of us actually love seeing rabbits in the yard and worry about their well-being. I always get a little sad thinking about wild rabbits in the winter since I know the scarcity of resources available means many won’t make it through to spring. Still, it’s usually best not to feed wild rabbits directly, because it will make them wholly dependent on humans for food.
You can help wild rabbits have food resources by planting shrubs and greenery that will live through the winter. This will make more resources available while also working with a wild rabbit’s natural foraging instincts. You can also grow plants year-round to give wild rabbits more nutritious options.
Those of you who live in areas where the wild species of rabbits are endangered or threatened may be especially concerned about the wild rabbits in your neighborhood. For example, European Rabbits have been the subject of a couple of different very contagious diseases over the past decades, causing their numbers to dwindle. They have recently been categorized as Near Threatened. Other species, such as the New England Cottontail, are also being subject to conservation efforts to help increase the wild rabbit numbers.
- Related Reading: What to do if you find a baby rabbit nest on your lawn
What do wild rabbits normally eat?
Rabbits are natural foragers. They will eat just about any kind of plant material they can find. Throughout most of the year, this will consist of grass combined with yummy leafy plants they can find naturally, such as clover and wildflowers.
While there are certainly plants and flowers that are poisonous to rabbits, for the most part they have a digestive system that is able to handle plant material better than other, carnivorous animals. This means that wild rabbits can eat a wide variety of plants from their surrounding environment to eat more nutrients and stay healthy.
Examples of a natural wild rabbit diet include:
- Grasses: wheatgrass, meadow grass, fescue, bluegrass, ryegrass, Bermuda, orchard, timothy, etc. Typical lawn grass is edible for wild rabbits but is less nutritious than wild grasslands.
- Weeds: dandelion, clover, crabgrass, ragweed, nettle, chickweed, etc.
- Bark and twigs: Willow bark and twigs, apple tree sticks, raspberry and blackberry bush twigs, birch, poplar, rose bushes and twigs, maple, cottonwood, etc.
- Flowers: Roses, daisies, sunflowers, marigold, lavender, chamomile, violets, pansies, etc.
- Herbs: Cilantro, parsley, basil, mints, oregano, sage, thyme, rosemary, dill, etc.
When they are available, wild rabbits will also eat fruits and vegetables from gardens or bushes. However, these are a much smaller part of their natural diet than most people think. Flowers, leafy plants, and grass make up the vast majority of what wild rabbits eat on a daily basis.
What do rabbits eat in the winter?
In the winter, when plant life is scarce, wild rabbits need to be a lot more creative in order to survive. The rabbits need to compete for limited resources such as bark, twigs, and evergreen and pine needles from trees and shrubbery that live through the winter. This is always a time of year that is most difficult for rabbits and results in the death of many rabbits who cannot get enough to eat during the winter.
How much do wild rabbits eat?
In the 1970s and ’80s, there were several studies that studied domestic rabbits and determined they will naturally eat approximately 65-80 grams per kilogram of body weight. Recently, a study in Australia studied the diet of wild rabbits and found very similar numbers. They found that wild rabbits eat 65.7-68.3 grams per kilogram of body weight. So we can assume these numbers are more or less accurate for wild European rabbits (the invasive species in Australia and the species of domestic rabbits)
In the Americas, the rabbits we see in the wild are cottontails, a different species altogether. Their exact food intake has not been studied to the extent that European rabbits have, but I think it’s fair to assume that the diet of these related species will at least be in the same ballpark.
Therefore, since most adult wild rabbits will weigh about 1.0-1.5kg, we can assume they will eat about 65-120g per day. Growing rabbits and pregnant or lactating rabbits will eat more than this.
Compared to a human diet, this is a pretty small amount. Think about it, a single strawberry that weighs 12g (on average) is already one-sixth of a rabbit’s daily food intake. Wild rabbits are not going to need much from you to be able to keep up their daily calories.
Instead, wild rabbits will be able to consume most of their necessary food as grass and leafy plants. They do a lot of grazing and foraging and will usually stop eating once they’ve had enough.
When will you usually see wild rabbits eating?
If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse of your backyard rabbits eating, the best times to look are around dawn and dusk when the light is dim, but not fully dark yet. This is the time of day when rabbits are most active. They’re not nocturnal, but they typically don’t come out much during the day for fear of daytime predators, like dogs and large birds.
They’ll also be more likely to go for any food left out if it’s away from any areas with high foot traffic. Try placing any food or planting gardens away from the main doors and walkways.
Is it okay to feed wild rabbits?
There is nothing wrong with feeding wild rabbits in your yard. Rabbits do not spread disease and aren’t generally a nuisance knocking over garbage cans or being destructive toward people’s homes and furniture. However, if your neighbors are trying to grow a garden, they may get annoyed at you for feeding and encouraging the rabbits to stick around, since rabbits can chew up and destroy gardens.
If you do want to feed the rabbits in your community, the best thing to do is try to feed them naturally with your own garden and lawn. However, if you want to do more, there are plenty of healthy foods you can leave out for wild rabbits to help feed them. You might be more inclined to do this in the winter when overall food resources are scarce.
Overall, you still want to avoid allowing the local rabbits to become too reliant on you as a food source. Leaving out a few scraps of vegetables every now and then is fine, but you might want to avoid doing this every single day. I also recommend spreading any vegetable scraps or rabbit food over a large area or your entire yard instead of placing them in a single pile. This will give the rabbits a chance to forage, which is a more natural way for rabbits to behave and find food. It won’t soften their natural instincts.
You also want to be careful about attracting other types of wild animals to your yard. Wild rabbits aren’t the only animals that are going to be attracted to free food, so you may be accidentally driving the rabbits away if you attract their natural predators instead.
The odds and ends of many fruits and vegetables used in cooking can be collected and scattered in the yard for wild rabbits. This is probably the easiest way to feed wild rabbits since you probably already throw away or compost these. However, this is also the riskiest method since it’s the most likely to attract other types of animals to your yard, which may include rabbit predators.
Vegetable scraps include the leafy parts of carrots, strawberries, broccoli, celery, brussel sprouts, cauliflower, and similar fruits and vegetables. Unused stems from fresh herbs are excellent for rabbits too. Vegetable scraps can also include apple peels, and odds-and-ends from zucchini, squash, berries, cucumber, and bell peppers.
You can also give wild rabbits leftover leafy greens. Some examples of good veggies for rabbits include:
- Swiss chard
- Collard greens
- Herbs (such as mint, and cilantro)
- Beet greens
- Mustard greens
- Romaine lettuce
- Bok choy
I recommend not putting it all in one pile in the yard, since this is more likely to attract predators. Place a couple of pieces here and there around the yard to give the rabbits a chance to forage for the yummy treats you left for them. This will also encourage them to have a more balanced diet and eat grass too (which is good for their digestion), instead of chowing down on all the fruits and veggies at once.
Vegetable scraps that you want to avoid giving wild rabbits include potato and potato vines, tomato vines (the fruit is okay), anything related to onions (including garlic), corn, beans, nuts, and avocado.
Hay or dried grass
If you want to go out and purchase hay from a farmer or pet store, this can also be a healthy food to provide for wild rabbits. They might ignore this kind of food offering in the spring and summer since they usually have enough grass available, however, dried grass or hay can be a good substitute for wild rabbits in the rough winter months. You can spread the hay out in a layer over a section of your garden or lawn for the rabbits to munch on.
Commercial dry rabbit food
The other thing you can do to directly feed wild rabbits is go out and purchase a bag of rabbit food from a pet store. I recommend getting a brand that is made up of plain brown pellets and doesn’t have many extra colorful or fruity bits. The plain kinds are usually higher quality and more nutritious. They contain less added sugar, which can be detrimental to a rabbit’s health overall.
Again, I recommend taking handfuls of pellets and spreading them across the lawn or yard instead of placing them in a single bowl for rabbits. This will help to encourage the natural foraging instincts of wild rabbits.
The natural way to feed wild rabbits
If you want to feed the wild rabbits in your community, it’s best to give them a natural way to continue foraging for food. If you try to feed wild rabbits directly or simply leave out bowls full of food for them, you run the risk of causing the rabbits to become completely dependent on you for food. It could soften the natural instincts of any rabbits that live nearby, making them less able to survive on their own.
That’s why it’s a better solution to try to find ways to feed wild rabbits by caring for your lawn or planting a garden that is a safe and welcome environment. You can provide the rabbits in your area with a wide variety of plants to eat, and a nutritious lawn to graze on. It’s also an excellent idea to think of rabbits in winter and take the time to plant bushes or trees that can give wild rabbits more natural resources to eat in the scarce season.
This is a more sustainable way of keeping wild rabbits fed, along with other herbivores in the neighborhood, like squirrels and chipmunks. This is also less likely to attract other types of animals that may be predators to rabbits. For example, raccoons (a main predator of rabbits) may be attracted to food scraps left out, but probably won’t be attracted to a garden.
Gardening for wild rabbits
Planting some vegetables, such as carrots and leafy lettuces, are also a great way to help feed wild rabbits in a natural and nutritious way. Rabbits can snack on the delicious leaves, but usually, there’ll still be some left over for you to eat. Herb gardens are also excellent for wild rabbits. These can provide a wide variety of delicious plants that are also super nutritious for rabbits to eat.
Contrary to popular belief, wild rabbits usually won’t dig vegetables out from underground. However, they will eat the shoots and leaves as they are growing. You just may have to accept that the wild rabbits in the neighborhood might eat these plants when they are still growing before you have a chance to use them for yourself.
Most plants are safe for wild rabbits to eat. They have a pretty hardy stomach for anything fibrous and leafy. However, plants that you might want to avoid include potatoes, tomatoes, rhubarb, and anything in the onion family (including garlic). Probably the wild rabbits will simply ignore these plants, but they are mildly toxic and a rabbit who’s never smelled it before might not know the difference.
Lawn care for rabbits
The best thing you can do for your lawn and garden to help wild rabbits is to make sure you don’t use any kind of pesticides or fertilizers with dangerous added chemicals. These can end up poisoning rabbits and other animals in the area. Try to treat your yard like an organic garden so that you can keep all the plants safe for wildlife.
You can also allow your garden to grow like a meadow, instead of making it always look like pristine astroturf. You can let wildflowers grow in your yard, instead of pulling them out like weeds. Dandelions and patches of clover are nutritious for rabbits and excellent for them to eat. Letting your grass grow longer without frequent mowing can also encourage rabbits to come and forage.
Plants to feed rabbits in the winter
If you’re thinking about wild rabbits in the winter, you’ll want to provide them with woody and twiggy bushes and shrubbery that they’ll be able to eat. Some good plants include berry bushes, such as raspberry or blackberry plants. Some trees, such as oak, sumac, and dogwood are also good options to give rabbits, especially if they are younger trees. Young trees tend to have softer bark, which is more appetizing to rabbits.
Planting tall evergreens and evergreen bushes is another option that can be beneficial to wild rabbits. They can chew on the branches and eat the needles, and these trees and bushes also give rabbits places to hide and take cover during the winter. When foliage is more sparse, rabbits have a harder time hiding away from predators, so these trees can give them a little more advantage and give them a better chance of surviving the winter.
Water in dry climates
If you live in an area that has a particularly dry climate or is going through a dry spell, it’s okay to leave out bowls of water for rabbits. To make sure mosquitos don’t nest in the area and bacteria don’t start to accumulate in the bowls, you’ll want to replace the water every day or so and occasionally clean out the bowls or water trough completely.
How much water do wild rabbits need?
Rabbits can actually drink quite a bit of water. It’s approximated that rabbits can drink about 4 ounces per kilogram of weight. So most will drink about 4-8 ounces per day. However, it’s also important to remember that rabbits will get a lot of their water from their diet. Grass, flowers, and leafy plants all contain water that helps to keep wild rabbits hydrated.
Should you worry about plants and flowers that are toxic to rabbits?
In general, there’s no need to avoid planting flowers that might be toxic to rabbits. Wild rabbits have excellent instincts that help them to discern which plants are edible and which are not. In addition, rabbits are much more capable of digesting high-fiber plant substances than other animals. They have a unique digestion that takes fiber and quickly pushes it through their digestive system. So for the most part, you can plant what you want without worrying about poisoning your local wildlife.
The only times I would hesitate to grow something that might be poisonous to wild rabbits is when it’s a plant that is not native to the region you live. In most cases, the rabbits just won’t touch these, since they tend to be abundantly cautious, however, they also don’t have the instincts to know if these particular plants are bad for them. In winter months or when food is scarce, the rabbits might try to eat these plants, which would not be good.
What to AVOID doing when feeding wild rabbits
It’s best to help feed wild rabbits by providing food for them naturally. This will prevent them from becoming dependent on you for food. Big piles of food in the yard can also attract other unwanted animals that may be more dangerous or prone to spreading disease (such as raccoons). However, if you want to occasionally scatter some leftover leafy greens in the yard for wild rabbits to eat, there is nothing wrong with that.
Leftover herbs, strawberry or carrot tops, or the trimmed ends of many different fruits and vegetables are safe for wild rabbits to eat in small quantities. Instead of tossing these leftovers in the garbage, you put them outside for the rabbits. But try not to make this a daily habit.
However, not all foods are good for wild rabbits to eat. They can handle high-fiber grasses well but have a much more sensitive stomach when it comes to just about everything else.
Most seeds and nuts are not great for a rabbit’s digestion. There are some exceptions, such as sunflower seeds, but for the most part, you want to avoid setting these out where wild rabbits can eat them. Even though birdseed is not good for rabbits, they will probably try to eat it anyway if they find it available. Keep the birdseed for the birds and let rabbits eat the leafy plants that are healthy for them.
High sugar foods
Many commercial rabbit treats that you’ll find in the pet store have many colorful fruity parts to them. Most of these are not healthy for rabbits, whether domestic or wild and are best avoided. This includes treat mixes, as well as yogurt treats that are widely available.
Instead, if you want to leave some treats around, you can scatter pieces of fruits and vegetables in your yard, such as papaya, blueberries, or blackberries. Wait for the wild rabbits to come across the fruit as they are foraging for food. That will keep them from eating a pile of the sweet fruits and vegetables all at one time.
Cooked human leftovers
Most wild rabbits won’t touch cooked food, but it’s best to avoid making it available to them at all. Cooked food, even if it is all plant-based, is not good for a rabbit’s digestion. This includes anything that’s been mixed with a salad dressing or oil, even if it was never cooked. The added ingredients are not good for rabbits. Wild rabbits probably won’t touch these types of foods anyway.
Similarly, processed foods are not good for rabbit digestion and don’t have any nutritional value. Cereals, crackers, bread, granola bars, etc. should not be left out for rabbits to eat. Wild rabbits might try to eat these, but it’s like feeding them junk food and really should be avoided.
Cat or dog food
If you have a cat or dog, you might think about leaving out a bowl of dry cat or dog food for the rabbits in your yard. Since dogs and cats are carnivores, their food is not suitable for rabbits, who are herbivores. Most of the time, rabbits won’t touch this kind of food, but it might attract other animals to the yard, like raccoons or neighborhood cats, that are predators of rabbits.
Giving milk to adult animals is an old tradition that is still commonly believed in some places. It’s time to put the myth to rest. Do not put a bowl of milk out for wild rabbits (or cats or any other animal). At best the rabbits will just ignore the milk, but at worst it can wreak havoc on their digestion. Remember, humans are one of the only animals that drink milk as adults.
Even baby rabbits should not be given cow’s milk to drink. The components of cow’s milk are very different from a mother rabbit’s milk. It doesn’t have the necessary proteins and enzymes to make it beneficial for baby rabbits.
Feeding orphaned wild baby rabbits
Most of the time, if you find a baby wild rabbit nest you should just leave it alone. Wild cottontail rabbits, which are most of the species you will find in North America, will leave their young in a nest. They’ll come back to feed the babies once or twice a day. What might appear to be an abandoned nest is probably still being looked after by the mother rabbit.
If you are absolutely certain that the baby rabbits in question are orphaned and the mother is not coming back, then the best action to take is to try to find a wildlife rehabilitation center in your area that would be willing to take the rabbits in. It is very difficult to care for baby rabbits by yourself, and in most cases they won’t survive for very long.
If you cannot find a rehabilitation center that will help you care for and feed these baby rabbits, then the House Rabbit Society has provided some instructions for feeding baby rabbits.
Feeding wild Rabbits in Captivity
If a wild rabbit is in captivity (due to injury, for example), there will be every attempt to feed them as natural a diet as possible. This means they will be offered a variety of greens, grass cuttings, and clover to help them eat adequately and recover. Sometimes they will also be given timothy hay and dried grass as well if there aren’t enough fresh greens available.
- Allman, Molly. “How to Make Rabbits Come to Your Yard.” SFGate. December 19, 2018. https://homeguides.sfgate.com/make-rabbits-come-yard-52448.html
- B. D. Cooke. “Daily food intake of free-ranging wild rabbits in semiarid South Australia.” Wildlife Research 41, pgs 141-148. June 2014. Accessed: https://www.publish.csiro.au/wr/wr14003.
- Duggan, Graham. “Rabbits at risk: Some species are among the most endangered mammals on the planet.” CBC. https://www.cbc.ca/natureofthings/features/rabbits-at-risk-some-species-are-among-the-most-endangered-mammals-on-the-p.
- Halls, Amy M.Sc. “Nutritional Requirements for Rabbits.” Nutreco Canada Inc. ResearchGate.net. October 2010. Pg. 3.
- Miguel Delibes-Mateos, Steve M. Redpath, Elena Angulo, Pablo Ferreras, Rafael Villafuerte. “Rabbits as a keystone species in southern Europe.” Biological Conservation. Science Direct. June 2007. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0006320707000572.
- “Orphaned Baby Bunnies: Wild and Domestic.” House Rabbit Society. May 12, 2020. https://rabbit.org/faq-orphaned-baby-bunnies.
- Pollack, Christal DVM. “Basic Information Sheet: Cottontail Rabbit.” LefeberVet. March, 2013. https://lafeber.com/vet/basic-information-for-the-cottontail-rabbit.
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