You’ve been learning about the importance of giving your pet rabbit a healthy diet with lots of hay, and decided to make some changes for your companion. Unfortunately your rabbit is not making it easy for you. They turn up their nose at their new, healthy diet and continue to beg you for those yummy treats and the more appetizing pellets and leafy greens.
Or maybe your young rabbit is growing up and it’s time to switch their food over from alfalfa-based hay and pellets to adult food that is timothy hay based. Timothy hay is slightly rougher and does not have as sweet a taste as alfalfa hay, so it’s common for young rabbits to turn up their nose during this transition period.
Don’t give up! It’s very important to make sure your rabbit has a healthy diet. We can get creative in the ways that we offer hay and healthy food to our rabbits so that we encourage them to eat more healthy food and stop being stubborn, picky eaters.
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What is a healthy diet for rabbits?
A healthy rabbit diet should be made up of mostly grass-based hay. Alongside the essential hay, you will also want to provide your rabbit with fresh leafy greens and a small amount of pellets on a daily basis.
- Hay: A rabbit should have unlimited grass-based hay available. This should be mostly timothy hay, so keep the alfalfa hay for only baby bunnies who are younger than 6 months old.
- Leafy greens: Leafy greens such as parsley, basil, carrot tops, leafy lettuces, kale, etc. should be given to your rabbit daily. About 1-2 cups of these leafy greens is a good amount, and it’s best to offer a few different varieties every day.
- Pellets: Only a small amount of pellets is necessary for a rabbit’s diet. Depending on their size, you want to limit them to about ¼ to ½ a cup of pellets per day. And make sure to give them the plain brown pellets, and not the kind with all the colorful fruity pieces added in.
- Treats: You should stick to pieces of fresh or dried fruits and vegetables as treats for rabbits. They should only be given treats in small amounts, about 1-2 tablespoons per day
Why is hay so important?
Eating a large quantity of grass-based hay is essential to a healthy rabbit diet. Hay serves two main functions.
- Rough strands of hay are good for rabbit teeth. Rabbit teeth grow continuously. They need to be worn down by chew toys and the food they eat. Having a high quantity of hay in the diet is the best way for rabbits to maintain healthy, trim teeth.
- High fiber hay keeps a rabbit’s digestion moving. Rabbits have a sensitive digestion. A slowdown of their digestive tract could end up causing some serious health problems in rabbits. Eating a lot of hay is the best way to help a rabbit maintain a healthy gut and keep the digestion going.
Health concerns for picky eater rabbits
Any change in eating habits can be a sign of illness in rabbits. If your rabbit used to eat their hay without complaining and only recently started to turn their nose up, then they may need medical attention. The same is true if your rabbit used to eat their pellets every day, but suddenly refuses to eat them.
If your rabbit is refusing to eat anything at all, this should be treated as an emergency situation and you should bring your rabbit to a small animal veterinarian.
When in doubt, it is always a good idea to seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian.
10 Ways to get your rabbit to eat their hay
If you have recently been learning more about how to get your rabbit onto a healthier diet, but they are being picky about their new, healthier food, then these tips can help you transition your rabbit to their new diet successfully.
Rabbits that are used to having a lot of pellets available might not want to eat more hay. They’ll turn their nose up while they beg you for more pellets and treats. Sometimes trying to get a rabbit to eat their hay is like trying to get a child to eat their spinach. However, hay is such an important part of a rabbit’s diet that we need to resist their cuteness. It’s important to take steps to encourage them to eat more hay!
I’ve included a number of tips that you can use to try to convince your rabbit to eat their healthy food. Try out any combination of the techniques until you find something that works for your rabbit.
1. Mix in different types of hay
Timothy hay is the best type of hay to offer your rabbit. It is a rough hay that does a good job at wearing down a rabbit’s teeth. Timothy hay is also high in fiber, which is great for a rabbit’s digestion. However, this does not mean that it is the most appetizing hay for rabbits.
If you’re struggling to get your rabbit to eat their timothy hay, then try adding in some other types of grass based hay. These other types may be more appetizing to rabbits so that they’ll be more likely to munch on it, and hopefully eat some of the timothy hay while they’re at it.
Some types of grass-based hay to look for include:
For the most part, you should try to avoid adding in alfalfa hay. Alfalfa is not actually a grass-based hay and has very high protein and calcium content that is not great for adult rabbits.
2. Mix daily pellets or greens in the hay
Instead of giving your rabbit their daily pellets or leafy greens in a bowl, consider mixing them into your rabbit’s hay. The goal is to get your rabbit to munch on some of the hay while they look through it to find the yummier pieces.
You can sprinkle the pellets over top of the hay so that your rabbit will have to forage through to find the yummy pellets. Mixing in your rabbit’s leafy greens can also cause some of the flavor of the greens to rub off on the hay. Hopefully this will make the hay just a little more appetizing to a picky rabbit.
3. Use different types of hay racks
Some rabbits prefer to eat hay when it’s close to the ground, and others like to pull at it from a raised or hanging hay rack. Try to give your rabbit some options. You want them to be able to eat their hay in the way that is most comfortable to them.
Put a hay rack on the ground level for your rabbit. Then go ahead and set up a hay rack up high. You can attach it to the side of your rabbit’s enclosure, or you can get a hanging rack to swing from the top. You could even set up an area in the enclosure where you put hay directly on the ground, to see if your rabbit would prefer to graze on the hay instead of pulling it out of a rack.
4. Look for fresh hay
Sometimes rabbits won’t eat their hay because it’s old and stale. Many types of hay that are bagged and sold in pet stores sit on the shelf so long that they turn brown and dusty. Rabbits will be more likely to enjoy eating hay if it’s fresh and green. Switching your rabbit over to a fresher brand of hay can make a big difference in their willingness to eat it.
The best way to get fresh hay is to buy from the source. If you have any kind of local farmers in your area, see if you can purchase a bale of hay directly from them. There are also many online stores that sell high quality, fresh hay.
My online store of choice is Small Pet Select. They have impressed me (and my rabbit!) with the quality of their hay. I get the 2nd Cutting Timothy Hay for my bunnies and add in some Orchard and Oat hay. Small Pet Select can be a little more expensive that some pet store brands, but their quality it worth it. But if you’re hesitant to try a new brand, then use the code BUNNYLADY at checkout to get 15% off your first purchase.
If you are stuck buying hay from a pet store, try to stick to brands that have higher quality hay (Oxbow is usually a good choice). Try to make sure that the bag you get doesn’t have a whole lot of hay dust at the bottom, and purchase the bags that have the greenest color of hay.
5. Periodically rearrange the hay
If your rabbit seems to pick through their hay and munch on their favorite pieces, only to leave it alone for the rest of the day, you can try to rearrange the hay periodically to make it more appetizing to your rabbit. You can trick your rabbit into thinking they have fresh hay, and they should check it out again.
Periodically take handfuls of hay and fluff it up a little. This will expose some of the pieces of hay that your rabbit couldn’t get to before, encouraging them to continue to munch on the hay. Just making the hay look different can also convince a rabbit to go and check it out again.
6. Replace with fresh hay every day
Instead of placing the new day’s hay piled up on top of yesterday’s, remove the old hay before giving your rabbit their fresh hay. There might be certain pieces of hay that your rabbit dislikes, so they refuse to eat them until they get fresh hay. Instead of trying to convince your rabbit to eat all of the hay, it’s best to give them more of the hay that they will eat.
This can also help you to know exactly how much hay your rabbit is eating. If you keep piling new hay on top of the old hay every day, it might look like your rabbit isn’t eating much at all. However, if you remove the excess then you might realize that your rabbit is munching on more hay than you thought.
7. Avoid overfeeding on other foods
For most rabbits, the hay is the least appetizing part of their diet. They would much rather munch on pellets, leafy greens, or sweet treats. If they have enough of these other foods available they will gladly forgo the hay.
That’s why you need to make sure you limit the amount of other foods that you feed your rabbit. This will keep them on a healthy and balanced diet. The exact amount of pellets, greens, and treats you can give your rabbit on a daily basis depends on their size. A 10 pound rabbit can obviously eat more than a 5 pound rabbit, so be sure to take that into account.
For a 5 pound rabbit, a healthy diet consists of:
- About ¼ cup of pellets
- 1-2 cups of leafy greens
- No more than 2 Tablespoons of sweet treats.
8. Place the hay next to the litter box
For some reason rabbits like to munch and poop at the same time. Placing the hay trough near the litter box can be a way to encourage your rabbit to eat it while they are using the bathroom. If your rabbit is struggling with their litter box habits, this little trick might actually help to improve those too.
You can place your rabbit’s hay in the litter box for your rabbit. Alternatively you can set up a hay trough directly next to the litter box so your rabbit can reach it easily.
9. Use hay in fun toys
You can purchase or make interactive toys that use hay for your rabbit. With these toys you can place a tasty treat in the middle and use hay to hide the treat. Rabbits have a good sense of smell, so they’ll be able to smell the treat. They’ll pull on the hay to try to get at it. This kind of toy encourages rabbits to eat more hay and it’s a great form of mental enrichment.
If you don’t want to buy a toy for this, then you can always make one on your own. I’ve created a step-by-step guide for making a hanging toy for your rabbit using only toilet paper tubes and some string. You can place a treat in the middle of the tubes and use the hay to hide it.
10. Give hay cubes as treats
The last tip I have for you is to use hay cubes as treats for your rabbit. This gives them hay in a slightly different form than the typical loose timothy hay. For some rabbits hay cubes are more appetizing and easier to eat. Usually these will come in either alfalfa hay or timothy hay, so you’ll want to opt for the timothy hay cubes to keep your rabbit healthy.
You can find these timothy cubes in a number of online stores, but I do have trouble finding them in person at pet shops. My rabbit loves the hay cubes I get at Small Pet Select, so they may be worth checking out for your picky rabbit. (don’t forget to get 15% off your order by using the code BUNNYLADY at checkout!)
What if your rabbit refuses to eat pellets?
Sometimes rabbits are picky about pellets instead of hay. This may happen if you’ve been trying to transition your rabbit to a new, healthier brand of pellets. The healthy brands of pellets do not have all of the colorful, fruity pieces included and are only the brown pellets. This behavior is also common for young rabbits who are being transitioned from alfalfa-based pellets (usually tastier) to the adult timothy-based pellets.
The good news is that pellets are not 100% necessary to a rabbit’s diet. While they do add some protein and nutrients for your rabbit, a rabbit who is eating their hay and fresh leafy greens every day can be very healthy even if they are not eating their daily pellets. Despite this, it is still ideal if you can get your rabbit to eat their daily pellets.
If your rabbit is suddenly refusing to eat pellets that they used to enjoy, you should seek medical attention. You should also get the advice of a veterinarian if your rabbit is refusing to eat pellets and appears to be losing weight.
Some tips to convince your rabbit to eat their pellets:
- Transition to the healthier pellets slowly. Rather than switching your rabbit to the healthier pellets all at once, it’s better to give their body time to adjust to the new food. Over the course of 3-4 weeks slowly reduce the amount of the old food and increase the amount of the new pellets for your rabbit until you are only giving them the new food.
- Replace the old pellets with fresh ones every day. Even if your rabbit did not finish their pellets from the previous day, dump out the old pellets and replace them with a fresh handful. This will also help you to keep track of exactly how much your rabbit is eating, since there won’t be multiple days worth of pellets piled on top of each other.
- Limit the amount of pellets you give your rabbit. Make sure you only give your rabbit the healthy amount of pellets per day. It should be about ¼ cup of pellets for a 5 pound rabbit. This will keep your rabbit from getting bored of the flavor, and the pellets will be more like a treat every day. Not to mention they’ll be eating more hay.
- Sprinkle the pellets into the hay. If your rabbit is eating their hay without complaining but refusing to eat their pellets, try to sprinkle the pellets into the hay trough. Your rabbit might munch on them while they are going through their hay.
What if your rabbit refuses to eat greens?
Leafy greens are usually so yummy to rabbits that you can even use them as treats. There are so many different types of greens to choose from. If your rabbit turns their nose up at what you’re offering, then you can try something else.
If your rabbit is refusing to eat their daily leafy greens:
- Introduce new greens. If your rabbit doesn’t like the greens you are giving them, try something new. Rabbits will have favorites and preferences, just like people.
- Give your rabbit a variety. Try to provide your rabbit with three different kinds of greens every day. This will help them get a bigger variety of nutrients. It will also give them more to choose from so they’ll be more likely to eat at least some of their greens.
- Give your rabbit time. Some rabbits are just distrustful of new foods that are offered to them. Let your rabbit get used to the smell of any new leafy greens by leaving them in your rabbit’s food bowl for a while. Replace the greens with fresh greens every day. Usually the rabbit will eventually get curious and nibble on the greens to see if they taste good.
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