Do Rabbits NEED Pellets in Their Daily Diet?


Do rabbits need pellets?

Pellets have been a part of a pet rabbit diet for decades, but that doesn’t mean they are healthy for rabbits. In fact, research suggests that excess pellets can end up causing obesity and related illnesses in rabbits. The more we learn about rabbit health, the more we can adjust our rabbit’s diets to make them balanced and healthy. This means looking critically at the food we give our rabbits and deciding if it is all still important as part of a healthy rabbit diet.

Pellets can be good for rabbits in small quantities, but they are not a necessary part of a rabbit’s daily food intake. If pet rabbits are given a balanced diet with grass-based hay and a variety of leafy green vegetables, they can still be healthy on a pellet-free diet.

We know that it’s important to move pet rabbits to a hay-based diet, but some caretakers are now going a step further and giving their rabbits a completely natural, pellet-free diet. After all, wild rabbits are able to survive without pellets. Let’s look into the pros and cons of including pellets in your rabbit’s diet, so you can make an informed decision about the care and health of your own pet rabbit.


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Should you stop giving your rabbit pellets?

When given in small amounts, pellets are still considered a healthy part of a balanced rabbit diet. Personally, I do feed my rabbits a daily portion of healthy pellets. I find pellets are an easy way to keep track of a rabbit’s appetite. Since rabbits are more likely to be excited about eating pellets than hay, a rabbit who suddenly refuses to eat their pellets is showing an immediate sign that they might be sick. Healthy brands of pellets are also fortified with vitamins and nutrients that are helpful for rabbits.

However, it is definitely possible to keep a bunny healthy on a completely pellet-free diet. After all, wild rabbits never have access to manufactured pellets and they are able to remain healthy. If you like the idea of giving your rabbit a natural diet with only grass-based hays and fresh leafy greens, then you can feel relieved to know it’s okay to go that route. You can have a happy and healthy bunny, either way, so the decision is up to you.

If you want to give your rabbit a pellet-free diet, you will need to adjust the quantities of hay and leafy greens that you give your rabbit. This will help to ensure that they can replace the calories they would get from the pellets in their diet.

It’s also important to offer your rabbit a wider variety of hays and veggies when going on a pellet-free diet to make sure they are getting more of the variety of vitamins and nutrients that they may be missing from the pellets. Add in another type of hay in addition to their timothy hay (try orchard hay or oat hay), and give your rabbit 3-5 different types of leafy greens on a daily basis.

The history of pellets in a rabbit’s diet

Our domestic rabbits are actually the exact same species as European wild rabbits. They, of course, did not originally eat pellets as part of their normal diet. Pellets were originally manufactured as a way to cheaply feed rabbits that were being bred as meat livestock. The types of pellets that were made were high in fat and protein, sometimes even using animal fats. They caused these rabbits to gain weight quickly and survive in the harsh, stressful conditions they were kept in.

As rabbits began to be kept more as pets than livestock, research was done investigating this pellet-based diet. It was found that a high volume of pellets, especially if they use animal fats, is not good for rabbits. They had a tendency to cause rabbits to become obese, with all of the related risks.

Alternative brands of pellets have since been created with much healthier nutritional content for rabbits. However, even these healthy brands are highly concentrated forms of nutrient intake and can cause rabbits to gain weight quickly. Therefore it is recommended that caretakers keep pellets in a rabbit’s diet to a small amount on a daily basis, and instead feed rabbits a hay-based diet.

Graph: What to feed your rabbit? 80% hay, 15% leafy greens, 4% pellets, 1% treats

Pellets as part of a balanced diet

While pellets can be part of a balanced diet, you should not give your rabbit a completely pellet-based diet. Instead, it’s important to feed your rabbit mainly grass-based hay. A healthy rabbit diet should consist of about 80% of your rabbit’s daily food being grass-based hay (such as timothy hay). Fresh leafy greens should also be given to pet rabbits on a daily basis (about 1-3 cups depending on your rabbit’s size).

Pellets make up the smallest portion of a healthy diet (other than the occasional treat, of course). Adult rabbits should only receive about 1 tablespoon of pellets for every pound that they weigh.

Weight of rabbitAmount of pellets daily
2 lbs2 Tbsp
3 lbs3 Tbsp
4 lbs¼ cup
5 lbs1 Tbsp + ¼ cup
6 lbs2 Tbsp + ¼ cup
7 lbs3 Tbsp + ¼ cup
8 lbs½ cup
9 lbs1 Tbsp + ½ cup
10 lbs2 Tbsp + ½ cup

What kind of pellets are good for rabbits

You also want to make sure that you are giving your rabbit a healthy brand of pellets. There are many types of pellets out there that use old formulas and animal fats that are not good for rabbits. Other brands will try to sell a pellet mix with seeds, nuts, and fruity pieces that should only be given to rabbits as the occasional treat (or not at all, in some cases). 

When looking for a healthy brand of pellets for your rabbit, there are a couple of aspects that you want to check. The brand I use and what I recommend is  Oxbow’s Garden Select Food for Rabbits. But you can also use these guidelines to make sure your rabbit’s preferred brand is healthy for them.

  1. First, make sure the pellets are just plain, boring, brown pellets. Any pieces of dried fruit should only be given to rabbits as treats. 
  2. Next, you’ll want to check the ingredients list. You want to be sure that these are hay-based pellets. Timothy hay or timothy grass should be the first item on the list. You can also check the other ingredients on the list to make sure most of them are actual, recognizable ingredients. 
  3. The last thing you want to check is the nutritional content of the pellets. You want to make sure they have high fiber content and low fat content. 
Fiber content18% or higher
Protein content12-14%
Fat content3% or less

Pellets for young rabbits

Young rabbits who are still growing will need a different balance of pellets in their diet than adult rabbits. Their young bodies are still growing and can use more of the concentrated nutrients that are available in their daily pellets. For this reason, I do not recommend keeping young rabbits (about 6 months and younger) on a completely pellet-free diet. Instead, pellets should be reduced slowly as the rabbit reaches their full adult weight.

Many people will recommend giving young rabbits unlimited pellets, but it’s best to be cautious with this approach. You want to make sure your young rabbit is eating hay in addition to their pellets. So if your rabbit is completely ignoring their hay, then you’ll want to reduce their pellets a little bit.

Young rabbits should also be eating an alfalfa-based diet, rather than a timothy-based diet. Alfalfa hay has a higher concentration of calcium and proteins. It’s not ideal for adult rabbits, but it’s great for growing bunnies. Therefore, rather than getting timothy-based pellets, you’ll want to feed your young rabbit alfalfa-based pellets.

rabbit refusing pellets
If your rabbit refuses to eat pellets, it may be a sign of a health problem. However, sometimes it just means your rabbit is being picky.

When to be worried if your rabbit isn’t eating their pellets

More often rabbits will be picky eaters about their hay and prefer to eat pellets. However, some of them can refuse to eat their pellets instead. Since rabbits can still be healthy even on a completely pellet-free diet, it’s not always a bad thing if they simply don’t like to eat pellets. 

What you need to look out for is a change in your rabbit’s behavior. If they used to enjoy eating pellets quite a lot, but they are suddenly eating less or none at all, then this may be an indication of a health problem in rabbits.

A change in these kinds of eating behaviors with rabbits can be a sign of overgrown teeth or any number of other illnesses that are causing the rabbit to feel ill. So it’s important to take a change in your rabbit’s eating habits seriously and make an appointment with your vet.

How to get your rabbit to eat their pellets

If your bunny doesn’t like to eat pellets and it’s not caused by health problems, then you can put them on a pellet-free diet. However, you may want to find ways to encourage them to eat their daily pellets before cutting the pellets out completely.

  1. Transition your young rabbit to an adult diet slowly. Alfalfa pellets often taste better than timothy pellets. Take a few months to slowly switch your young rabbit to their new diet to get them used to the new flavor.
  2. Move to a different brand. Different brands of pellets will taste different to rabbits, so if your rabbit doesn’t like one of them you can try another.
  3. Mix the pellets into your rabbit’s hay or leafy greens. If you sprinkle a handful of your rabbit’s pellets into their daily greens or their hay trough, they may munch on some as they eat their other foods.
  4. Limit the daily pellets. Make sure to limit the daily pellets according to your rabbit’s weight. If rabbits have had too many pellets available, they might just be bored of them.
  5. Replace with fresh pellets. Use a sealable, air-tight container to keep your rabbit’s pellets fresh, and replace them every day even if your rabbit didn’t finish them.

Sources:

  1. Elizabeth TeSelle and Cindy McBee, DVM. “Natural Nutrition II: Pellets and Veggies.” House Rabbit Society. July 10, 2011. https://rabbit.org/natural-nutrition-part-ii-pellets-and-veggies-2.
  2. Krempels, Dana Ph.D. “What Should I Feed My Bunny?” University of Miami Biology Department. http://www.bio.miami.edu/hare/diet.html.
  3. Ramnaraine, Amy. “The Importance of Hay.” House Rabbit Society. March 8, 2017, https://rabbit.org/care/diet/the-importance-of-hay/.

Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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