Rabbits have a very sensitive digestive system. With an improper diet, they can easily become sick and suffer from major health problems. Unfortunately, there are a lot of common myths about rabbits that mislead people away from the optimal, healthy diet. Some of this is due to bad marketing from companies that try to sell food for rabbits that is not good for them. Other mistakes come from traditional practices that should be updated thanks to more recent research.
Rabbits should NOT eat any kind of processed human foods or dairy products. You should also avoid feeding a rabbit most seeds, nuts, and grains, as well as select vegetables from the onion and nightshade families. Most notably, avoid iceberg lettuce, and sweet fruits and vegetables, including carrots.
There is a lot of false and conflicting information out there. When researching which foods to give your rabbit, you’ll want to take into account their natural diet. Most of what a rabbit eats should be recognizable vegetables and dried grasses. Anything that deviates from these (except for a fortified brand of pellets), should be avoided in order to maintain your rabbit’s long-term health.
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1. Unhealthy pellet mixes
Unfortunately, there are a lot of rabbit food mixes found in pet stores that are not actually healthy for rabbits. These pellet mixes will have lots of colorful, fruity pieces that make them look appetizing on the pet store shelf. However, the high sugar content and the added nuts and seeds are not good for a rabbit’s digestion. Over time these can lead to some serious health problems (such as GI Stasis).
It’s also important to avoid any food meant for other animals. I’ve heard stories of people feeding cat food to their rabbits, which is not a good idea. Rabbits are herbivores and do not have the ability to digest meat-based cat food. You also want to avoid food that is made for other small animals. Rabbits have different nutritional needs than guinea pigs, rats, gerbils, and hamsters. Provide your rabbit with food that is specifically made for the health of a rabbit.
I recommend getting Oxbow rabbit food. Oxbow is a trusted brand with an excellent reputation among rabbit caretakers and veterinarians. My rabbits like their Garden Select rabbit food best. If you’re looking for a healthy alternative for your rabbit’s pelleted food, I recommend checking them out.
2. Bad vegetables: potatoes, onions, and more
Because rabbits have a sensitive digestive system, all fruits and vegetables should be limited. However, there are some that should be avoided altogether because they are mildly poisonous or have a higher chance of causing severe digestive health problems.
The most notable category that you want to avoid is anything in the onion family. This includes all types of onion, as well as garlic, and scallions. The vegetables in this group are known to affect a rabbit’s immune system leaving them open to higher levels of illness or infection.
Foods that are high in starch, such as potatoes and corn, are also best avoided. Excess carbohydrates can cause an imbalance in the rabbit’s gut and put them at higher risk for digestive illness.
For a similar reason, you want to avoid vegetables that have a high fat content, such as avocados and olives. This can easily cause a digestive upset and cause your rabbit to become ill. Avocados should also be avoided because it contains the chemical persin. This is highly toxic for rabbits and is especially concentrated in the skin and pit of the avocados.
Tomato is a special note for this section because the fruit is actually safe for rabbits to eat in small amounts. However, the leaves and stems should be avoided because they are mildly toxic to rabbits.
Fruits and vegetables that should NOT be fed to rabbits:
- Corn (and corn husks)
- Green onions
- Hot peppers
- Onions (all varieties)
- Sweet potatoes
- Tomato leaves
3. Cereal and processed grains
As a general rule, any kind of processed human food should be considered off-limits for pet rabbits. A common culprit that I see popping up in forums and help groups is cereal. People will give their rabbits Cheerios as treats, thinking it’s a healthy snack because it is grain-based. It’s also not uncommon to see people giving their rabbits a slice of bread or toast to eat.
The problem with these types of food is that they are not easily digested by rabbits. 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.
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, and may even cause harm. If you want to give your rabbit a little treat, stay away from the Cheerios and give them a little piece of banana instead.
4. Store-bought rabbit treats
Even though pet-store treats have a rabbit on the bag, most of the time these treats are far from healthy for rabbits. This includes everything from yogurt treats to sugared dried fruit and mixes that contain a variety of nuts and legumes. Most treat mixes have colorful pieces with a high amount of added sugar in them. Others contain pieces that are not healthy for rabbits, including pieces of nuts, seeds, corn, and peas, all of which should be avoided for rabbits.
The types of pet store treats that are actually okay to give to rabbits are the flavored baked hay treats, such as Oxbow’s Simple Rewards. Many people pass these over because they are not as colorful and appetizing to our human brains, but these still taste great to rabbits. My rabbits like the bell pepper flavor best.
Baked hay treats have a high fiber content with only a little bit of sweet flavoring, making them much healthier for rabbits. You can also give your rabbit small portions of fresh or dried fruits and vegetables as treats instead of getting store-bought treats from a pet store.
5. Iceberg lettuce
Lettuce is a surprise to many people. After all, rabbits are herbivores who get most of their nutrients from eating a variety of leafy greens. The problem with lettuce is that it contains high levels 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. While you may find trace amounts of this chemical in other varieties of lettuce, iceberg lettuce has the highest amounts and should be completely avoided.
Iceberg lettuce also has high water content and a low nutrient density. This means that rabbits gain very little nutritional value from eating this type of 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 a much more essential part of their daily diet.
While most types of leafy greens are safe for rabbits to eat, there are a few that are best avoided:
- Iceberg lettuce
- Potato and tomato tops
- Rhubarb leaves
6. Most nuts and seeds
Most types of nuts and seeds are also not good to feed rabbits. Nuts tend to have a high fat content, making them unhealthy for a rabbit’s digestion, which requires more fiber. Seeds, on the other hand, can be mildly poisonous for rabbits.
Any fruit or plant that contains trace levels of a chemical that is toxic to rabbits will typically have a more concentrated version of that chemical in the seeds. Apples, for example, are safe for rabbits to eat. However, apple seeds should be avoided because they have high levels of cyanide, which is toxic to rabbits.
There are notable exceptions that are safe for rabbits to eat, including sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds, but if you are ever unsure if a specific variety of seeds is safe for rabbits, then it’s best to avoid them.
Legumes, including beans, lentils, and peas, should also be avoided. The foods in this group tend to have high levels of protein and carbohydrates while having low levels of fiber. In addition, many types of legumes, especially beans, have chemicals that can cause blood clotting and inhibit a rabbit’s ability to absorb nutrients from their diet.
The sprouts, leaves, and stems from legume plants, however, are generally safe for rabbits to eat. These do not have the densely packed proteins and compounds that are found in the legumes themselves. For this reason, bean sprouts, and legume grasses are safe to feed rabbits.
Alfalfa is a common example of this. Alfalfa is a legume hay that is commonly found among the options and varieties of hay for rabbits. It has a higher calcium and protein content than typical grass-based hays (such as timothy hay) and can lead to fast weight gain in rabbits. Therefore I don’t advise giving your rabbit alfalfa hay in high quantities. However, if your rabbit is young and still growing, alfalfa hay is excellent for helping your rabbit to grow while maintaining a healthy weight.
8. Dairy products
After they are weaned off of their mother when they are babies, rabbits lose the ability to digest any kind of dairy product. This includes any kind of cheese, milk, and even yogurt (including pet-store yogurt treats). Even though it’s common to see characters in movies and books offering milk to a stray rabbit, this is not a correct or healthy way to feed rabbits. Instead, rabbits should be given water to drink. Daily fresh water is very important for keeping rabbits healthy and hydrated.
Even baby rabbits who have been orphaned 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. If it’s ever necessary for you to hand feed a baby rabbit, choose puppy formula or goat’s milk as a better alternative.
9. Toxic plants: Lilies, Ivy, and more
Even though rabbits are herbivores, there are still a number of plants that are toxic when eaten. This is one area where rabbits are a bit tougher than other animals. Their gut was made to digest high-fiber plant material, so often times plants with a low level of toxicity will not cause lasting harm to rabbits. Most plants that have components that are poisonous to rabbits need to be eaten in large quantities to be truly harmful. If your rabbit takes a couple of nibbles of a plant that they shouldn’t eat, they’ll be fine, but if they eat the whole potted plant, then you may have to take action.
Many rabbits will instinctually avoid plants that are toxic. However, 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.
Plants and flowers that are NOT safe for rabbits include:
- Aloe vera
- Elephant’s ear
- Morning glory
- Oak leaves
What to feed rabbits in very small amounts
There are plenty of foods that you can feed rabbits in small amounts that would be bad for rabbits to eat in large amounts. While these foods would easily land on a ‘safe for rabbits’ list, that doesn’t mean you should feed them to your rabbit without reserve.
Hay is the one food that you can give your rabbit in unlimited amounts. The high fiber content of grass-based hays (such as timothy hay, orchard hay, and oat hay) is essential for keeping a rabbit’s digestion moving and healthy. Check out my article for more information about a healthy rabbit diet.
Sweet fruits and vegetables
Most sweet fruits and vegetables are safe for rabbits to eat, but only in very small amounts. These foods are not toxic, but the high levels of sugar could cause an imbalance in the rabbit’s digestion. Over time this could result in some severe health issues. To help your rabbit stay healthy, restrict treats to just a couple tablespoons per day.
|Weight of rabbit||Amount of treats daily|
|2 lbs||2 tsp|
|3 lbs||1 Tbsp|
|4 lbs||1 Tbsp + 1 tsp|
|5 lbs||1 Tbsp + 2 tsp|
|6 lbs||2 Tbsp|
|7 lbs||2 Tbsp + 1 tsp|
|8 lbs||2 Tbsp + 2 tsp|
|9 lbs||3 Tbsp|
|10 lbs||3 Tbsp + 1 tsp|
Leafy greens with oxalic acid
Most types of leafy greens are okay to give your rabbit. However, there are some types of greens that have a higher oxalic acid concentration. These are still okay to give your rabbit, but you want to be sure to give less of these types than other types of greens. To help you figure out which types of greens to limit, most greens with higher levels of oxalic acid are darker colors.
Common greens with high oxalic acid include:
- Beet greens
- Mustard greens
- Radish greens
Even healthy brands of pellets should only be given to rabbits in limited amounts. Too many pellets will cause rabbits to gain weight quickly, which leads to obesity and a myriad of health problems. Instead of an unlimited amount of pellets, you should give your rabbit only about 1 tablespoon per pound that they weigh.
|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|
- Alison J Butt, et. al. “A novel plant toxin, persin, with in vivo activity in the mammary gland, induces Bim-dependent apoptosis in human breast cancer cells.” Molecular Cancer Therapeutics. National Library of Medicine. September 2006. Accessed: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/16985064.
- Bergstrøm, Camilla. “Can Rabbits Eat Onion or Garlic?” MediRabbit. http://www.medirabbit.com/EN/GI_diseases/Food/onion.htm.
- Bergstrøm, Camilla. “Feeding the House Rabbit 7: Pellets.” MediRabbit. http://www.medirabbit.com/EN/GI_diseases/Food/Pel/Pellets_en.htm.
- Bergstrøm, Camilla. “Toxic Plants.” MediRabbit. http://www.medirabbit.com/EN/GI_diseases/Food/Tox/Tox_en.htm.
- Harcourt-Brown, Francis. “Plant Toxicity.” https://www.harcourt-brown.co.uk/articles/free-food-for-rabbits/lant-toxicity-the-problem-with-lists.
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