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Natural Nutrition Part II: Pellets and Veggies
Elizabeth TeSelle in consultation with Cindy McBee, DVM
  Updated January 2012 by Susan A. Brown, DVM
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Related Articles
  • Natural Nutrition Part I
  • Feeding Hay to Rabbits and Rodents
  • In the first article in this series, we discussed the need rabbits have for indigestible fiber. But fiber, while important, is only part of the story. Protein and fat and the sources from which they come are also vital pieces in the nutritional puzzle. Because rabbits are still not considered "equal" to dogs and cats by the pet food industry, information about rabbit nutrition and what is best for rabbits is slow in coming.

    Animal Fat and the Protein Myth

    Humans are now learning that we require a lot less protein than previously believed. Even strict vegetarians may consume more protein than necessary. Rabbits possess neither the need for animal protein nor the capacity to process it, and their fat requirement is also low;1-2% is plenty for most.

    Studies have shown that rabbits, like human beings, develop atherosclerosis-like symptoms when exposed to the cholesterol in animal fat (Cheeke 1987, 325; Beynan 1990, 185-186). Experts in rabbit nutrition have said that "it is well recognized that vegetable oils usually are more digestible and have a higher energy value for swine and poultry than do animal fats. This appears to be true in rabbits also" (Cheeke 1987, 99). Why, then, do we sometimes see animal fat and animal fat derivatives on the ingredients list of rabbit pellets?

    Since pellets are manufactured and marketed primarily for breeders, and since most breeder rabbits are subject to more stress than house rabbits, many brands of pellets are labeled as "performance" feeds. These brands contain a high level of protein (16-22%), which is probably necessary to keep alive a rabbit who lives in an environment without climate control, is bred as often as possible, or is nursing most of the time. Physical, environmental, and psychological stresses require high energy levels for survival.

    A healthier protein percentage for spayed or neutered house rabbits is approximately 12-14%, a level at which it is possible to find pellet brands that contain no animal fat and list at least some actual ingredients on their labels. People who buy small amounts of "rebagged" pellets in bulk at pet supply stores should be sure to ask to see the bag the food came in and read the label carefully. Purchasing a 25# bag and splitting it with a friend may be safer and more economical. Unfortunately, one well-known manufacturer recently increased the protein in their maintenance diet to 16%. Although the food still contains no animal fat, this is more protein than a house rabbit needs.

    Not the Best for All Rabbits

    Having said all this, it may still come as a surprise that in recent years many veterinarians and house rabbit caretakers have come to the conclusion that commercial pellets, particularly when fed in large amounts, may not be the best choice for all rabbits. After all, pellets were developed for breeders as a concentrated source of nutrients. They contain all the vitamins and minerals a rabbit requires in a palatable form that keeps for many weeks, is easy to feed, and is (compared to dog or cat food) extremely inexpensive.

    The highly concentrated nature of pellets ensures that rabbits gain weight quickly, important for many breeders since those rabbits not bred are often slaughtered for meat by the age of 16 weeks. (UFAW Handbook 1987, 426).

    Clearly, when "production" is the goal there is considerable pressure for weight gain and maintenance, and very little concern with geriatric matters. Needless to say, no house rabbit lives under these conditions. Most are spayed or neutered, live indoors with minimal environmental stress, and can expect to make it to six to twelve years of age. In these rabbits, the concentrated nature of pellets can lead to obesity and its attendant medical problems.

    A Better Way

    Because of several potential problems associated with pellets, some veterinarians now recommend that pellets be not only rationed, but rationed quite severely. Instead of giving the rabbit all she can eat in a day, a night, or a few hours, we have been considering the following amounts as maximums (Brown 2009):

    5-7 lb of body wt. 1/4 cup daily

    8-10 lb body wt. 1/2 cup daily

    11-15 lb of body wt. 3/4 cup daily

    There is evidence that small breeds (under 2 lbs) may require a diet higher in energy and lower in fiber than the larger breeds (Cheeke 1987, 324). Several foster homes have experienced digestive problems in rabbits under 4 lbs who were put on severely restricted diets.

    Once pellets have been reduced, it is equally important to make sure that fresh grass hay is available to the rabbit at all times, and that fresh vegetables be given in larger amounts than has previously been recommended (up to 2-4 cups a day). Actually, because of the problems usually associated with the overfeeding of pellets, some rabbits do better if they receive no pellets at all. Instead, they eat several cups of fresh veggies a day and all the grass hay they want. Other rabbits still eat pellets, but receive significantly less than the above amounts, with a corresponding increase in the amount of vegetables offered. These more extreme measures are particularly helpful for overweight rabbits who need to lose weight safely. Treats should be limited to small (1 tsp.) amounts of fresh fruit. Most starches should be avoided, since too much carbohydrate has been associated with enteritis. Oats and barley in small amounts can be digested by rabbits but can, nonetheless, provide more calories than necessary.

    In feeding trials in which pelleted feed was reduced to 50% of normal intake and the diet was supplemented with greens, young rabbits maintained normal growth. When the amount of pellets was reduced to below 50% of "normal," growth rate declined (Pote et al 1980). These studies indicate that even young, unaltered rabbits do well on a reduced pellet diet. Since most of our house rabbits need to lose weight rather than gain, reducing pellets below 50% should not affect spayed or neutered adults adversely.

    What kinds of vegetables?

    There are different opinions regarding which vegetables are the best for rabbits. HRS members and fosterers have used many veggies with success, including collard, mustard, dandelion and turnip greens, spinach, kale, endive and Romaine lettuce. It is best to feed at least 3 types of greens daily, because this creates different textures and tastes as well as nutrient variety (See Suggested Fruits and Vegetables for a Rabbit Diet). However, such imbalances are less likely to occur if at least a small amount of pellets is given each day.

    Many fresh foods contain an alkaloid, oxalic acid, which in small amounts is harmless and actually may help the immune system. Some of the leafy greens such as parsley, beet greens, mustard greens, Swiss chard, radish tops, sprouts and spinach have a higher levels of oxalates and if they were fed in large amounts or for long periods toxicity could result. These greens are highly nutritious and do not have to be eliminated from the diet if they are not fed exclusively. Do not feed one type of green, for instance parsley, day after day for several weeks. It is best to rotate the greens over time. And it is best to rotate them anyway to promote variety in taste, texture and general nutrition! To make it simple, just vary your rabbit's diet throughout the week. Feed at least three leafy greens a day, only one being from the list above of those with more oxalic acid. Change up the greens when you go shopping again. Feed other vegetables and fruits in smaller amounts. See the article Suggested Fruits and Vegetables for a Rabbit Diet for how to feed these items.

    The most important aspect of increasing the amount of fresh foods in a rabbit's diet (and the amounts mentioned here represent a radical increase for most rabbits) is to do so gradually. Even if a particular fresh food is safe for your rabbit, giving her a cupful when she is unaccustomed to such riches could cause her intestinal tract some distress. It is always best to start your rabbit on grass hay first for few weeks (2 is a minimum) and then add in one new fresh food every three days to make sure there is no problem. Rabbits that are eating grass hay as the majority of their diet rarely have problems adding fresh foods. On occasion though a fresh food or two may not agree with your bunny and you can check it off the list if it produces soft or mushy stools. If the soft stools persist past removing the food from the diet, then consult your veterinarian as the food may not be the culprit. And just a reminder, ANY TIME you see watery stools in a rabbit, call your veterinarian immediately, this is not a simple diet problem, but a sign of something more serious!

    The best fresh foods for rabbits are those that have been grown organically, without the use of pesticides; in any case, be sure to wash your rabbit's vegetables thoroughly. Rather than scraping carrots (which removes the nutritious skin), scrub them with a vegetable brush. The key is to remove any dirt or pesticide residue, and to check carefully for rotted areas. Unless you are sure wild dandelions are protected from pesticides, check at your local health food store for organically grown ones.

    Catching Problems Early

    One potential side effect of this more natural diet, is that it is easier to notice when your rabbit has a decrease in appetite. This may help you to notice some illnesses more quickly. If a rabbit fed in this way backs off her food even slightly, she may not be feeling normal which can now be treated several days earlier than it would otherwise. Most rabbit caretakers welcome this peace of mind, and most veterinarians are thrilled to see a rabbit before the problem becomes an emergency.

    Also be aware that sometimes bunnies don't eat their food because there is something wrong with the food. It may smell different, or be a bit overripe or even not ripe enough. You can easily see if this is the case by trying another batch of that food from a different source. If your bunny is not eating one food out of the whole group it is more likely a food problem then a rabbit problem.

    Continuing Research

    Even if you greatly increase the amount of vegetables your rabbit receives, we are reluctant at this time to recommend eliminating pellets from a rabbit's diet entirely unless there is a pressing medical reason to do so. You should seek veterinary advice if you chose to remove all pellets from the diet to make sure your bunny maintains a balanced fresh food and hay diet. Giving a small amount of pellets every day ensures that the diet remains balanced. Still, our experiences in HRS, and those of veterinarians who see a large number of rabbits, do indicate that the amount of pellets given to most house rabbits is far too high for their nutritional needs. As time goes by and we hear more about the results of diet variations, we will certainly learn even more about using nutrition to keep our rabbits healthy and happy for as long as possible, so let us know about your experiences. As always, we learn more from the rabbits we know than from any other source.

    Works Cited

    Beynen, A.C. and M. Sugano. 1990. "Dietary protein as a regulator of lipid metabolism: State of the art and new perspectives." Journal of Nutritional Science and Vitaminology 36, Suppl. 2: S185-8.

    Brown, Susan. 2009. Care of Rabbits from the Small Mammal Health Series on Veterinary Partner

    Brown, Susan. 2012. Suggested Fruits and Vegetables for a Rabbit Diet.

    Cheeke, Peter R. 1987. Rabbit Feeding and Nutrition. Orlando: Academic Press.

    Jenkins, Jeffrey R. 1993. A Practitioner's Guide to Rabbits and Ferrets. Lakewood, CO: American Animal Hospital Association.

    Pote, L.M., Cheeke, P.R., and Patton, N.M. 1980. "Use of greens as a supplement to a pelleted diet for growing rabbits." Journal of Applied Rabbit Research 3, 15-20.

    The UFAW Handbook on the Care and Management of Laboratory Animals. 1987. 6th edition. Ed. Trevor B. Poole. Essex: Longman Scientific and Technical.

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