Rabbits were domesticated as early as the 5th century. However, not much has changed since then in terms of their diet or digestion. Pet rabbits like to eat the same foods their wild counterparts consume, which is a good thing, considering the goal when raising any domesticated pet is to simulate their natural diet. Wild rabbits and pet rabbits today eat much the same foods. Any differences are due to their lifestyle, the availability of certain food, and even more so, the availability of water.
How Do Wild and Domestic Rabbit Diets Differ?
Rabbits kept as pets are usually fed a combination of hay, fresh vegetables, and pellets, along with fresh water. While a wild rabbit could eat any of these foods if given the choice, they typically don't have these options in the wild. They tend to eat what is readily available, which can vary depending on the season.
What Do Pet Rabbits Eat?
Unlike rabbits in the wild, who forage for food, pet rabbits rely on their owners to provide them with a balanced diet. Their diet should be made up of hay, vegetables, and rabbit pellets.
About 80 to 90 percent of a rabbit's diet should consist of hay. Their digestive system needs the fiber found in this food source. Also, their continuously growing teeth require the chewing action from munching on hay.
Timothy hay is the most common type of hay provided for rabbits. However, you can also give them oat hay, orchard grass, brome, coastal Bermuda, or fescue. Make sure your rabbit has unlimited access to hay. Alfalfa hay can be given as an occasional treat, but not as a regular hay, as it's too high in calcium and protein for a normal adult rabbit. It's OK to feed alfalfa hay regularly to baby and young rabbits under 7 months old.
Pet rabbits should also eat a variety of fresh vegetables every day. Most adult rabbits can eat up to 2 cups of veggies daily, whereas smaller breeds or young rabbits under 5 pounds in weight should have about 1 cup. It's best to provide them with a mix of vegetables rather than the same one or two every day in order to offer them a variety of nutrients.
Safe vegetables include zucchini, red leaf lettuce, romaine, mustard greens, dill, arugula, bell peppers, cilantro, cucumber, sprouts, among others. Vegetables that are higher in carbohydrates, sugar, or calcium, or that may cause gas, such as carrots, chard, collard greens, turnips, parsley, spinach, dandelion greens, broccoli, and kale, should be limited to only once or twice a week.
Commercially available pellets are important for pet rabbits. Pellets provide bunnies with the vitamins and minerals they might be missing from the rest of their diet. Look for pellets formulated specifically for rabbits that contain between 14 and 16 percent protein and around 22 percent fiber. You can feed a rabbit 1/8 cup of pellets for every 5 pounds of body weight each day. Baby rabbits can have unlimited alfalfa pellets until they reach the age of 7 months.
Rabbits do not need a lot of fruit. Too much fruit can cause problems for their digestive system. You can feed a small amount of fruit (1 to 2 tablespoons a few times each week) as an occasional treat. Pick safe fruits, such as berries, apple (without the pips or seeds, which are toxic), banana, mango, or papaya.
Water and a Rabbit's Diet
Rabbits, both pet and wild, need fresh water in order to keep their digestive system and all other organs functioning optimally. If a rabbit doesn't get enough water, they can develop a dangerous condition called gastrointestinal stasis. Always provide your rabbit with free access to fresh water.
When you compare a wild rabbit to a pet rabbit, a major difference is that a well-cared for pet rabbit will have water available to them at all times. As a result, they can eat a more varied diet, because finding food with a high water content is not as critical for them. However, wild rabbits get most of their water from the plants they eat.
What Do Wild Rabbits Eat?
Wild rabbits are herbivores who eat green plants found in their regular environment. These greens can include fresh grass, dried grass (hay), shrub and tree leaves, weeds, vegetables, herbs, clovers, and flowers, depending on the season. They actually prefer green vegetation over other kinds of roughage or grasses, and it's known that wild rabbits can even climb trees to get to fresh green leaves. In the winter, wild rabbits often must resort to eating tree bark, particularly from spruce, fir, apple, peach, and cherry trees, as well as twigs and pine needles.
Rabbits Evolved as "Picky" Eaters
Bunnies have been described as being "picky" eaters, and rabbits in the wild are no different. Experts speculate that this could be due to their role as prey animals; rabbits can run away from predators more quickly if they do not have a full stomach, so they choose each meal wisely. Generally, they'll pick the most nutrient-dense foods they can find.
Do Wild Rabbits Eat Meat?
Rabbits, whether in the wild or captivity, do not eat meat. Their digestive tracts are designed to break down plant material, and do not have to ability to digest meat. However, recent findings suggest that wild hares, a cousin to the rabbit, might eat meat. Photographs captured by researchers show wild snowshoe hares feasting on mammal and bird carcasses. Even though rabbits and hares look similar, they are separate species. So, it's not wise to feed your rabbit meat, because it could make them very sick.
Rabbit Digestive System
Due to their high-fiber diet of plant material, rabbits have a unique digestive system. Rabbits are hindgut fermenters, meaning they use fermentation within their large intestine as a way to digest their fibrous diet. Their cecum, an organ within the intestinal tract, is highly developed and contains bacteria to facilitate fermentation. Both wild and pet rabbits digest food this way. Interestingly, a rabbit's digestive system is actually more similar to a horse's than that of other pets like a cat or dog.
Wild and Pet Rabbits Eat Their Own Poop
Even with this special digestive system, rabbits still don't absorb all the nutrients they need before their food turns into feces. Therefore, wild and pet bunnies must eat their own poop. No, they don't eat all of their droppings; they only eat cecotropes, which are also known as night feces. These special stools contain vitamins, fatty acids, proteins, and digestive bacteria that a rabbit needs to stay healthy.
You can tell cecotropes apart from regular feces because they're usually shiny, oily, smelly, and look like a tight bundle of grapes. However, it's unlikely that you'll ever see these cecal night droppings. Rabbits produce them at night and eat them right away. Both pet and wild rabbits need the nutrients from these droppings, but wild rabbits tend to rely more on cecotropes, particularly during the winter when food is sparser.
Keep in mind that if you house pet rabbits in a hutch with a wire mesh floor, their night droppings may fall through the gaps. In this case, your rabbits may not be able to reach these droppings. Over time, this might impact their health. Either provide a hutch with a solid floor to prevent this, or otherwise make sure they have access to their night droppings to promote nutritional health.
Feeding a Wild Rabbit
It's generally not recommended to feed wild rabbits, but you may find it necessary in some cases, such as if you are caring for an injured bunny.
- While you can provide them with rabbit pellets, these will be too rich for them compared to their normal diet, and it's best to keep the amounts of pellets very small.
- They can eat the same types of hay given to pet rabbits, such as Timothy, alfalfa, oat, or orchard grass hay.
- They can also eat green vegetables, and it's best to choose ones that will not give them gas, as bloat can be a serious problem for all rabbits. Good choices include collard greens, romaine lettuce, and watercress.
- Provide them with fresh water in a bowl.
Feeding Wild and Pet Rabbits
While wild and domestic rabbits can eat the same types of foods, their daily diets differ because of their lifestyles. If you put food out for a wild rabbit, make sure it's not anything that will give them gas or diarrhea, and give them plenty of fresh water. For domestic rabbits, a varied diet of pellets, hay, and fresh vegetables can keep your pet healthy and happy.