Domestic pet rabbits and wild rabbits can eat the same types of foods for the most part. However, their day-to-day diets are different due to the availability of food and even more so, water.
How Do Wild and Domestic Rabbit Diets Differ?
Rabbits that are kept as pets are usually fed a combination of rabbit pellets, fresh vegetables and hay, along with fresh water. While a wild rabbit could eat any of these foods if given the option, they don't have these options in the wild. They tend to eat what is readily available, which can vary depending on the season.
The Typical Wild Rabbit Diet
Wild rabbits are primarily herbivores who eat green plants that are found in their regular environment. These greens can include grass, shrub and tree leaves, weeds, and clover. They also will eat tree bark, particularly from spruce, fir, apple, peach and cherry trees as well as twigs and pine needles. They actually prefer green vegetation over other kinds of vegetables and grasses, and it's known that wild rabbits can even climb trees to get to fresh green leaves. In other words, if you leave out a plate of carrots for wild rabbits, they may choose to eat the leaves of shrubs and grass in the area over the carrots. It's not that they can't eat the carrots, it's simply that it would not be their first choice when given other green options.
Water and a Wild Rabbit's Diet
Rabbits, both pet and wild, need fresh water in order to digest food properly. If a rabbit doesn't get enough water, they can actually lose weight even if they continue to eat the same amount of food. This explains why rabbits in the wild tend to go for fresh greens over any other option as these foods have more water in them than any of their other choices. Eating fresh greens can help them to digest more food than they would be able to by eating bark, dried plants or vegetables with a lower water content. 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.
Rabbit Cecotropes or "Night Droppings"
Another difference between domestic and wild rabbits is eating cecotropes. A cecotrope is a "cecal pellet" that rabbits produce from food that is not fully digested. They're also called "night droppings" as rabbits tend to drop and digest them in the evenings. Cecotropes may appear to be fecal pellets, but they're different and it's absolutely normal for a rabbit to eat his or her cecotropes. In fact, cecotropes contain important nutrients and digestive bacteria that a rabbit needs in their diet to be healthy. Eating cecotropes happens with both pet and wild bunnies, but the difference is that rabbits in the wild rely much more on cecotropes during the winter when food is sparse.
Feeding a Wild Rabbit
It's not recommended to try feeding wild rabbits, but you may find it necessary in some cases, such as 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 them. Good choices are collard greens, romaine lettuce and watercress.
- You can provide them with fresh cut grass, but make sure you use scissors so the grass is intact rather than crushed by a mower or powered clipper. You should also be sure the grasses have not been treated with any chemicals like pesticides.
- Provide them with fresh water in a bowl.
A Proper Pet Rabbit Diet
Because pet rabbits have more access to water daily and don't need to deal with the harsh climate and environment of a wild rabbit, you can provide them with a more varied diet. Typically a pet rabbit should eat a daily diet that consists of:
- Approximately ¼ cup of commercial rabbit pellets for an average sized rabbit. Look for a pellet diet that is around 15 to 16% protein and observe your rabbit's urine for signs of redness, which indicates that the protein content is too high.
- For young rabbits under eight months, they should be fed alfalfa pellets until they reach adulthood. They can eat alfalfa hay as well, although this should be mixed with other types of hay.
- Hay should be about 80% or more of their daily diet and they should have access to it at all times. Timothy hay is the most commonly provided type of hay for rabbits. You can also give them oat hay, orchard grass, brome, coastal Bermuda or fescue.
- 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 okay to feed alfalfa hay regularly to young rabbits under eight months old.
- You can gather hay or straw from your own yard but if you do make sure it is free of thorns, weeds, mold and dust.
- You can feed fresh vegetables at a rate of about 1 cup per 4 pounds of body weight daily.
- You can feed fresh fruit no more than twice a week. You can use a guide of a maximum of 1 to 1 tablespoons of fresh fruit per 5 pounds of a rabbit's body weight.
Safe Fruits for a Pet Rabbit
Rabbits do not need a lot of fruit and too much can cause problems for their digestive system. Some fruits that are safe for them in moderation are:
- Apple (but not the pips/seeds which are toxic)
- Cherries (pits removed as they contain cyanide)
- Star fruit
Safe Vegetables and Herbs for a Pet Rabbit
Rabbits can eat a variety of fresh vegetables and herbs in moderation. It's better to provide them with a mix of vegetables than just one in order to give their stomach a variety of nutrients. Some safe options include:
- Alfalfa sprouts
- Artichoke leaves
- Baby sweetcorn (these are ok but do not feed regular size corn)
- Bell peppers (all colors)
- Bok choy
- Boston bibb lettuce
- Broccoli leaves
- Butter lettuce
- Carrot tops
- Celery leaves
- Clover sprouts
- Flowers (Hibiscus, Nasturtiums, Pansies and Roses)
- Frisee lettuce
- Green leaf lettuce
- Mustard greens
- Okra leaves
- Peas and pea pods
- Radish sprouts
- Red leaf lettuce
- Romaine lettuce
- Spring green lettuce
- Wheat grass
In addition to these vegetables and herbs, you can feed the following items in small amounts. They are safe for rabbits, but they can cause gas. Some are also high in sugar or calcium. They should be limited compared to other vegetables.
- Broccoli stems and tops
- Brussel sprouts
- Collard greens
- Dandelion greens
- Radish tops
- Swiss chard
Foods You Should Never Feed a Rabbit
There are certain foods that you should definitely avoid feeding your rabbit. Some of these can make your rabbit ill and others can be outright poisonous.
- Beets and beet tops
- Green beans
- Head or iceberg lettuce
- Potato leaves
- Rhubarb leaves
- Sweet potatoes
- White potatoes
- Any vegetable that grows from a bulb
- Grass clippings
- Stones and pips/seeds from fruit or leaves and stems from fruit plants
Food Transitions for Your Rabbit
Rabbits have a very delicate digestive system so it's not a good idea to change its food source abruptly. If you decide you want to change their pellets, you should mix in a small amount of the new pellets into the old with each meal, slowly increasing the amount of new food while decreasing the old food over the course of about a week. This will allow the rabbit's digestive system a chance to adjust.
Introducing New Vegetables or Fruits
You should also observe caution when feeding a new fruit or vegetable to your rabbit. Give them a new item in a very small amount, such as a teaspoon or tablespoon, and then observe them for any signs of illness, such as loss of appetite, diarrhea or discomfort from gas. If all is well, you can gradually increase the amount of the item that you feed. If you do see signs of illness, it means you're either feeding too much or your rabbit's digestive system isn't finding the option agreeable. In this case, it's best to avoid feeding it.
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 fruits and vegetables can keep your pet healthy and happy.