I’ve seen hares – cousins of rabbits – eat meat, so I’ve been wondering if rabbits are herbivores that eat only plant-based material or omnivores that eat a combination of protein and plant material.
There are also stories of how pet rabbits sometimes eat a piece of bacon.
So are rabbits herbivores or not?
Are Rabbits Herbivores or Carnivores?
Rabbits are herbivores that thrive on plant and herb material. In fact, rabbits are obligate herbivores, so they must only eat plant-based food.
If a rabbit eats protein or an improper diet, various health complications set in that can be fatal.
A rabbit’s herbivorous diet consists of hay, high-fiber pellets, vegetables, fruit, and water.
3 Reasons Why Rabbits Are Herbivores
There are 3 reasons why rabbits are herbivores and why they can’t survive on protein or an omnivorous diet:
Survival and Diet of a Wild Rabbit
Wild rabbits have evolved to only live off a plant-based diet to ensure their survival. Rabbits are prey animals, and there are many predators who actively hunt, kill, and eat bunnies.
To survive and avoid predation, rabbits rely on herbs and plants for food.
Eating plant matter lets rabbits eat in open fields. In these open areas, rabbits can easily detect when a predator approaches.
This gives rabbits a higher chance of getting away safely or warning their family to get to safety or stay safe in the underground burrows.
The plant-based diet rabbits eat is high in fibrous material. This helps a rabbit with their fast flight or fight reactions.
The high-fiber diet is lighter in a rabbit’s stomach than fat-rich or protein-heavy diets. Thus, a rabbit’s herbivorous diet doesn’t hinder its ability to get away from danger.
Design of Their Digestive System
A rabbit’s digestive system is designed to only process and extract the nutrients and energy from a plant-based diet.
As hind-gut fermenters, rabbits have a cecum, which is an organ in their digestive tract that has many microbes to break down and ferment the fiber content of the foods they eat.
The cecum can’t absorb all the nutrients like vitamins and amino acids. So rabbits make cecotropes, which is small grape-like poop, that they eat.
The cecotropes contain absorbable nutrients. When rabbits eat the cecotropes, they can finally digest and absorb the nutrients from their food.
A rabbit’s digestive system isn’t made to process protein or fat. If your rabbit eats meat or a fat-rich diet, it can cause intestinal blockages and an upset tummy.
Help Shed Rabbit Teeth
Rabbit teeth are ever-growing, just like human hair and fingernails. But rabbit teeth keep growing to make up for the wear of chewing on tough vegetation, like hay.
Overgrown rabbit teeth result in various problems like the incisors growing into your rabbit’s gums or roof of their mouth, or they can get stuck on cage bars.
Overgrown molars lead to excessive drooling, difficulty swallowing, or chewing, which results in ileus or death.
Fiber wears down a rabbit’s teeth, which prevents health complications. Plants and herbs contain a lot of fiber, so this is another reason rabbits are herbivores.
Problems With Feeding Rabbits an Improper Diet
I’ve hinted at some of the issues that rabbits can develop if they eat an improper diet – overgrown teeth, serious health complications, and even death.
Here are some other health problems that may arise if your rabbit doesn’t eat a healthy and balanced plant-based diet:
Gastrointestinal stasis (GI stasis) occurs when a rabbit doesn’t eat enough fiber and too many carbohydrates.
This causes the bacteria that live in the rabbit’s GI tract to change, which produces gas. The gas is painful for a bunny, and makes them eat less.
If left untreated, the bacteria produce toxins, which sickens your rabbit, leading to organ failure and death.
Symptoms of GI stasis in rabbits include a bloated tummy, no or little poop, diarrhea, or passing gas excessively.
If a rabbit eats a carb-rich diet, its intestines become inflamed.
This condition is called enteritis. If enteritis isn’t treated, it leads to enterotoxemia because pathogenic bacteria keep growing.
Enteritis has a high death rate, especially among young rabbits.
Symptoms include a decrease in body temperature, lack of appetite, dehydration, bloating, a painful abdomen, diarrhea, and intestinal blockages.
Pregnant does or lactating female rabbits that don’t eat a balanced diet can develop ketosis, also called pregnancy toxemia.
Because of the lack of sufficient nutrients, a doe’s body produces a lot of fat to compensate for the nutrient loss.
The result is an elevated amount of ketones in the rabbit’s blood, which leads to various symptoms that include seizures, lethargy, lack of appetite, stillbirth, difficulty breathing, and death.
UTI, Kidney Stones, or Bladder Surge
A urinary tract infection (UTI), kidney stones, or bladder surge happen when a rabbit eats too much calcium.
Rabbits do need calcium in their diet, but the more calcium that a rabbit ingests, the more it gets absorbed into their body – with severe consequences.
General symptoms if your rabbit has ingested an excess of calcium include loss of appetite, tooth grinding, weight loss, lethargy, blood in urine, and thick, cloudy, dark(er) urine.
What Do Pet Rabbits Eat
Since it is essential that rabbits follow a herbivorous diet, as a rabbit owner, you should know exactly what to feed your rabbit to ensure your bun is healthy and thrives.
Feed your pet rabbit:
Hay and Grass
Hay and grass make up a large part of your pet rabbit’s diet. Hay is high in fiber and helps wear down a rabbit’s teeth.
Hay and grass should make up around 80% of your bun’s diet.
Your rabbit should have a free supply of hay and/or grass every day so they can eat as much as they want.
You can decide on a partial hay-grass diet or just feel your rabbit dried grass (hay) year round.
The best kinds of hay for your rabbit:
- Timothy hay is the best for adult rabbits. It provides the right amount of fiber and protein that adult bunnies need, while containing less calcium. Timothy hay is also affordable.
- Alfalfa hay is ideal for kits or growing rabbits for the first 6 months of their life. It is high in minerals and protein. But if you feed this exclusively to your adult rabbit, it can cause urinary stones because of the high calcium content.
- Orchard grass hay is soft in texture so your bun may really love this hay. It is low in protein and high in fiber and sugar, so it’s good to blend two kinds of hay for your bun. Plus, it can be pricey.
- Meadow hay has a variety of flavor and texture because other plants are usually mixed in too. Debris and stones can also be part of the mix, so know your supplier and the quality they offer so you don’t feed dirt and stones to your bunny.
- Oat hay can include barley, oat, and wheat. It’s rich in minerals, fiber, and vitamins but low in protein. Rabbits quite like the seed husks’ crunchiness, but buy this as part of a blend because it’s quite expensive.
- Herbal hay (or herbage) mixed any kind of hay with herbs. The herbs add essential nutrients and vitamins, but be sure inappropriate herbs aren’t added to the mix.
Ideal fresh grasses to feed your rabbit are:
- Orchard grass
- Timothy grass
- Fescue grass
- Meadow grass
- Oat grass
- Grass from your lawn – provided it hasn’t been treated with any chemicals.
Pellets should only form about 5% of your rabbit’s daily diet. So that’s about ¼ cup of pellets for a 4-pound rabbit.
Pellets aren’t a must for your rabbit, unless your bun is a kit, but pellets add extra nutritional value. Plus, your rabbit usually loves pellets.
Ensure the pellets you buy have an 18% or higher content of fiber, 12-14% of protein, and 3% or less fat.
Vegetables and Herbs
The vegetables you feed your bun are typically divided into two parts: leafy greens and those veggies that are higher in carbs.
Around 10% of your rabbit’s daily diet should be fresh leafy greens. This works out to about 2.5 cups for a 5-pound rabbit.
Ensure your bun eats at least 3 kinds of leafy greens a day.
Some good leafy greens to feed your rabbit are:
- Bok choy
- Broccoli leaves
- Romaine lettuce
- Cucumber leaves
- Collard greens
Rabbits like sweet stuff, but too many carbohydrates aren’t good for rabbits. Ensure any treats you feed your bun is only a small amount.
Treats should be around 2 tablespoons or fewer for a 6-pound rabbit.
Some treats options for your rabbit are:
Your rabbit should always have fresh drinking water.
A rabbit generally drinks around 1-2 cups of water per day, but how much your bun drinks depends on their age, whether they are pregnant, if it is summer and hot, if they’re very active, and more.
What Not to Feed Your Rabbit
Don’t feed your rabbit:
- Iceberg lettuce
- Diary and related products
- And most other human food
The Last Herbivore
To ensure your rabbit stays healthy, ensure your rabbit only eats a plant-based diet.
If you are ever unsure of what to feed your rabbit, research or call your vet.
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