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Feeding rabbits is not complicated at all if you take the modern approach. Pellets in the bowl, hay in a rack, and you're done. Of course, if you do it that way, you are stuck with someone else's idea of what your rabbits should be eating, and that someone else is not going to have your rabbit's best interests at heart. Their primary concern is to produce feed that will keep your rabbits alive (but not necessarily in peak health), for the least possible cost. That means most rabbit feeds are made from alfalfa, and industrial waste products, such as soy mill waste, and even animal products.
The one rule that seems wise to follow regarding feeding rabbits, whether they are naturally fed, or pellet fed, is to keep the feed fairly consistent for rabbits that are pregnant - that doesn't actually mean the same foods every day, it just means to ensure that food supplies are plentiful when you have a pregnant bunny. Predictable food sources are one of the things that triggers a sense of safety in a pregnant rabbit, and keeps the pregnancy stable. Interruptions in feed supply are more likely to trigger miscarriages or reabsorption of fetuses. If they are on a varied seasonal diet, that is fine, but during a pregnancy is not the time to introduce a major change to the diet.
When feeding pellets, about 1 oz per lb of body weight per day, plus free choice hay is the most commonly recommended feed amount, but we have never measured their feed, we have always given them free choice pellets and free choice hay, and many other foods. When feeding other foods, give them a wide variety (after you've worked up to it), and give them as much as they'll eat without waste.
Rabbits need to adjust to new foods, but only at first.. You can add about 1 new food per day, as long as the food is FRESH food. Changes are more problematic when a rabbit has only pellets, than when they are eating a variety of fresh foods. Once they get used to one fresh food, it is easier for them to adapt to another. If they are eating fresh foods every day, then they can have new foods added any time and it won't cause digestive issues if the foods are good rabbit food.
They'll usually adapt well to a wide variety fairly quickly. If they are born to a mother who is eating all sorts of greens, the babies will do just fine with everything she is eating. It all has to do with digestive bacteria. Their digestive system will adapt, and the necessary bacteria will increase to digest what they are being fed. The mother rabbit passes that bacteria on to her babies, and they just chow on whatever she is eating and do just fine. Pellets have almost no natural bacteria in them (because they are heat treated during processing), whereas most fresh foods are loaded with bacteria that helps the rabbit in digesting them.
Hay and alfalfa are the basics, more hay than alfalfa, and no alfalfa if you are feeding pellets. Grasses form the base of the diet for rabbits in the wild, but they eat many other things as well. Far greater variety than you might think. Rabbits require long fiber grasses - which means grasses that are matured enough to be somewhat tough and stringy, but they don't require a LOT of them - a little each day is sufficient.
The big thing is variety. When feeding your rabbits many kinds of foods, it is best to give them at least three different things per feeding, and it is best to feed them twice a day, because fresh foods wilt and degrade quickly.
DO NOT CHOP AND MIX THEIR GREENS!!! There are those who will tell you to do this so the rabbits don't pick out what they like best and leave the things they do not like! PLEASE DON"T LISTEN TO THAT!!! The rabbits NEED to be able to pick out what they NEED, and leave what they do NOT need. When you start feeding them more naturally, their instincts sharpen up, and within about 2-3 weeks, they'll eat what they need, and leave what they do not.
Usually when you introduce a new food that is not similar to one they are already eating, they will sniff it, and maybe ignore it for a while. They may take a tiny nibble, and then ignore it. They may take a nibble, go away, come back a little while later and try another nibble. They are testing it out. Often they will ignore or barely sample it the first time you introduce it. The second time they may nibble it a bit more. The third time they may devour it. Or maybe they seem to ignore it all three times. Generally you should introduce a new food three times before you give up - if they are not eating it after the third time, they probably do not need it, or will not ever enjoy it.
Oddly, some rabbits will eat squash, and others will not. Some will eat this food, or that food, and others won't touch it. Rabbits are like people in that, they have their favorite things, and some things they do not like individually. I think it is probably a digestive and metabolic thing, and metabolics vary from animal to animal, and breed to breed, so go with what they like, and they will be healthier.
They like more fruit than is commonly recommended also. No, it won't make them fat. If you give your rabbits free choice food, with a lot of variety, and fruit (even once a day), they will eat what they need, and leave what they do not, and they will only get fat if they are LOW on specific nutrients and have to OVEREAT in order to get enough. That just doesn't happen with fresh food! It DOES happen with formulated pellets, because they have NO CHOICE for getting those additional nutrients but to overeat until they get enough of the pellets to give them enough of the things they are lacking. Give them a variety, and they can get what they need, without overeating.
Seasonal foods in the wild
- sprouted branches
- weed and grass seeds
- tree bark and buds
- panic grass
- peanuts (the green plant)
Bark,twigs and buds from
- black cherry
- Buds of seedlings in pine plantations
- cattails (leaves, shoots and roots)
- rushes (leaves and bulbs)
- greenbrier vine
- marsh pennywort
- water hyacinth
- wild potato
- cow parsley
- sorrel (sour dock)
- fat hen
- Heart's Ease (Smartweed)
- Shepherds Purse
- sow thistle
- bind weed
- wild iris
- fool’s parsley
Digestive regulators (can help if your rabbits are having digestive problems)
- blackberry leaves
Foods from your garden.
- carrot tops
- radish leaves
- collard greens
- beet and turnip tops
- romaine lettuce
- red and green leaf lettuce
- endive (not blanched - should be green)
- brussels sprouts
- tomatoes (without stems! stems and leaves of the tomato plant are toxic to rabbits)
- sugar peas
- sunflower leaves
- black oil sunflower seeds
- grape leaves
- sweet potato vines
- cucumber and squash leaves
Feed in moderation (not more than one of them per day) - they have toxins that are ok in small amounts but may cause kidney damage if overfed.
- lambs quarter
Fruits (about 1/4 of an apple or the equivalent per day for large rabbits, less for small ones, is a healthy amount - Yes, I know everyone else says only for treats, but we know better because we actually DO this)
- pineapple (leaves are best for them, but they like peels and cores also)
- grapes (and raisins)
- mango (they love the peels, and will scrape every bit of fruit off a pit)
- plums or prunes
- watermelon (fruit and rinds)
- cantaloupe (love the rinds)
Trees - twigs, buds, bark, leaves
- sugar maple
- silver maple
Additional crops to plant intentionally or harvest wild - many are good for winter gardening:
- Cattails–Cattails shoots provide essential vitamins such as beta carotene, niacin, thiamine, potassium, phosphorus and vitamin C. also has sodium which is good for rabbits on a natural food base diet,
- Mustard (wild and domestic)
- Queen Ann’s lace- a form of wild carrot. The foliage and roots are safe for rabbits.
- White clover
Rabbits also like some flowers, should be fed like fruit
- clover blossoms
- calendula (pot marigold)
- coriander (cilantro)
- wild pansy
In winter feed dried foods, and grow grasses like wheatgrass, or other microgreens. Winter crops can supply rabbits, as can the trimmings from them. Grow sweet potato vines with the potato halfway in water. You can also cut twigs, immerse in water, and wait for buds or leaves to sprout.
I tend to lean strongly toward a natural diet whenever possible. The trick to doing it is to feed what is available seasonally, that you have readily available, to plant items that you can use for feed, and then to preserve sufficient for the winter. If you do those things, then you can avoid purchasing rabbit feed altogether. It is more work. But it is less costly. It would also be manageable for a larger enterprise, if the food supplies were managed well. For a larger enterprise the real key is to finding ways to grow and preserve large amounts of foods in an efficient way.
For more comprehensive information on feeding rabbits naturally, check out our book Real Food For Rabbits.
Medicinal herbs can be found here http://riseandshinerabbitry.com/2012/06/09/medicinal-herbs-for-rabbits/