Natural Feed for Rabbits

Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)March 29, 2007

Here is a list of plants that I have fed to my rabbits without problems: dandelion greens, wild chicory, plantain, raspberry and blackberry leaves, clover, comfrey, freshly cut apple and willow twigs with leaves, grasses, certain herbs like parsley, lemon balm and basil, carrot and beet tops.

The MOST IMPORTANT THING to remember when introducing rabbits to green feed is to go slowly, starting with just a few leaves and gradually increasing amounts. ANY sudden changes in feed can really make a rabbit sick.

Once your rabbits are used to greens, bear in mind that it is best to feed a variety rather than just one at any meal. This is helpful both from a digestive and nutritional angle. It also provides a welcome diversion to be served with a variety.

All greens should be freshly cut, clean, dry, and unwilted. Anything not cleaned up should be removed at the next feeding. Greens can be dried like hay and are very safe to feed this way. A wire shelf works well as a drying rack. Greens can also be hung in bunches as you would do for herbs and dried for winter use.

A good quality grass or timothy hay is an excellent daily addition to the rabbit's diet. It provides needed roughage and also gives the rabbits something to do. Nibbling hay takes time.

Feeding alfalfa and clover is probably the most controversial aspect of feeding rabbits naturally. Legumes are high in protein and calcium, which is great -- to a point. Because there is already a lot of alfalfa in the pellets, when feeding a combination it is possible for the rabbits to get too much protein and calcium. Excess calcium can result in "bladder sludge" as the unused calcium is excreted. Drying alfalfa and clover is supposed to help, but I don't understand the reason for this. I suggest, however, keeping the amount of these two excellent greens down if you are also feeding pellets.

Please remember that while I am delighted to share my observations on this topic and while I have had excellent results with supplementing comemrcial pellets with the discussed green feeds, I am still experimenting and breaking new ground. Go slowly with your rabbits and be vigilant for problems. Get a good book on weeds if you are not knowledgeable enough to identify them without help. When in doubt, DON'T. I will post some links to some helpful sites when I have time to go through my bookmarks.

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Some years back I developed a rabbitry program from a Bible Institute in Mexico. We started out learning to feed on only locally grown materials, including weeds. Pellets were not available at the beginning and we fed whole kernel corn and/or stale tortillas, with great success. We planted alfalfa and used that as a green during later years. It worked out well.

One common weed which we found the rabbits to just love is curly dock. In Spanish it's called "Lengua de Vaca," or
"cow's tongue." We also fed them wild cucumber and wild chayote vines. Banana leaves and stems were highly relished, though I doubt most folk reading this would have access to them :)

Tahlequah, OK

    Bookmark   March 29, 2007 at 7:49PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

That's useful information for people raising rabbits in the more southern parts of the continent, George.

I have some knowledge of curly dock as rabbit food, but I have not fed it to mine because I found it on a list of toxic plants. Since then, I have learned that the young leaves are fine, but not to feed it after it goes to seed. The seeds are listed as toxic to poultry too.

I will likely try the young dock leaves in small quantities this spring, but as I culled my breeding stock way back in the fall and currently have just two does and a buck, I won't be feeding anything controversial until the spring crop of young rabbits is mature enough to be eating quantities of greens.

Corn is acceptable for rabbits in small quantities, but likely oats and wheat are better choices. Grains are more useful in winter than in summer because the carbs help them keep warm. My rabbits think whole grain bread, air-dried until hard, is a major treat. :)

    Bookmark   March 29, 2007 at 8:18PM
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When we first started with rabbits, back in 1988, in Mexico, there was a fantastic guide, put out by a Mexican governmental agency (and quickly out of print). Of course it was in Spanish. But it was specifically geared for helping rural and urban folk raise them successfully without any store bought feed or cages. The guide had wonderful plans for home built cages and great discussion on feeding. Their point was that, for good production, rabbits need a source of carbohydrates and greens. Corn was the most easily available grain throughout that country. It worked great for us. In fact, I couldn't see any difference in production when we used corn or commercial pellets. It was important however, to break the rabbits in to eating corn. One does this by giving them just a bit at a time until they learn to eat it without scattering pieces everywhere. We did try oats, and they ate it fine. But it was harder to find.

IÂd love to raise rabbits again. But presently weÂre saturated with our poultry, goats, bees and garden. If I did raise them, here in OK, IÂm sure IÂd use our own hay and weeds from the garden and pasture along with a simple grain.

    Bookmark   March 30, 2007 at 11:34AM
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Great Stuff you guys! Thanks. THis is just the type of info we're looking for.

By the way, MacMex - I think I recall that someone from the original thread -"Let's talk about meat rabbits" was looking for advice on raising rabbits in Arizona. Not all of Mexico is dry and arid of course, but I thought if you had experience raising them in a similar climate your advice might be useful.

Thanks again for the info. I think were a 'go' on the rabbits. I just need to fix up the hutch. Hope they're not too old - anyway to check for this? - or how to look them over for health issues in general? They're used rabbits, okay - but so's my lawn mower, my washer/dryer, all of my garden tools, my partner... they'll be a good start no matter what they are so long as they're in reasonable condition.


    Bookmark   March 30, 2007 at 5:59PM
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Can't recall how to check for age other than to look at their general condition and teeth. Be sure that the teeth aren't mis-shapen, missing or overly long. Also, be sure that their feet are in good condition, that the pads are not sore. If they are don't even consider them. Overall coat luster tells you a lot about condition.

Once you have them try breeding them. Our first batch in Mexico were very poor, so we made it a rule that they had to make 6 kits in a litter by the second try, or they'd go to the pot. Later we upped the limit to 7 or 8.

I will check into that other thread. Though our climate where we lived at first was cold and wet, and then later desert, but not too hot. Gotta run!

    Bookmark   March 31, 2007 at 10:43AM
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Just want to add to the feed list: bittercress, henbit and chickweed. They seemed to enjoy them and I like to offer them things from the yard.

I've read a lot about not feeding corn to your rabbit, although I understand it was successful for some folks above.

This is what I read:
"Another thing not to feed is shelled corn, especially in the summer. Corn has a lot of crude protein in it and it also causes heat to build up inside the animal, which you don't want to happen in the summer when the rabbit is already hot. Corn can also cause your rabbit to create a lot of excess fat. "

Also this:
Some types of seeds (especially things like "Canadian peas" and corn kernels) have hulls that are indigestible to a rabbit, and can cause life-threatening intestinal impactions/blockages.

Corn, fresh or dried, is NOT safe for rabbits. The hull of corn kernels is composed of a complex polysaccharide (not cellulose and pectin, of which plant cell walls are more commonly composed, and which a rabbit can digest) which rabbits cannot digest.
We know of more than one rabbit who suffered intestinal impactions because of the indigestible corn hulls. After emergency medical treatment, when the poor rabbits finally passed the corn, their fecal pellets were nearly solid corn hulls! Those rabbits were lucky."

Here's some info about what wild rabbits eat:
"Food Habits - Rabbits eat parts of over 100 species of plants. They prefer herbaceous plants whenever available. Woody plants are used mainly during the winter months. However, marsh rabbits make more year-round use of woody vegetation than other species.

Winter foods include honeysuckle, lespedeza, blackberry, greenbrier, a variety of grasses and dried vegetation. Bark, twigs and buds from sumac, black cherry, willow, holly and dogwood also are eaten. Agricultural crops consumed during the winter include rye, wheat, alfalfa, clover, corn, peanuts and ryegrass. Cottontails may damage fruit orchards by eating the bark of fruit trees. Buds of seedlings in pine plantations also may be eaten during the winter.

Foods during warmer months include a variety of sedges, grasses and other herbaceous plants. Important species include paspalum, panic grass, plantain, dandelion, crabgrass, ragweed, croton, clover and lespedeza. Agricultural crops eaten during the summer include clover, alfalfa, soybeans, peanuts (the green plant) and garden vegetables."

My concern with strictly feeding "homegrown" and not pellets, is how do you know you're achieving the correct nutritional balance?

    Bookmark   April 1, 2007 at 12:06PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

Guineaarden, your last question is a good one. I think when feeding only natural foods you need to offer a good variety and watch how the different feeds are received. One also needs to pay attention to the rabbit's overall condition, activity level, general state of well-being.

Domestic rabbits are descended from European wild rabbits and should have no problem with a non-pelleted diet that includes sufficient variety. Older rabbit husbandry books are useful sources of information. Let's face it, pellets only came on the market after World War II.

Natural food may not be a good answer for people wanting to sell commercially or for show rabbits, but for the person who is just raising backyard rabbits to put meat in the freezer, it can be a good option. Trust me, the rabbits will be very happy. I have never seen a rabbit yet that was enthusiastic about pellets.

I just found out that there is a certified organic farm near me that raises rabbits on natural foods that they find or grow. I am hoping to make contact with the owners and pick their brains.

GuineaGarden, if you have the links to the information you posted about corn and other plants, it would be helpful to everyone if you could share them.

    Bookmark   April 1, 2007 at 1:32PM
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balsam(z4/5 NB)

maggie and others - I've really enjoyed reading about raising rabbits for meat. I'm considering this now, except that DD has already asked for a "pet" rabbit so I'm a little hesitant to introduce meat rabbits. Kids have never tasted rabbit; I've had it a couple of times.

There's a tonne of great info here about getting started. I'm going to save these two threads for consideration. Thanks!


    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 7:33AM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

Balsam, how old is your daughter? IMO, if she is old enough to care for a pet rabbit then she is also old enough to know where her food comes from. You'll be doing her a favour.

What you could do is get a trio of meat rabbits and tell her she can have one of the babies as a pet. It will give her a chance to become acquainted with how meat rabbits are raised, basic care etc. and it will involve her in the process. If, as so often happens, she loses interest in the "pet" rabbit after a few months, it can join the breeders in the rabbitry and still be nominally hers.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 6:06PM
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You're right, Maggie, I should've included the links, I just didn't have time to find them again, and the notes were some that I'd saved. (Why I didn't save the link *with* the notes, I'll never know... )

So anyway: (Pat Lamar)

And here's a new one, I just found, but worth reading, about pellets:

I'd love to know more about that farm by you as well! What's the name? Do they sell rabbit meat? Where is it processed? That's what I can't find-- any USDA ('course I guess that wouldn't matter to you if you're in Canada) processors in a five-state area who'll do rabbit!


    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 6:10PM
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balsam(z4/5 NB)

oh no, maggie! I wasn't entirely clear. DD is 10 and she knows exactly where her food comes from because we have layers and also raise our own chicken, beef, and sometimes pork. She's pretty much a "farm girl". It's just that when she asked for a "pet" rabbit I said no. So, you see, getting them myself to try meat raising seems a little unfair. I would definately let her have one as a pet if I did decide to raise them. I was just thinking of all the work with a "pet" rabbit, and who would likely end up doing a lot of it :) Perhaps I said "no" too quickly.

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 6:49PM
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Maggie_J(z5 Ontario)

Oops! Sorry, Balsam, I misread the situation. Maybe her "pet" rabbit could live in the rabbitry when she is not playing with it, if you decide to go ahead with raising meat rabbits. If she chooses a buck his "duties" would not take much of his time. :)

    Bookmark   April 2, 2007 at 9:53PM
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Guineagarden, I was surprised to read about problems with corn, having literally raised thousands of rabbits on it, without a single problem. Yet, the second reference you mentioned carries some real weight to it (I poked around until I found WHO wrote it!) So, I'll concede that you may have a point, though personally I wouldn't be afraid to try it. There are a couple of factors to consider however:

1) Heat, as you mentioned, could be a problem. I've never fed corn in a truly hot environment. I know, absolutely, that corn is a "hot feed." In the coldest of winter we often up our chickens' ration of whole kernel corn to help them generate more body heat.

2) We never fed corn on the basis "all you could eat." We did that with the greens, but the grain was measured at about a handful per adult, twice a day.

Anyway, I've learned something from your post. There can be problems with corn!

Our kids grew up with LOTS of pet rabbits. But it was the best for both "pets" and meat production. Since they had rabbits from the time of their earliest memories, somehow we managed not to have them get attached to a particular animal (except on one or two ocassions, to a breeding buck). Instead they got to play with the babies, of which we had a regular torrent. After about 9 weeks those cute little babies became less cute than the newest arrivals, and they would often scratch. So, the kids moved on to the new arrivals.... A couple weeks later we ate the earlier "pets" : ) It worked! Of course it worked best when we raised all white rabbits, so that there wasn't a specially colored rabbit to grab and keep their attention.


    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 11:46AM
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balsam(z4/5 NB)

hmmm.......that's good advice from both of you maggie and george. Keep the buck as a pet and he's useful for breeding and/or have the babies as pets for awhile, keeping them the same colour. Either of these might work!

I'll have to bring it up to DD and see what she thinks. I know what her initial reaction will be :), but she changed her mind about venison once she'd tried it a time or two. Now to work on the boys...................

    Bookmark   April 3, 2007 at 2:12PM
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I couldn't believe when I read that feeding rabbits corn was bad because "it had a lot of crude protein." In fact corn has less protein than other grains (only about 10-12% at most). It won't cause your rabbits to get fat either. Scientific studies point out that the protein to energy ratio will influence the fat content of rabbits (not enough protein or too much energy increases fat storage)(De Bias, J.C., E. Perez, Maria J. Fraga, J.M. Rodriguez, and J.F. Galvez 1981. Effect of Diet on Feed Intake and Growth of Rabbits from Weaning to Slaughter at Different Ages and Weights. Journal of Animal Science 52:1225-1232). I raised rabbits (for meat) for 4 years in Spokane Washington feeding them alfalfa hay and whole kernel corn free choice with great success (although it wasn't as efficient as feeding pelleted rabbit food but I didn't have the high mortality rates or diarrhea problems either).

Here is a link that might be useful: for more information on feeding corn to rabbits

    Bookmark   April 13, 2010 at 7:07PM
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