Feeding Your Rabbit The Right Way

As a prospective owner of an exotic pet, you may have looked to a number of different sources for information about your pet. When I was a kid I researched turtles and saved my money for an aquarium, heaters, and food before I purchased Flapper and Splasher the Painted Turtles. I hit the library and took out every book on turtles. Nowadays people research on the Internet or trust a pet store employee to supply them with knowledge. It is important to find trusted sources and not just someone trying to sell you a product.

As savvy consumers as we all try to be, we are easily swayed by our emotions, our personal and very human tastes for certain flavors, colors and textures of food and toys for our pets. When we wander into a store and see a brightly colored package with vegetables all over it we tend to think it will contain healthy food for our pet. Unfortunately, this is not the case.

Pet stores are great convenient places to pick up some food, vitamins or toys for your pet. We all assume that pet stores have our pets’ best interest at heart. Unfortunately, these stores sell many items and foods that are not at all safe for your pet. Seeds are not the best food for birds and yet every bird seen at our practice has been to a pet store and told to feed the bird high-fat seeds as the main diet. Store employees tell owners to purchase grit for the birds so people buy huge bags of it. A bird only needs 3 pieces of grit a month. It sits in their muscular gizzard to help grind food. If a bird eats too much grit they will become impacted. This happens if a newbie bird owner does not change the seeds and thinks the seed hulls in the bowl are new seed. The bird is starving so fills itself with the grit. Sad endings occur. The store sells antibiotics and vitamins for birds, which are useless because they are put in the water and denature within hours.

We have a wonderful client Abigail Loewenstein who came into the practice with her new rabbit. She is an experienced rabbit owner and a member of the House Rabbit Society and owner of Bunnies in Baskets Visiting Rabbit team. Her pet rabbits are involved in her therapy practice, helping her treat peoples’ emotional pain. She was pretty steamed about the issue of dangerous food products being sold to unsuspecting rabbit owners. Here is her take on the situation for bunny parents:

The pet store can be a daunting place for new and experienced rabbit owners. There are lots of pretty-looking food products and packaging telling you their food are safe and healthy for rabbits. Labels include ingredients such as food coloring, additives, seeds, nuts, fruit, sugar, and yogurt. Wouldn’t my rabbit like something that looks so pretty and delicious? Let’s take a moment to think about this. Where would a rabbit get yogurt from in the wild? What about that dried sweet potato?

Rabbit-lover beware… these are marketing ploys to attract their human owners. Sadly, rabbits are still misunderstood by many, and these companies take advantage of this. These ingredients do not offer any nutritional benefit, and in fact, are harmful to rabbits. Sugar easily disrupts a rabbit’s GI bacterial flora, which can cause GI stasis and death. Death from treats that you bought at the store to reward your pet.

Rabbits don’t need sugary treats. They need a low-fat diet mainly comprised of grass hays including timothy or orchard hays (or alfalfa hay, depending on age and nutritional status). Nuts and seeds have dangerously high-fat contents for rabbits, and the hulls of seeds, which they cannot digest, can perforate their intestines. Did you know that rabbits have digestive systems closest to horses? Would you feed a horse yogurt, cereal, food coloring, or seeds? This seems obvious, but rabbits cannot safely eat processed human food. I would refer to these items as “junk food,” but poison seems to better describe them. Why are these dangerous foods even being manufactured to start with? These companies purport to care about rabbits. I would like to believe that this is ignorance; unfortunately, this is greed.

These companies sell harmful products ignoring expert opinions. For example, A “Fiesta Country Harvest Blend Rabbit, Guinea Pig and Chinchilla Treat” is currently available for sale at a local chain pet store. Here are some of the ingredients: “Wholesome fruits, nuts, grains, and veggies, a munchable medley of exciting flavors, textures, and colors.”

These companies try to convince you that your rabbit needs special treats to be happy, but they are complicit in selling products for profit, even if it could kill your pet.

The best treats are the most natural options that don’t cost a lot of money. For example, a small baby carrot (even those contain too much sugar for a rabbit to eat more than one per day), a few Oxbow pellets, fresh greens, or a tiny piece of safe fruit.

Overindulging your pet in sugary or the wrong foods (or “human” foods) can result in large vet bills… like thousands of dollars. Just as with human health care, prevention is key. Take your rabbit for a physical at least annually for a healthy rabbit, and at least twice a year for a senior rabbit (6 years plus). Rabbits can live for over 10 years (similar to dogs) if they are provided with the right food and care. Rabbits are prey animals, and as a result, they are adept at hiding signs of illness, which a rabbit-informed vet will be more easily able to monitor.

I agree with Abigail. Educate yourself. Before you get your pet make an appointment with an exotic vet for an educational consult or find one online with a passion ( and maybe a blog) for your species of exotic pet.

Do you trust the person on the sales floor for pet health advice? Some are very knowledgeable and some were just hired and are really winging it. I have overheard vast amounts of misinformation given to unsuspecting consumers by very authoritative-sounding employees in pet stores. No store employee has spent 8 or more years of their lives dedicated to a formal education on the anatomy, physiology, husbandry and nutritional needs of pets as veterinarians have. Clearly, I am biased. We vets can’t save every sick pet but we sure like to increase your pet’s chances of survival in every way, and a good foundation of nutrition can extend pets’ lives by years.