Why People Over-Feed Their Pet Rabbits

It suddenly dawned on me the other day why many people over-feed their rabbits, while I was talking to a couple who had just rescued a stray bunny who was nibbling the grass on their front lawn. They were lovingly telling me about how they had gone online and learned a little about rabbits and discovered that they should live indoors.

The nice man had gone out and bought a rabbit hutch at the local pet store, but because he had read that wire bottom cages were bad for rabbits, he converted it by covering the floor with a nice wood. He also cut off the legs and made it so the rabbit could hop in and out of the hutch when he wanted. The couple had learned a little about bunny-proofing inside their house and were learning the “hard way” as the went along about spots and places that they had missed, when their new bunny went out for play time runs.

It was quite obvious to me that these people had totally and completely fallen in love with this rabbit. They were eager to tell me all about him and asked me all kinds of questions, as they hungrily learned as much as they could from talking to me.

After we had spoken a while, we learned that their rabbit was already very over-weight and suffering from being over-fed. It was then, that I had the revelation about why so many people make this deadly mistake with their bunnies, especially people uneducated about them.

When we first get rabbits, we quickly learn that our bunny likes to interact and will easily approach you if you have some kind of food or treat for them. We all love it when our rabbit goes through his silly begging motions, which are usually quite cute and highly effective. When we are just learning about pet rabbits, this is sometimes the only interaction that we are able to have with our furry pets. Some of us get a Pavlovian response and will continue pass out the treats in order to interact more and get the approval from our otherwise aloof or distant bunny. This can become a habit and the toll that this takes is directly proportional to the caloric content of the treats that you bestow.

Of course, the more sweet or caloric the treat, the more your rabbit will beg and dance and mine even hop up into my lap to say, “Please, please, please”. It is hard not to give in to a bunny who has jumped into your lap and is giving your kisses to try and pry another treat out of you. Other rabbits will do their own brand of seduction to get that next treat, but I now realize how universal this behavior is.

The problem arises when you fall into the habit of using highly caloric food to get close and interact with your rabbit, because over time it builds up. I am not going to go into a long speech about how bad it is for your rabbit to be overweight, because I have written a lot about the subject. Let’s just say that an overweight rabbit will generally live less than half as long as a rabbit who is not. This means that instead of living ten or twelve years, an obese bunny can usually only expect to live about five years… maybe six if he is lucky.

Add to the equation that rabbits prefer sweet treats to ones that are not. People who are not rabbit savvy, do not know how bad that it can be for their pet. This is a formula for disaster. Rabbit vets see thousands of rabbits each year who are overweight and in the throes of some horrible kind of GI stasis, fatty liver disease and other problems that it causes.

Of course, it does not help that many of these treats that are so bad for your bunny are sold in pet stores and online at bunny websites. Virtually all rabbits will scarf down as many pieces of dried fruit, yogurt drops or treat cookies as you will give them and still do a dance for more. If you do not know any better, you might be inclined to even give them another and then another, when they woo you into it. If you do this every day for several years, your rabbit will eventually have problems from it.

Another big mistake that is frequently made is we over-feed our bunnies their green salad. I often see people giving their little five pound rabbit a half pound of salad each day. This is three or four times the correct amount to feed a bunny, each day. The amount of salad that I suggest you feed your rabbit should be no bigger than twice the size of his head, daily. This will account for different sizes of rabbits, since smaller rabbits should eat less than larger ones. So if you are giving your rabbit this mondo green salad every day, that too can lead to rabbit obesity over the years and dramatically shorten their life or cause many trips to the vet.

Probably the worst mistake people make is in giving their rabbits too many rabbit pellets. Most adult rabbits do not need them. They were actually designed for farmers to get a bunny fat very quickly, so you could eat him, not for a long healthy life as a pet. Many rabbit lovers never give them to their bunnies. If you do, I recommend 1/8-1/4 cup of timothy (not alfalfa) pellets a day. Even less is OK. I think that vets tend to tell people to give too many pellets. I have been told to let them have unlimited pellets by a vet before.

Pellets are the densest most nutritious food that a rabbit usually eats and so it can have a dramatic effect on their weight with just a little more or less each day. When rabbits become seniors and they have trouble keeping weight on, pellets are often used to help keep them from getting too skinny, but for most healthy adult bunnies, they must be given very judiciously, if at all.

In conclusion, I think people need to learn other ways to get close and interact with their pet rabbits other than just feeding them all the time. I know how easy it is to fall into this :”treat trap”, as I call it in my new book, The Bunny Lover’s Complete Guide To House Rabbits. I have been there myself, before.

Get down on the floor and interact with your bunny. Just being down on his level and in his space will eventually turn into interaction time between you. “Play” with your bun using simple toys. Some bunnies will nudge a ball back to you, if you gently roll it towards them. Rattles and small toss toys, like toilet paper tubes are fun to hand to your rabbit. He will sometimes take them from your hand and toss them.

These “fun” rabbit games are how you get close and enrich your rabbits life. I have had a bunny who like to chase the end of a shoe lace. She saw my cat doing it and learned to do it, too. She would grab the end and pull it with her teeth, just like my kitty would do, if I tossed it to her.

You will find if you spend close to an hour each day interacting with your rabbit, that your bond will become greater and he will be a lot more interested in you. I can virtually promise that you will both be happier, as a result. He will look forward to this time and approach you for pets and closeness.

Of course, you can reward your bunny with very small treats regularly, but look for the healthiest ones you can find. Get things that most closely resemble what their natural food would be. By this I mean fresh sprigs of cilantro or parley, instead of fruit or cookies. Apple sticks or a small handful of oat hay. Compressed hay cubes are good healthy treats of timothy hay that most rabbits adore. Get the ones without the pieces of fruit and seeds in them.

Never buy those gourmet pellets at the pet store. They have all kinds of things in them that rabbits were never meant to have, such as dried peas and corn, nuts and seeds and lots of other bad stuff. Many rabbits will pick out all the junk and not even eat the pellets. This is bad. I wish this stuff was not even sold in pet stores. Once again, people think that if they pay more money for this “deluxe” food, that they are loving their rabbit more. Little do they know that they are actually loving their rabbit to death.

If you are in the “treat trap”, get out now before it is too late. You can reverse obesity, but once it hits a certain point, there is no way to go back. Don’t wait until it is too late and you are sitting in the vet office crying about it like I have done before.

The Bunny Guy

Are We There Yet?

I often ask myself if we will see any real difference for pet rabbits in my lifetime. While we have come a long way from all rabbits living in horrible backyard hutches, there are still a significant number who still do. In my estimation from talking to the public during my educational efforts, between 80 and 90 percent still do.

We have had some change since 40 years ago, when all rabbits lived in hutches or cages, to a point where a small percentage now live indoors as pets. There is a trend for more young families to try a pet rabbit as a family pet. This is a problem because taking care of a rabbit is not intuitive. Unless someone teaches you how to correctly do it, most people will do almost everything wrong and have little success at basics, such as litter box training or preventing rabbits from chewing on stuff (they are prolific chewers).

If you were raised with dogs or cats and your only exposure to pet bunnies were the ones that your neighbor kept in a hutch in their backyard, then it is hard to know that they are supposed to eat hay, not big hoppers of rabbit pellet food. It is also not commonly known that pet rabbits need to see a rabbit specialist vets, not your regular dog or cat veterinarian. I recently had a friend who took her sick pet bunny to her dog and cat vet for a common rabbit ailment. He had her put the little guy to sleep for a problem that most of the time can be treated and cured by a rabbit savvy vet. You do not want to have your vet looking up how to treat your bunny on the internet, when it is a matter of life or death (which is what this vet did).

Probably the biggest reason I have become a rabbit educator is that housing, feeding and caring for a pet bunny needs to become common knowledge, just like how to feed, walk and pet a dog or cat. You cannot learn the proper ways to do things by the “seat of your pants”. I have met people who have had pet bunnies for decades who did not know basic things about them, such as that they eat all of their food twice. Knowing these things about your pet rabbit is important to understanding how to provide optimal care, especially when it comes to feeding and socializing with your “buddies”.

Another common misconception that has been slow to change is that people think rabbits do not need to be spayed or neutered. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth. In order to have a successful relationship with a “house rabbit”, it is essential that they are spay/neutered, ASAP. I would never consider having a pet rabbit who was not, because of the many bad behaviors and problems that usually result. More than four out of five female rabbits who are not spayed will end up getting cancer or tumors by the time they are four years old. Yet, I find that at least 80 percent of female pet rabbits are not spayed, and never will be (or live to be).

How do we get the public to become aware that rabbits are not disposable pets and more than a cheap critter that you buy at a swap meet to put in a small cheap cage in your back yard or garage? I think most people would not do that to a dog or cat (although, I know there are people who do, because I have met them). The number of people who do know how to properly care for a pet rabbit has been slowly growing, due to efforts to educate the public and get the word out, but we have decades of work left to do.

The more people we get talking about this, the closer it brings us to that critical mass where it becomes common knowledge. I hope that if you agree with me, that you will take some of your precious time to support your local shelter or rabbit rescue in their educational efforts. The more we put it out there, the more it will richochet and reach more of the public.

Become an advocate for rabbits!

The Bunny Guy