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

18 thoughts on “Why People Over-Feed Their Pet Rabbits

  1. I found your pumpkin while lokoing for templates for our pumpkin carving tonight. I collect bunny things and I hope you don’t mind us using your idea for one of our pumpkin’s tonight. It looks awesome!! I hope ours will turn out just as neat. Thanks for sharing the picture with the web!

  2. My last bunny was normal weight even though he had access to pellets all the time, but I found out later he wasn’t eating enough hay to keep his molars down. He then had to have several tooth trims. No fun for either of us.

  3. Hi,
    I’m really interested in your thoughts on the amount of greens to feed. I’m on my first set of bunnies but I’ve had them now for 7 years. They have always been extremely healthy (never an issue other than 1 case of fleas) and I took them first to specialized vets in both cities where I’ve lived with them. They get 1/8 of a cup of timothy pellets a day (each but split morning and night), a big bunch of greens each night, and lots of hay. (I have always been exceptionally proud that they LOVE their hay. I feel like it’s like having kids who love veggies…) They have both had appropriate and stable weight since they reached full growth. Both the vets I saw recommended lots of fresh veggies, and so do all the other (reputable) resources I find online. Even the House Rabbit Society says 2c. chopped veggies per day per 5-6lbs of body weight.

    If it’s going to potentially keep them healthier for longer then I will definitely consider cutting down their veggie (and potentially pellet) intake. But I am wondering why you think differently than most other rabbit experts.

    At any rate, just found your site and I love it. Not enough places put up articles with things like pictures of poop. Which is so important! Can’t wait to read further posts.

    • Hi Alice

      As rabbits age, their digestive system can change. I have found that some bunnies become sensitive to certain veggies and also their calorie needs become less, so they may gain weight. I think part of this could be due to a lower activity level that some older rabbits have.

      So if you see weight gain in your buns, the first thing I would do is cut back on the pellets. That is where a lot of calories and nutrition resides. A small difference in the amount of pellets makes big differences in weight and overall health. Where an 1/8 cup may be OK for an adult bunny, it may be too much when you add a large salad.

      When choosing between salad and pellets, I would lessen pellets before I would lessen salad. Just be aware that there is such a thing as too much salad. We tell people about twice the size of the bunny’s head is a good amount. IF you give it twice a day, cut the amount in half so that it equals the daily amount. A bunny can get the vitamins that he needs from a varied salad each day and does not need pellets at all. I know lots of bunnies who never get pellets.

      The reason I think it is so critical to avoid over-feeding your rabbit is that I have found that overweight rabbits are not living as long as those who are not. I see that rabbit lovers tend to overfeed their bunnies out of a misguided love for them. Bunnies beg for treats and will eat way too much of the bad high calorie foods if given a chance. When we love our bunnies, if we don’t know any better, we can allow them to slowly get sick from food.

      We all love how excited our rabbits get when we give them some fruit or a cookie. Over the years, I have seen this shorten the lives of so many rabbits. We walk a fine line when we have pet bunnies, trying to balance their diet for their optimal health and our love of seeing them get so excited for their treats. This problem is more common than you think.

      This is why my rabbit vet says NO fruit and NO high calorie treats like oatmeal, cookies, and especially the store bought stuff like yogurt drops, etc. He says give them a treat of some romaine lettuce or a piece of celery.

      Sometimes a rabbit will have tummy issues and you have cut his food way back to mostly hay. At this point, it could be an allergy to something in his salad. I have seen older bunnies (and occasionally younger ones) develop food allergies to common salad greens. This can be frustrating, but you will notice weird pooping patterns that tell you something is wrong.

      Then it becomes a trial and error situation where you remove specific greens from their diet until you find the one that is causing the problem. I know a couple buns who can only eat two or three different greens and the rest give them bad reactions. This is rare, but it does happen.

      Hope this helps and thanks for posting your response.
      The Bunny Guy

      • Thanks for the prompt reply!

        Luckily my rabbits are not overweight. I’ve never fed them any sort of cookie or anything like that… they occasionally get a piece of fruit since they love it and it doesn’t upset their stomachs (and I mean occasionally! Only about once every three months). For my buns a “treat” is an unexpected handful of hay during the day (somehow it is just so much more exciting than the fresh hay I put down every morning and night…haha) or a block of timothy hay. And during the summer they might get a couple of fresh leaves from the herbs I grow on my balcony.

        I just don’t understand why people overfeed their animals. I feel like it’s pretty obvious that being over weight is bad for animals as well as humans. And I think if their excuse is that they want to see their bunny beg, they could just feed them their daily salad, piece by piece. Or feed pellets by hand.

        Anyway, I am confident that my bunnies are happy and healthy (well, actually, one of them has some big lumps that tested positive for cancer, but she’s doesn’t seem to have any idea anything’s wrong!). But it’s nice to see someone like you out there to educate people.

        • Thank you, because your posting here will also help educate people. A lot of people read these posts and the more that learn about these issues, the better.
          Give your buns a huge hug from us here in my warren!
          The Bunny Guy

  4. Hi! I’ve recently acquired a bunny who was part of 30 rabbits that were found nearly starved to death after being deserted on a farm by a POS who is lucky to still be alive. The original rescuer has been a longterm bunny breeder and he kept the bun for about a month trying to get it back stable enough to be adopted out. When they first were rescued, the buns could barely move or even hold their heads up, and we could count every little rib, vertrabae, and sinew on their little bodies, and now they do have some fat (not much – maybe have added 2-3%) and have a bit more energy.

    My question is this: We got Mopsy this past Saturday morning (4 full days now). We have no idea about her age but we suspect she is a dwarf NZ brown. She currently only weight about 2.5 lbs. We have given her unlimited water, timothy pellets, as well as all the fresh romaine lettuce, bell peppers, banana, pineapple, and mango. She is peeing and pooping in appropriate amounts to what her intake is, but my concern is that she is still very weak. I have thought about going to the farm supply and purchasing powdered formula for abandoned newborns, but since we don’t know her age is this appropriate? Would it be too rich for her? Should we be limiting the fresh fruits/veggies we are giving her? She has plenty of fresh hay which she burrows into as well as eats, and her coat is once again silky, it is just that she is still so weak.

    We’ve talked with the original rescuer as well as another friend who raises meat rabbits, but would appreciate any info or thoughts!

    Thank you so much!

    • Hi Donna

      I am so glad that Mopsy was saved. I fret all the time over how rabbits suffer and how little is commonly known about them by the public.

      When we have rabbits who need to put on weight, we will increase the protein in their diets. Increasing the carbs they eat is not as effective and can cause other issues, so I would definitely not overdo it with the fruit. As a matter of fact, you might be better not even going there at all, since rabbits were not meant to process a lot of carbs in their gut.

      Higher protein foods for buns are oat hay, alfalfa and in extreme cases I have heard of Calf Manna being used temporarily. All of these things would need to be discontinued when a healthy weight was reached. You can also seek out some “young rabbit” pellets, which are higher in alfalfa than the plain timothy pellets that adult rabbits get.

      Often, when a rabbit is deprived of proper nutrition during it’s young life, they never fully develop to their full size. Their growth will remain stunted for the rest of their life. So I would not base your efforts on their actual weight and I would go more on the physique and build of the bunny. If ribs are apparent, etc. then let him gain some weight, but do not let him become pudgy or overweight, since that is just as harmful for rabbits.

      A dwarf bunny usually has a high energy level and so it sounds as if Mopsy has a way to go to fully recover, because you describe her as still being lethargic. I feel that a good sign will be when she starts to run and do dances (binkies) for you. Then you will know that she is back to good health, since rabbits should run and play for a couple hours a day, especially the smaller dwarf breeds who tend to be higher energy buns.

      Give her a hug for me!

      The Bunny Guy

  5. Hello

    I have had my bun for 4 weeks now he is 12 weeks on thursday… he is my first and he is very spoilt.

    After finding out all the food I brought for him was bad.. I am now just feeding him grass hay and I also spread some oxbo timothy hay in there too… (he goes nuts over it) I brought oxbo young rabbit pallets for him, as these are made out of alfalfa are these ok? I give him maybe 1/8 a day.

    Also i have noticed latly he is scoffing down all the hay… can he actually over eat on hay?

    Im also slowly intraducing vegies…parsly and baby carrots… one twig parsly and a whole baby carrot… his poops have been ddifferent sizes ranging from tiny as to massive… a couple may be oval the rest round… is this from getting him used to vegies or is something more going on?

    • Hi Megan

      How exciting to have your first bunny. Baby bunnies are especially cute. I am so happy that you have chosen to try and learn about how to care for your little boy.

      Rabbits cannot over-eat grass hay. They should be given an unlimited amount and it is best if you give them some fresh hay every day. Baby bunnies need pellets to help them grow. You will not believe how fast your little guy will grow up. Be sure to take lots of pictures because in six months he will be almost full grown.

      Feed your rabbit pellets with alfalfa in them until he is six months old. They will say, “pellets for young rabbits”. Then you need to wean him onto the timothy based pellets, which are for adults.

      Be careful with the carrots. Of course rabbits like them because they are basically a bunny candy bar. They contain a lot of calories which may not have a huge effect while your bunny is still growing but after he matures, it could cause him to become overweight.

      The large oval or egg shaped poop may just be a result of being young and eating new kinds of food. You will want to keep an eye on that. It can often mean that your rabbit has a condition known as megacolon. It is a genetic distortion of the lower colon in a rabbit. I have a bunny who has it and it used to be called “cowpie syndrome”. You can google those terms to learn more.

      Thanks for writing and I hope you are able to get a copy of my rabbit guide book. It is perfect for a first time rabbit owner to learn how to do the right things because with bunnies, it is what you don’t know that ends up hurting them.

      The Bunny Guy

  6. Hello, I just got a little bunny maybe like two weeks ago. and I don’t know how much to feed my bunny. I don’t know how old he really is because he was a gift. I feed him when I feel like he’s really hungry, but I’ve noticed when I give him a half hand full of grass he’ll eat all of it.. I give him that amount about two-three times a day.. and when he’s done, at times he seeks for more lol I’m just a little worried about the amount I should feed him.. he’s still little though… I say MAYBE 2-3 pounds is what he weights.. I haven’t weighted him yet.. please give me advice. Thanks.

    • Hi Audrey
      OH MY… you truly need to get some help for this rabbit. You are starving him and he will get sick and die if you do not get him the proper food that he needs.
      He sounds like a baby bunny and baby bunnies need unlimited pellets for young rabbits, not adult rabbit food. The pellets for baby bunnies is much higher in protein than the food for adults. It helps them to grow normally. Baby rabbits grow amazingly fast. They will triple in size in just a few short weeks.
      Rabbits also need unlimited grass hays each day. They eat all day 24/7 and need plenty of water, as well. A medium size rabbit drinks as much water as a medium size dog. It is important for them to process their food.
      Please do not try and keep a pet rabbit without getting a couple books about pet rabbits and doing a lot of reading on the internet. Rabbits are delicate and exotic pets who require special knowledge to properly care for them. The difference is if you do the wrong stuff, they are lucky to live a couple years. Most only live to be about five, BUT If you do the right stuff, they can live twelve to fifteen years.
      I suggest learning the right foods for this rabbit and finding a rabbit vet because he will need to be spayed or neutered and checked over by a rabbit vet. Rabbit vets are expensive and hard to find, but if you do not use a rabbit vet, your rabbit most likely will not survive any medical difficulties. I just got an email this morning from a person who lost their pet bunny during a neuter surgery. That is almost unheard of if they would have used a rabbit vet specialist.
      Good luck and I hope you get a copy of my book and start reading ASAP. Your bunny’s life actually depends on it.

      The Bunny Guy

  7. thank you!(: I will feed him more. also he is very hyper I’m sure that normal because he’s a baby, but when I take him out of his cage to run around he’s fine, but when I put him back in the cage, it’s like he wants to get out.. he starts to dig, well trust to haha. and he starts jumping everywhere.. it happens mainly when I’m going to bed, he won’t stop until he’s tired and falls asleep.. why does he do this? oh and what good healthy treats can I give him? since he’s a baby, I’ve given him a total of three slices of banana… which means every time I gave him a treat was only one slice of banana.. so what else can I treat him to?

  8. Hi
    I’ve just got two baby bunnies 12weeks old Bertie and bessy. How should I go about handling them they are both very skitty when I go near them.

    • I can tell from your question that you are very new with pet rabbits.
      There is a lot to learn about rabbits, so I recommend getting started ASAP. I suggest that you read a couple books about rabbits and watch lots of online videos about caring for them, if that is how you like to learn. The bottom line is there are tons of important things that you will want to learn about before your babies get much older.
      First, human-rabbit relationships are based on trust. All bunnies are born skittish and not liking to be picked up. It is their instinct because they are prey animals and we are predators.
      Get down on the floor to interact with your rabbit. Never discipline them or they will mistrust you forever. You must bunny proof all areas where they run and play and they need at least two hours a day out of their cages or abodes to run and play.
      Most store bought cages are way too small for rabbits. X-pen environments are better because of their size.
      A rabbits diet should be 90 percent timothy hay once they are one year old, but they need a baby bunny pellet for their first six months to grow properly. Then reduce their food to the proper amount after they are six months old. I good go on for hours, which is why I wrote my book. There are literally hundreds of things you will want to learn about before your bunnies grow up.
      Hope you see where I am going with this. There is so much more to learn about pet rabbits than just knowing how to handle your baby bunnies. They are delicate complex creatures who need special care, food and veterinarians their whole lives.
      NEVER EVER EVER take your rabbit to a dog or cat vet. A rabbit specialist vet is the ONLY vet you should ever see.
      In order to litter box train and tame your pet bunny, you need to make plans to spay or neuter your bunnies. You should start searching for your vet now. This is important. Rabbits really do not even make good pets until they are spayed/neutered. That is probably the biggest mistake most people make, is never doing this.
      I sure hope you take my reply to heart and start learning about your new sweet babies right away.

  9. Hi,
    We recently got two Bunnies for our kids and we keep them in the same hutch outdoor during the summer. Can you tell me the best way to keep them from eating each other’s food if you recommend limiting their pellets?Right now, they eat out of the same bowl and we are not even sure of their gender although they get along great and share the food. Is that bad? They are probably about 15 or 20 weeks old.

    • There are a lot of problems with what you describe. First, these bunnies are living outdoors. Are these pets? Pet bunnies live indoors and farm rabbits live outside. If you are not planning on getting these guys spayed and neutered, there is about a 50-50 chance that you will be having baby bunnies in the coming weeks. As soon as these two sexually mature, if they are a boy and a girl, they will be making babies. That will be any day now.

      Once again, pellets are what farm rabbits eat. If you are planning on keeping them outdoors, there is no point in worrying about their diet. They will most likely not outlive the other problems that occur with outdoor living. Predators, weather and disease are all issues that indoor rabbits do not have to deal with. Temps over 80 can be fatal for a bunny. Raccoons have thumbs and can open most cages. Predators do not even need to get inside a cage to harm or kill a bunny. There are also fatal diseases outside that wild bunnies carry.

      For this reason, when we love a bunny as a pet and want it to live a good and happy life, we do not put them into hutches outside.

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