Diet for Young/Baby Rabbits
What you feed you rabbit has a big impact on their health and well-being. Feeding the correct diet to a young rabbit will support their growth and help them form good eating habits, which in turn will help avoid many diet related issues in adulthood.
Although young rabbits eat the same types of foods as adults, we need to take into account the different nutritional needs of their growing bodies and the extra sensitivity of their developing digestive system.
Baby rabbits' diet
Like all mammals rabbit's initial diet is their mother's milk, which they'll continue to drink until 6-8 weeks old. They first start nibbling on solids (usually hay from around the nest) between 2-3 weeks and by 3-4 they'll be eating the same foods as their mum (plus milk).
As rabbits are weaning between 6-8 weeks their digestive system is adjusting from milk to adult solids, which is a particularly sensitive time and why rabbits should stay with their mother for a minimum of 8 weeks. If your rabbit is younger than 8 weeks: one, never get a rabbit from that source again they shouldn't be selling them, and two, you'll need to be particularly careful about your bunny's diet and try to avoid any changes.
One of the key points in feeding any young rabbit is consistency. Baby's digestive systems are much more sensitive to changes in food and they are more susceptible to digestive related problems and can go downhill more quickly if they do get sick. Moving home is already a stressful time for a young rabbit so it is best to avoid changes to food at the same time.
When you get a rabbit you should ask exactly what food your baby has been eating and make sure you get a supply of the same brand food to start you off. In most cases it will do less harm to continue temporarily with a bad diet e.g. low quality pellets or mix, rather than make a sudden change to a 'good' diet.
If you don't know what your rabbit was fed prior to you getting it or you can't get hold of a supply then the safest option is to start with just hay and water. You can then introduce the other components to their diet gradually.
Ideal diet for young rabbits
The diet of young rabbits and adults is very similar. Hay is the most important component and this is supplemented with dry food (pellets) and fresh foods. There are a few extra considerations for young rabbits though.
Like adults, hay should play an important role in young rabbit's diet. Grass hay (e.g. meadow or timothy) is the one food you should introduce from the start, even if your rabbit isn't already eating it. This is the gentlest food on the gut and will provide the fibre needed for the digestive process to function.
Young rabbits can also have alfalfa, which looks a bit like chopped up hay but is made from lucerne rather than grass. It is higher in calcium and protein than grass hay, which is ideal for growing rabbits but too rich for adults.
If you are feeding alfalfa it's a good idea to feed it mixed with grass hay. This stops your rabbits getting so hooked on alfalfa that it's difficult to make the transition to grass hay when they reach adulthood. You should phase out alfalfa at around 4-5 months old.
Baby rabbits have higher protein requirements to support their growth, so whilst an adult requires dry food around 12-14% protein, for a baby rabbit around 16% protein is ideal. Many manufactures offer junior versions of their foods specifically formulated with this in mind.
The most popular brands in the UK are Supreme and Burgess. Allen & Page is only available in large bags, aimed at breeders rather than people feeding one or two bunnies. Oxbow is also a good brand and very popular in the US, it's more expensive in the UK as it's imported.
|Supreme Science Selective Junior Rabbit||19%||17%||Alfalfa, wheat, soybean hulls...||$12 for 3lb ($4 per lb)|
|Burgess Excel - Junior and Dwarf||17%||16%||Grass, Oat Bran, Wheat...||£8.50 for 2kg (£4.25 per kg)|
|Allen & Page Breeder Grower||18%||15%||Grass meal wheatfeed, oat feed, nutritionally improved straw...||£16 for 20kg (80p/kg)|
|Oxbow Essentials/Bunny Basics - Young Rabbit Food||22-25%||15%||Alfalfa Meal, Soybean Hulls, Wheat Middlings...||$15 for 10lb ($1.50 per lb)|
It's also possible to meet young rabbit's protein needs simply by feeding a larger portion of adult pellets, but it's important to ensure they don't eat fill up on pellets and avoid hay.
Should I feed unlimited pellets?
It's suggested in some books that young rabbits be given unlimited access to pellets but doing this can create issues later on.
As with people, good habits are often formed when young, and it is very important for your rabbit's future health that they get into the habit of eating lots of hay. It's much more difficult to introduce hay to an adult that has not grown up eating it. Pellets are extremely tasty and rabbits often prefer them to hay, so having unlimited pellets available can mean young rabbits eat little or no hay, a habit that can cause dental problems and make them more prone to digestive issues.
Pellets were designed for commercial breeders to make rabbits grow quickly, but in this situation little attention was given to the long term health or lifespan. Remember, wild rabbits grow up just fine on a diet exclusively plant material. Unlimited pellets are not necessary to rabbit's development.
For these reasons, it's a good idea to restrict pellets to a certain extent even in young rabbits, although they can have more than an adult.
How much dry food?
It's difficult to give an exact quantity because it will depend on the nutritional content of the pellets (high or low protein), your individual rabbit's growth, what other foods they are eating (e.g. alfalfa) and their activity levels. I also know though, it's difficult to estimate, particularly if you're a first time owner so as a rough guide 25g per 1kg of expected adult weight for high protein pellets and a little more if you are feeding adult pellets. You can split the feed into two so they are spread out over the day/night.
With this as a basis you can observe your rabbit and adjust if necessary. If your rabbit is active and healthy looking, and eating lots of hay you have it about right. If they are not eating much hay or produce soft droppings then reduce the quantity.
Changing dry food
Changes to dry food brands or varieties need to be done gradually over 7-10 days, by gradually reducing the amount of old food and increasing the new. If you have enough of the old food, it's a good idea to allow your rabbit to settle in before making a change, even if the old food isn't great quality.
If you don't have any of the old food, then just gradually introduce the new food over the same period, gradually building up the quantity over 7-10 days. Your rabbit will top up on hay in the interim.
When can a baby rabbit have fresh foods?
If you read some old books you might find it suggested that rabbits are not given any fresh foods until they are 6 months old. This is an over simplified approach that came about because people would buy young rabbits, often at an age when they should still be with their mum, take them home and feed them things like carrot or lettuce, and then find that they become ill with digestive problems. Telling people not to give any fresh foods was easy to remember and helped bypass these issues.
However, providing you follow a few simple rules, it's fine to introduce fresh foods to young rabbits.
If a rabbit's mother was fed fresh foods whilst she was raising the litter, your baby will have been nibbling those too and it's fine to continue providing these same foods. The key is to ask what your rabbit is used to and continue that - consistency.
If your rabbit has not access to fresh foods before, then allow them to settle in before introducing new foods so you aren't making lots of changes at an already stressful time. Twelve weeks or two weeks after you've got your bunny, whichever is later, is a good guide. If your rabbit has had any digestive issues then hold off a little longer.
Introducing fresh foods
New fresh foods need to be introduced slowly so your rabbit's gut bacteria can adapt to processing the new food. It's a good idea to introduce one type of food at a time, then if your rabbit is sensitive to one type it's easy to identify and avoid in future.
If you find your rabbit's droppings change from their normal solid round pellets, this is a sign that you may be going too fast or that particular food doesn't agree with them. Stopping the fresh foods for a few days should return them to normal.
What fresh foods for a baby rabbit?
Leafy greens, except lettuce, are best for rabbits for example dandelion leaves, carrot tops, kale, spinach, spring greens, raspberry/blackberry leaves and herbs such as parsley and basil. For young rabbits first introduction to greens it's best to avoid fruits, though these can be introduced as treats later.
Start with small pieces e.g. 2" square as a test as build up the amount and variety gradually.
Keep an eye on your rabbit's droppings, changes in these are generally the first sign that you've gone a little fast with introducing new foods. The most common problem is excess cecotropes - the type of dropping that rabbits usually eat. They are soft and can end up stick the fur or squidged on the floor. They are usually resolved by cutting out fresh foods and reducing dry food for a couple of days so your rabbit eats plenty of hay.
If your rabbit stops producing droppings, refuses food or has watery droppings seek immediate veterinary advice. Young rabbits are very fragile and can become very sick in a matter of hours.
Transitioning to an Adult Diet
Rabbit's grow most rapidly in the first three months of life. At four months you should begin reducing pellets, and if you are feeding a higher protein pellets changing over to adult pellets. If you've fed alfalfa, it's also time to start decreasing this in favour of grass hay. Your rabbit should be on an adult ration by 6-7 months old. Giant breed rabbits mature more slowly and do more growing than small ones so you may want to delay by a month for breeds like Giants and French Lops. Rabbit's will continue to growing at a much slower rate for a few more months, filling out rather than getting larger.