Below are some examples of daily feed rations for my rabbits (fed alongside hay and additional grass if needed to provide a constant supply)
A days winter feed...
Wild Meadow Forrage: mixed grasses, cow parsly, hogweed, sow thistle, dandelions, dock, ribwort platain, blackberry leaves.
Cultivated Vegetables: Romaine Lettuce, Curly Kale, Spinach, Celery, Parsnip, Barley Grass
Branches: Fresh Willow Stick
Dried Feed: Mixed Weeds, Grunhopper Adult, Apple Ring, Handful of Barley Grain, Dsp of Seed Mix, 2 fibafirst sticks as a treat.
I will admit, one of my main fears when switching to a natural diet with my rabbits was providing the enough and the correct nutrition without feeding pellets, however early on in the process my vet offered reassurance that pellets really were surplus to requirements. I read more into the subject and came up with the following guidelines. If you are following the natural diet plan, you will already be providing unlimited access to forage/greens so the doe will be able to perfectly regulate her intake and ensure that she is eating enough throughout her whole pregnancy.
Providing a wider range of collected forage as well as cultivated vegetables during this time will help the doe select the exact nutrients she requires. Ensuring that there is always access to fresh grass available will balance out the diet nicely. You can also increase the dried forage offered during this time as well as the added calcium will benefit a pregnant doe.
You will also find that does will produce far more milk when fed on a natural diet, I personally believe this is down to the fluid intake from fresh greens rather than the dehydrating properties of commercial pellets. Babies will grow strong and hardy with this abundance of nutrient rich milk, giving them an excellent start in life.
With all this considered it seems that feeding pregnant does on a natural diet should offer no issues, however care must still be taken as some plants have medicinal properties that will negatively affect pregnancy:
Lavender - is a strong medicinal herb that has long been used to cause females to violently expel the contents of their uterus, it is often used to trigger a miscarriage. It can be used on rabbits that have miscarried a litter or only partially miscarried. With this information kept in mind, lavender should be avoided completely for expectant mothers.
Shepherd's Purse - similar to lavender but the effects are not as strong, historically it has been used to induce labour. It is therefore reasonable to assume that this plant is also best avoided during pregnancy, although I heard of it being offered to does that have gone beyond their due date.
Mint - can be used to dry up milk, so while it is safe to offer in the early stages of pregnancy it should not be given during the last two weeks of pregnancy or while the mother is feeding her young. However it makes a welcome addition to the does diet post weaning to help keep her comfortable, stem the milk flow and prevent mastitis.
Sage - generally has the same milk production properties as mint with the added property of being a muscle stimulant. It is often reported that sage may stimulate the uterus so again is best to avoid during the whole of pregnancy through to weaning.
Parsley - is a hugely popular herb among rabbit keepers, however it is important to realise that it can cause uterine contractions, which can obviously put a pregnancy at risk. Parsley should not be offered during pregnancy, and shortly afterwards (while the doe's uterus is still recovering from pregnancy) but is safe to feed while the doe is feeding.
Yarrow - I haven't been able to find any exact details or references to the properties of yarrow except that it is often linked to miscarriage so again it would seem best to avoid feeding during pregnancy.
On top of the considerations above there are some plants that can offer huge benefits if fed during pregnancy:
Blackberry & Raspberry Leaves - provide cooling properties (by increasing blood circulation) which will be greatly appreciated by pregnant does in the hot summer months, they are also believed to aid milk production.
Comfrey - is known to have calming affects which will benefit pregnant does but is also very high in vitamin A which is vital during pregnancy.
Nettle, Goats Rue & Milk Thistle - are all very high in calcium which in tern aids milk production, ideal to feed in the latter stages of pregnancy and while does are feeding.
Dandelion - is a very popular plant to feed during pregnancy it is high in calcium and vitamin A.
It seems a common belief at present that rabbits should not be fed seeds of any kind. I believe this is a misconception from a number of different sources, the campaigning that a museli style diet is bad for rabbits (rightly so) and mono-component feeds should be fed instead (an easy option but not necessarily better than creating a varied natural diet - see the selective feeding article for more info). Secondly from the fact that rabbits cannot digest wheat grain (however many other forms of grain and seed are safe), and finally from the unhealthy - 'seed treats' that many shops market, it is in fact not the seeds themselves that make these bad and indigestible but the sugary honey or molasses substances used to bind the seeds together.
It has become common place (especially in continental Europe) to provide a seed mix when feeding a natural diet as it is simply not possible to provide as many of the vitamins and minerals that a rabbit requires - seeds are an excellent way to make this up. These mixes are nearly always home-made (there are no suitable ready made mixes available) from straight seeds, the mixes are made up of at least 5 different seed varieties (remember variety is the key to a balanced natural diet) from two different categories: oil seeds - for vitamins, minerals and supplemental qualities, and hot seeds - for energy and fattening properties.
The following guide gives you a rough indication as to how much of a seed mix should be fed daily to rabbits in different situations, this however is a guide only and you should adjust based on observations of your own rabbits weight and energy level. This guide is what I use to determine how much seed mix and the proportion of oil seed to hot seed in the mix for my own rabbits, you will need to adjust accordingly for your own.
The top ration represents how many parts oil seed to hot seed i.e. 1:1 would be 1 part oil seed to one part hot seed (or a 50/50 mix in other words) 2:1 would represent twice as much oil seed at hot seed.
The measure below is the amount of seed i feed in either tsp (tea spoon), dsp (desert spoon) or tbsp (table spoon)
To the left you can see my finished seed mix. I include as many of the seed varieties on this page as I can in each mix - although not all of them in every mix, and obviously not all will appear in each feed - but will balance themselves over time. I am constantly researching new seeds and further information on the seeds listed, so keep checking back to see if I've added any more information.
You can find straight seeds from many health food suppliers or pet food suppliers (often in the bird section). I purchase many of my seeds from 'Rat Rations' a pet food supply website - find the link on our links page.
Oil seeds are usually small seeds and are primarily 'oily' rather than 'fatty', these seeds are used to add a wide range of trace minerals and elements into a rabbit's diet that you cannot provide from hay and greens alone. I've tried to include many of the known benefits and considerations of each seed to help you tailor your mix to the requirements of your individual rabbits. When mixing oil seeds with hot seeds make sure you include at LEAST 3 different varieties of oil seeds. If you plan on feeding oil seeds exclusively include a minimum of 5 varieties.
'Hot' seeds (sometimes known as 'flour' seeds and often as 'grain' - although neither are complete descriptions for this group) are ones that give off extra energy when been digested. These seeds are useful in the winter, for rabbits raising babies, those needing to put on weight and growing youngsters. They need to be carefully regulated in the maintenance diet of adult rabbits, and completely absent from the diet of indoor neutered house pets. Feeding too may hot seeds can lead to health problems and obesity. When including them in a seed mix you should make sure you include a minimum of 2 different varieties. Many of the grass or grain seeds can be fed 'on the plant' for example when picking grass, choose seed heads as well, pick or grow barley or oat heads - these can be hung up and the rabbits will love stretching for them.
Including a wide range of fruits and vegetables are important in any diet that does not include manufactured pellets. These will be the rabbit's main source of vitamins and minerals, I recommend offering different options each day to help ensure a balanced diet.
These vegetables can help a rabbit gain or loose weight, offer more roots in the winter and less in the summer, or more during a time when rabbits need to gain a little extra weight.
Melon (Gala / Cantaloupe / Honeydew)
There are a wide range of flowers that can be included in your rabbits diet as special treats.
Pansy / Violas
Echinacea / Coneflower
A Note on Fruit Sugars
A Note on Fruit Pips
The following is a list of suitable leafy greens you can purchase from your local green-grocers of try your hand at growing yourself. Leafy greens should make up at least 50% of the fresh food you provide your rabbit.
Greens with High Oxalic Acid Content
The following veggies have a really high oxalic acid content. They should be fed carefully in moderation, only ONE item from this category should be fed a day.
A Note on Cabbages
Cabbages are naturally very gassy foods, they should not be fed exclusively and should not make up more than half of the leafy green part of the diet. Introduce them very slowly and one at a time, most rabbits fed a natural high green diet can tollerate cabbages fine, HOWEVER some rabbits have a very low tollance for cabbages and they can cause bloat. Personally I avoid feeding cabbages to babies under 16 weeks old, but ALL my adult rabbits have no problems with them being included in their diet.
Greens are a vital part in creating a natural rabbit diet, and should be fed daily. There are two kinds of greens available to you as rabbit food, namely wild collected (or grown) forage or cultivated greens (either from your garden or the local shop). While it is undoubtedly more natural to feed your rabbit primarily on wild greens it can however sometimes be a problem for those living in cities, working long hours or in the colder winter months.
It is of benefit to note that on the whole rabbits will tolerate wild greens better than cultivated greens, the latter of which should be introduced into the diet gradually and one addition at a time.
Personally I choose to feed primarily wild greens in the summer when there is an abundance of food and more daylight hours to allow collecting, I do however try to ensure at least one green feed a week is made up cultivated greens to ensure the rabbits remain tolerant of them. In the winter I generally drop to feeding greens only every other day of which most are cultivated with only the weekend feeds been supplemented with wild greens (this is obviously due to it being harder to collect a range of forage in the winter months and the fact that the time I have available before and after work each day is in darkness). I do however continue to supplement with fresh grass or fodder grown in my own garden and do encourage a range of weeds/green to grow to add to my rabbit diet over the winter months.
Greens can be split into two main categories - leafy greens which make up the majority of the diet, these can be free-fed and unrestricted, the 2nd variety 'Others' is usually made up of roots, flowers and fruits these must be fed in smaller quantities but provide a range of vitamins, minerals and health benefits.
Making up a Green Feed
The ideal is to provide constant access to leafy greens, ensuring rabbits always have as much as they wish to eat, enable the to eat slowly over the course of the whole day. This may not always be practical so an alternative is to feed 2-3 large meals of greens each day. Offer at least 5 different varieties in each serving and vary the types of green offered to ensure you are providing a balanced diet for your rabbit.
Above is an example of a feed selection, the feed is mainly made up of a selection of leady greens some with high water content (romain lettuce & celery) and one with a high oxalic acid content (spinach), with a root vegetable for extra energy.
Variety is the spice of life
The easiest way to ensure that your rabbit gets a varied and healthy diet with all the different minerals and vitamins they need is to vary what you feed. Each time you go foraging or shopping try to select different plants from your last feed, constantly be looking for new things to try (obviously after carefully checking they are suitable). But more importantly go with the seasons, feed what is available at that time, either in the wild or from your shop, this will naturally ensure variety through the course of the year. If you find yourself constantly veering towards the same options, shake things up a bit for your bunny.
Use the pages in my nutrition guide to see some of the options available to you for each type of green as well as some of their key benefits.
Once you've discovered the joys and benefits of feeding a natural diet to rabbits, you're feeling ready to jump straight in and offer your precious bunnies a feast of natural healthy food - but wait! Any changes to a rabbit's diet need to be done gradually to prevent stomach upsets. Rabbits have a huge amount of gut flora (good bacteria in the cecum that helps digest food), they need time to adjust to diet changes in order for this gut flora to establish. The steps below need to be followed in order to ensure that your rabbit can make a smooth transition to a more natural diet, there is no set time for each step but they will generally take between 2 and 4 weeks.
Step 1 - building beneficial bacteria
I'm going to start by assuming your rabbit is currently on a hay and pellets diet, but this will work just as well if you currently feed a muesli mix (although make sure you are also offering unlimited hay). If you already feed regular weeds/veggies to your rabbit this step will be quicker, if not, take your time.
To start with you need to be providing your rabbits with fresh greens daily (about a cup full per rabbit), the key here is to offer variety. Make sure each portion is made up of mainly foods they have tried before and introduce 1 or 2 new items each feed. The main purpose of this step is to introduce your rabbit to the different varieties of greens and vegetables that you will be feeding, so make sure to include what is most available to you and what you plan on using for your natural diet.
If your rabbit refuses to eat something offered make sure you offer it again about 4 days later and again 4 days after that. Usually after the 3 offerings most rabbits will accept foods, however they do have their own preferences and tastes. It is natural for rabbits to just take a small nibble the first time they encounter a new food. In the wild this would allow them to wait a few days to ensure that the food has no negative affects on them before returning to consume it in larger quantities.
If you rabbit has soft poo during this process slow back down and only offer the food that has been well tolerated before, then slowly start introducing the different feeds one at a time, you may need to offer a very small amount for a few days then slowly up the amount offered.
Once your rabbit is accepting a wide range of foods well, it's time to move onto step 2.
Step 2 - increasing fresh quantities
Now your rabbits have built up the good bacteria in order to digest all the fresh green foods you are planning on offering, the next step is to get your rabbit used to eating larger quantities of fresh food and to pace their eating habits as they would in the wild rather than gorging on the food as soon as it is provided.
Start by offering 2 cups of greens a day (one in the morning and one at night), do this for a couple of weeks, then introduce a 3rd serving between the two. Again continue for a couple of weeks then add in a 4th serving.
Once you are providing 4 cups of greens a day at different times during the day, the rabbits will be getting used to having multiple meals during the day (in the wild rabbits will eat around 30 small meals over the course of the day, so we want to encourage them to graze a small amount multiple times a day).
Next start increasing the amount of fresh food offered at each serving, slowly increase it bit by bit until when you go to feed the next portion they still have some of the previous feed left over. This indicates that the rabbits are beginning to pace their feeding throughout the course of the day.
Step 3 - removing processed feed from the diet
Continuing offering 4 feeds of fresh food a day for another 2-4 weeks and over this time you will also want to wean your rabbits off their pellets or mix.
If you are choosing to remove prepacked food from the diet completely, simply reduce the amount of food offered gradually over about a 3 week period until you no longer offer any.
You may choose (for convenience reasons) to continue to feed a prepacked (such as grunhopper which we feed), in this case over the course of about 3 weeks, start to offer slightly less of your pellets and introduce a small sprinkle of the new feed, decrease the pellets each day while increasing the new feed until at the end of the period you will just be offering the new feed.
Use this time frame to start gauging how much fresh food your rabbits will eat during the course of the day.
Step 4 - combining feeds
The final step is to get your new feeding schedule to line up with your own daily routine, while rabbits will appreciate 4 feeds a day, this is usually not practical for most keepers. Now your rabbits are used to pacing their feeding throughout the course of the day you can providing simply one or two feedings a day.
At this point it is a good idea to start introducing a seed mix or similar supplements that you intend to use, again start by adding just a tiny sprinkle over the feed and increase gradually over about 2 weeks.
Start by combining your first two feeds and last two feeds together, do this for a couple of weeks and then switch over to your preferred feed schedule. Personally I feed fresh food and grunhopper mid morning and top up hay and dried herbs on an evening, if they have no fresh food left over at this time I will also add a bundle of fresh grass.
Congratulations, you have now successfully converted your rabbits to an all natural diet.
I've really been struggling to toilet train Sherwood our newest addition, which is not that unusual and something that I regularly get asked about. However the whole concept got me thinking about the origins of rabbit toilet behaviour, it is probably best to get a better understanding of this before attempting to modify it to suit our own ideas of cleanliness.
Rabbits are usually very tidy with their wee, they will choose a toilet area (a latrine) near to their warren and preferred grazing areas and this is where they will go when they need to wee. Latrine sites near to warren entrances are usually covered over with dirt to help mask the scent. Rabbits rarely use urine to mark their territory (instead preferring to leave dropping piles and using the scent gland on their chin), this makes it relatively easy to get your rabbit to use a litter tray to wee in, simply place the tray over their chosen toilet area. Urine can vary in colour (especially in rabbits who eat a wide range of different fresh food), it can be pale yellow, thick and creamy, orange or even blood-red.
'Spray' is very thick urine - usually white - that is highly concentrated. Rabbits (mainly bucks, but dominant does can also spray) flick their rear end and shoot this spray. If there are lots of 'rival' rabbits (from other social groups) in the area rabbits will spray more often as a territory marking. Bucks often spray does during courtship in an attempt to make them receptive to their advances (the does rarely seem impressed by this - I can't think why). Some rabbits are natural sprayers while others never are inclined, the only way to curtail spraying behaviour (in either bucks or does) is through neutering.
Rabbits can produce up to 300 poops a day, these are hard round balls. The size colour and texture of these will vary depending on the rabbits diet (very pale to a rabbit that eats mainly hay and dried feed, to darker to rabbits that eat mainly fresh feed). You can tell a lot about your rabbit's health by checking it's poos - I'll revisit this topic in another article. Most of these 300 poos will be deposited in the latrine areas or toilet scraps as discussed above, so these are again very easy to litter train, lower ranking rabbits in a colony will only use latrine areas and will not territory mark. Rabbits naturally like to keep their toilet away from their main living/sleeping area, so if your rabbit has permanent access to an outdoor run you will probably find their chosen toilet area will be outside.
Rabbits will also use these hard poops to create territory markers, often on top of mounds of earth, tree stumps or other prominent places towards the perimeter of their territory (or enclosure), they will place small piles of droppings to show other rabbits where their area is. It is impossible to get a rabbit to place these markers into a litter tray and is simply easier to clean them up as you find them. Neutered rabbits are less likely to mark their territory in this way, but it does still happen from time to time.
A rabbit's digestive tract is in constant motion, this means that while they are eating they are producing droppings. While some rabbits will break frequently to visit a latrine, many others simply poop while they graze. It has been suggested that this help to fertilise the grazing land to ensure continual production of quality feed (rabbit droppings are indeed a first class fertiliser), however this can be problematic in a domestic setting. If your rabbit is a poop grazer, the only way really around this is to place a litter tray where you feed them. Several companies now produce hay racks with built in litter trays for this purpose. If like me you prefer to scatter feed, you may just have to accept that you won't have your rabbits 100% litter trained.
These are the dark, soft poos that rabbits produce - usually over night and in their sleeping areas. In a normal healthy rabbit these should be eaten straight as they pass them. However on occasion they may become tangled in the fur or left in the bedding. If you are finding a lot of these poos you may need to reconsider your diet, or check your bunny - rabbits that are overweight or older rabbits that are having trouble reaching their bottoms will no longer eat their own caecotrophs. Mother rabbits will feed their own caecotrophs to their kits for the first 6-8 weeks of their life, these are full of the bacteria and gut flora a young rabbit needs to help them digest the foods found in the mother's diet.