What is ‘proper’ in a rabbit’s diet depends on what kind of creature it is. And since rabbits are herbivores, they need to be fed exclusively plant material – grains, vegetables and the occasional fruit.
Rabbits need substantial grassy fiber and a good deal of vegetable protein. They have fairly delicate digestive systems and they can’t vomit anything which disagrees with them. So, it’s necessary to be careful to ensure they get the right foods in the right proportion.
Commercial rabbit food is one way to do that. It generally comes in the form of dry pellets that are easy for the rabbit to eat and digest. The pellets are around 20-25% fiber and 14% protein which suits the rabbit’s needs well. Some have small amounts of calcium and other minerals, and may contain some vitamin supplements. The pellets are composed of processed timothy or oat hay, alfalfa and other compounds that are known to be good nutrition for the rabbit.
Feeding a diet exclusively of pellets requires a bit of monitoring from time to time, though. When they’re young (prior to about age 4 months, roughly), they can free feed as much as they like with little risk of problems.
The rabbit is growing rapidly during this period of its life, reaching sexual maturity first at about 6 months. Unless they have a medical condition, such as an intestinal problem, they will consume as much as they want and self-regulate.
As they get a little older, it’s possible for them to overdo it, especially if they’re not allowed out of the cage for exercise very much. Like any sedentary mammal, even one with a high metabolism like a rabbit, they can become obese and pellets are high in calories. Also like other mammals, obesity introduces a number of health risks.
As a rough rule of thumb, you should feed about 1 ounce per 1 pound of weight. Keep a small scale around to weigh your rabbit. But check the directions on the bag.
Supplementing, or even transitioning entirely to a fresh hay and vegetable diet is preferred by some. Provided it’s done correctly, the rabbit will do well. It is a bit more expensive and requires more effort on the owner’s part, though.
Fresh timothy or oat hay can be fed, provided it’s introduced slowly if the rabbit has been on pellets. Alfalfa is great for rabbits, but it’s richer in calcium and protein, lower in fiber. Observe the rabbit’s feces and behavior carefully to ensure they’re not having problems. Look for possible diarrhea, lethargy and other signs of intestinal problems.
Vegetables, such as carrots, broccoli and dandelion greens are good choices that rabbits enjoy. Feed about 2 cups per day maximum, and introduce each one separately as you transition or alter the diet. You can start at about 12 weeks of age with a small amount, gradually increasing to the normal quantity.
Rabbits enjoy small treats in the form of a piece of apple or strawberry, cherry or blueberry. Keep the amount down to no more than a single strawberry or 1/8th of an apple. The high sugar content is really appreciated, but can lead to obesity.