The vast majority of rabbits raised for meat and/or wool are fed a
commercial diet of compressed pellets. This feed is typically based on
alfalfa, but will contain other ingredients such as corn, other grain
byproducts, supplements and various stabilizers. Many, many studies
have been done demonstrating how this diet is the single most
cost-effective way to provide adequate nutrition to fast-growing kits
and heavily producing adults.
But that doesn't mean it's the only solution, or even the best solution, for all circumstances.
Commercial pellets have the following disadvantages, which may or may not be a problem for any given rabbit herd:
1) Some pellet formulations are very low in fiber. Fiber is critical to proper rabbit digestion. Low fiber foods can result in the buildup of hairballs in the digestive tract, which can then become blockages. Low fiber also contributes, or causes, a condition in rabbits called GI stasis. This is the technical term for materials simply becoming clogged in the digestive tract, such that the rabbit cannot effectively defecate. While it sounds like a simple case of constipation, it can be life-threatening for the rabbit. A high fiber diet, provided either with properly formulated pellets or high-fiber supplements, is crucial to a healthy rabbit herd.
2) Protein contents of typical rabbit formulations can vary from 12% to 18%. The higher protein levels are appropriate only for the very young, fast-growing animals and lactating females. Yet many rabbit owners feed high protein diets to their stock year round, regardless of age or condition. This high protein diet can be hard on the digestive tract, and result in animals that have shorter lifespans.
3) Pelleted feeds can be very dusty. While this is not a big problem in small, outdoor operations, it can become a health issue for indoor rabbitries, particularly when the air is recirculated via either heating or air conditioning.
4) Some pellets with a high percentage of alfalfa do not have a proper calcium:phosphorus ratio, which ideally should be roughly 2:1. Alfalfa by itself has a much higher proportion of calcium to phosphorus, which can result in a variety of health problems. It is also a waste of all that calcium if the body cannot use it due to a lack of phosphorus. Better pellet formulations have the proper 2:1 calcium:phosphorus ratio, but are more expensive.
5) Some pellet formulations can be purchased in bulk at lower cost, but must be used within a certain timeframe or they begin to lose their nutritional value. Additionally, they must be kept cool and dry for maximum shelf life. The smaller the rabbit operation, the more the commercial feed will cost because it must be purchased in smaller batches.
6) Some nutrients, particularly vitamins, will lose integrity even when the feed is stored properly. These fragile nutrients are linked to sub-standard growth, weaker immune systems and poor reproductive health. Left long enough, these nutritional gaps can become overt deficiencies requiring medical intervention.
Fortunately, small scale rabbit producers have a wide variety of options
when it comes to feeding their rabbit herd. Commercial pellets are one
option, but not necessarily the best option. While large-scale
producers might be time and money ahead to buy their feed in bulk,
smaller producers may actually want to pursue other feeding options
which are more nutritious, easier to handle, locally sourced and/or less
The foundation of rabbit nutrition starts with a high quality hay - alfalfa, orchardgrass, oat hay and timothy hay are all excellent candidates. High quality hay contains most of the protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals needed by rabbits. Hay also helps keep the rabbit's teeth well ground down, and it can be provided free choice throughout the day so that rabbits spend a higher percentage of their time eating. This helps alleviate boredom in solitary caged animals.
In addition to hay, rabbits can be fed a wide variety of supplemental vegetables, typically root crops and leafy greens. These vegetables provide a wide variety of nutrients which are not in hay but which help balance out the hay in the rabbits' daily diet. The different flavors and textures also contribute to the rabbit's quality of life.
Fruits can be given to rabbits in small amounts, several times a week, as treats or training aids. Fruits should not form a large portion of a rabbit's diet, because they are too high in sugar for the rabbit's digestive fermentation. One serving of fruit every other day is a good target amount.
A wide variety of websites offers in-depth information about alternative
rabbit diets and what does or does not make a good rabbit meal. We
encourage you to check out these websites for more information:
MyBunny.org's webpage about Rabbit Nutrition
The House Rabbit Society's FAQ page for rabbit nutrition, rabbit feeding and rabbit foods
The RabbitHouse.com webpage about pet rabbit feeding
Also see our Rabbit Books page, which lists a variety of books with extensive rabbit diet information. These books will vary in terms of hobbyist versus commercial rabbit diet needs. But they all have solid information about rabbit digestion, proper rabbit nutrition and some of the health issues that stem from poor rabbit feeding.