By now we all know that our pet rabbits should be eating a diet that’s rich in hay and greens, with a limited amount of pellet food. This combination prevents obesity and can help to stave off other health problems, too. But winter brings some special care needs, including diet. The fact is, in winter, your rabbit should be eating a bit differently and a bit more. So let’s look at the best winter foods for rabbits.
What do Wild Rabbits Eat in Winter?
Wild rabbits, like domestic rabbits, eat a high fibre diet that consists mainly of hay, grasses, and greens. In cold climates, however, during the winter months, grasses and greens become inaccessible. So, what do wild rabbits eat then?
The answer is: a rabbit eats whatever it can find.
In the winter months, wild rabbits live on sticks, tree bark, pine needles, and other types of vegetation. If you’re thinking that these items don’t have a lot of nutritional value, you’re right.
As a result, it’s estimated that only around thirty per cent of wild rabbits actually survive the winter.
Like many prey animals, rabbits’ evolutionary strategy is to produce lots and lots of offspring to ensure that enough survive to breed.
When caring for a pet rabbit, we often try to replicate how a wild rabbit lives. But in winter, the natural diet of a wild rabbit won’t keep our rabbits warm, and may actually endanger their health. Fortunately, we have the means to feed them a diet that will help them thrive.
Are Winter and Summer Diets Different?
Short answer: yes, but.
Rabbits’ digestive systems don’t change in the colder months. They still need a high fibre diet to prevent digestive problems. In the winter months, a rabbit still needs unlimited hay and rabbit safe greens.
However, in order to keep your rabbits warm, you should feed them a bit more in the colder months.
Many wild animals eat more when winter is coming on. It takes more calories to keep a rabbit warm in the winter than it does in the summer–up to three times as many. Although rabbits don’t hibernate, eating more helps to build the fat stores that keep their body temperature stable.
Fortunately your rabbits don’t have to depend on twigs and bark like wild rabbits do.
You can easily give your rabbits the nutritional boost they need for winter by supplementing unlimited hay and greens with a small increase in pellet food.
Baby Rabbits and Nursing Mothers
It goes without saying that baby rabbits and nursing does have special nutritional needs.
All rabbits need more food in the winter, and milk production puts an extra caloric demand on the mother rabbit. That means more hay, more vegetables and leafy greens, and more rabbit pellets. Check with your vet for the best pet medical advice for your nursing doe.
A baby rabbit is particularly vulnerable to cold. Baby rabbits need to be gaining weight for growth and development. At the same time, if they’re too cold, there’s a chance that they won’t digest their mother’s milk adequately.
Check on your moms and babies often to make sure that Mom is feeding her babies twice a day. Babies should have plump, distended tummies, and they should be warm and safe in the nest that their mother has made.
Consider keeping baby bunnies and their mother indoors during cold weather.
The Best Winter Foods for Your Rabbits
The types of foods your rabbits need are the same in the summer months as in winter time. But in winter, your rabbit’s health depends upon having more of the healthy foods that their humans provide year round.
Wild bunnies often have problems finding food to eat during the cold months. This can affect their ability to stay warm and survive the colder months. Fortunately, the key to your pet rabbit’s nutrition is as close as your favourite pet store.
Here are some things your rabbit can and should eat during the winter time.
Whatever the time of year, a rabbit’s diet should include unlimited, high quality feeding hay. Hay not only keeps your rabbit’s digestive system working optimally, but it keeps their ever growing teeth healthy too.
There are different types of hay on the market. You may encounter, for example, oat hays, orchard hay, and alfalfa hay, and meadow hay. Which one is best?
First, know the difference between feeding hay and bedding hay.
Feeding hay is greener, fresher, has a more pleasing smell, and is much more nutritious than bedding hay. Rabbits like it better, too.
Now, a bit about feeding hay types.
Timothy hay is many rabbit owners’ go-to hay. A high quality Timothy feeding hay can provide an excellent high fibre basis for a rabbit’s diet. Timothy hay has a nutritional balance of 32 to 34 percent fibre, eight to 11 percent protein, and 0.4 to 0.6 percent calcium.
Timothy hay is a cool weather grass. It’s thick and fibrous, and can be a good choice for rabbits with sensitive digestive systems. Its low calcium content makes it best suited to adult rabbits.
For variety, you can mix Timothy hay with Orchard Hay and / or Meadow hay, which have a similar nutritional balance.
Orchard Hay or orchard grass is another suitable food for general use. This cool weather grass is also very drought tolerant. It has a balance of 34 percent fibre, 10 percent protein, and 0.33 percent calcium.
Orchard grass has a soft texture and a sweet smell. If your rabbit is a picky eater, they may prefer this to other types of hay.
Oat hay is rich in vitamins, minerals, and fibre. It also contains lots of crunchy husks that many rabbits really enjoy. This is a low protein hay, so your rabbit can enjoy as much as they like. You can also mix it with other types of feeding hay.
Meadow hay isn’t actually hay. Rather, it’s a selection of different meadow grasses combined and kiln dried. The grasses in any given batch of meadow hay can vary. This means that the protein and calcium content can vary, too.
For this reason, meadow hay may be better fed in moderation than as the foundation of your rabbit’s diet.
Alfalfa hay isn’t a hay, and though it looks like grass, it’s not a grass, either.
Alfalfa hay is a legume. This means it’s higher in protein than either hay or grass. The higher protein content means that alfalfa hay can be fattening for adult rabbits. However, for growing kits who need to put on weight, it can be a good choice.
You can also mix it with Timothy hay for a blend that’s richer than Timothy hay but not quite as protein rich as straight alfalfa hay.
Alfalfa hay is also three times higher in calcium than true hays. Excess dietary calcium can cause painful bladder stones, so if your rabbit has a history of bladder sludge or stones, it’s best to skip alfalfa hay.
High Quality Pellet Food
Most rabbits prefer pellet food to hay, and, if given the chance, will ignore hay in favour of pellets. This is because pellets are tasty, easy to eat, and high in calories — like a lot of human fast food.
But just because it tastes good doesn’t mean it’s the best basis for a healthy diet.
Rabbits should eat a minimum of 70 to 80 per cent hay, with pellets comprising no more than 10 per cent of the diet. But in cold weather,
Fruits, Vegetables, and Leafy Greens
Wild bunnies eat their leafy greens whenever they can. Domesticated bunnies enjoy them, too.
Learn which vegetables are safe for rabbits, and make sure your rabbits have some every day.
Fruits, on the other hand, are very high in sugar, and should only be given as an occasional treat.
As always, introduce new foods one at a time and in small amounts. This can help to prevent digestive upset.
Keeping Your Rabbit Warm from the Inside Out
Should rabbits be eating differently in the winter? If your climate has cold winters, then yes. Your rabbits should still eat the same types of foods, but they will need more of them. This will give them the calories they need to stay warm.
How cold are winters in your area? Do you have any tips or tricks for keeping your bunnies warm? We’d love to hear them!