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Teaching your rabbit to eat hay can seem like a fruitless task (there’s a joke in there somewhere because fruit can help), but it’s really worth it.
Kinda like teaching your kids to eat vegetables.
Ok, exactly like teaching your kids to eat vegetables.
Here are the main points covered in getting bunnies to eat hay :
- rabbits need to hay for their teeth and their gut
- They need approx. twice their body size in hay per day
- Enriching the hay with food can tempt them to eat it
Why do rabbits need to eat hay?
Rabbits have very complex digestive systems that work constantly – no three square meals a day for them.
In order to keep it working optimally, they need a LOT of fibre (incidentally, so do humans – if we worried as much about fibre as we do about protein we could probably eradicate diet-based heart disease).
If your rabbit doesn’t eat hay, do something about it.
Not only will it massively improve your bunny’s health, but it can prevent vet bills in the future.
As well as keeping gut stasis at bay, hay can help grind down your rabbit’s constantly growing teeth, and prevent issues like overgrown teeth, and the associated infections and abscesses.
How much hay do rabbits need to eat per day?
The body composition, metabolism, and appetite of rabbits vary as much as ours, so I’ll give you some simple guidelines:
Your rabbit should be eating a ball of hay twice the size of its own body every day.
I feed my rabbits pellets and hay twice a day – so a lump of hay the size of rabbit is given when I get up and before I go to bed.
Why isn’t my rabbit eating hay?
Like I said, it’s like teaching your kids to eat vegetables – some are happy to snack on veggies and some not so much.
You rabbit may not be used to eating hay. Pellets are infinitely more delicious and exciting. Rabbits, like humans, have a ‘food is scarce’ mentality hard wired into their brain.
Almost all species of animals will pick the sugary or fattier option because sure, it tastes good, but the primal part of our brain knows that it contains more calories. It doesn’t care about ’empty calories’ – it can’t afford to. Glucose is the brain’s primary food source, so a source of pure glucose is perfect for it.
The problem lies in the fact that:
- Primal brains don’t know that food isn’t scarce
- They don’t know that being overweight isn’t healthy for rabbits and can cause joint problems and inhibit their ability to keep themselves clean
- They don’t know that they need a lot of fibre more than a lot of sugary pellets
I’m afraid it’s up to you to convince your rabbit to eat their hay. You’ll be pleased to know that getting your rabbit to eat their greens is rarely an issue (once you find the ones they like).
Which type of hay should you be feeding your rabbit?
Where I live, this is a bit of a non-issue. I go to my local pet store and buy a massive bag of hay for £6. You can get it even cheaper from farms. The benefit of buying from local shops is that the hay is fresher. Fresh hay smells so good and is cheaper and better for your bun.
*Edit* we bulk bought hay from a farm shop before Covid-19 lockdown. When we ran out, we replaced it with hay from the pet shop, and those spoiled little sods turned their noses up at it!
Luckily they’re super greedy so it was only for a split second but STILL.
You can buy orchard hay and timothy hay from bigger chain pet stores, but I just use…hay. Research suggests it’s probably timothy hay, so if you’re paying more for branded timothy hay, you’re being fleeced.
Baby rabbits are given alfalfa hay because it’s higher in protein and digestible fibre. It shouldn’t be given to rabbits over six months of age because it’ll cause unnecessary weight gain.
This does make it a good choice for chubbing up underweight buns though.
How to measure how much hay your rabbit is eating
I could fob you all off here and say ‘put the hay in a hay rack and see how much is gone’ but I have NEVER managed to get a rabbit to eat from a hay rack. Here is our homemade hay setup:
We fill eat tubes twice a day, and the theory is that since each tube is approx the size of each bunny, once the tubes were empty, at least one rabbit would have had enough hay.
Obviously they just pull the hay out into the litter box and eat it from there.
The best way to tell if your rabbit is eating enough hay is to observe them. Our rabbits spend a lot of time in their hay box eating. Once you’ve got your bunny’s diet spot on, they should naturally eat the right amount of hay. I have a full article on the perfect diet for a rabbit here.
If you need a more concrete measuring system, you could set up a tube system like ours, and add mesh over the bottom so that the rabbit can’t pull all the hay out. If I work out how to do that I’ll let you know.
How to tempt your rabbit to eat hay
There are a couple of methods you can try, and what will work entirely depends on your rabbit’s
- Make hay fun
This method works best on nice, sweet bunnies that are good boys and girls (i.e. not very often) – I’ve put it first because it’s a great general enrichment trick.
Stuff toilet roll tubes with hay and hide toys and treats in your rabbit’s hay box. You can buy toys made from hay, houses made from hay (only rabbit-sized, I’m afraid) etc etc etc.
If your rabbit isn’t interested in hay, this probably won’t work, but once your rabbit is interested, incorporating hay into toys is a great way to mix food and play without ending up with an overweight bun.
- Make hay delicious
This could be simple case of changing hay types – some buns prefer oat hay, so try that if you can get hold of it, but the methods below may work if you don’t want to spend your life sourcing fancy hay.
This works best on greedy buns, and there are a few different ways of doing this depending on how greedy your bunny is and how reticent they are to eat hay. Start with method one and progress if it is doesn’t work.
Method 1 – get a big bowl (a pasta bowl is good) and put hay in it. Then mix in pellets. Don’t put pellets on the top (the bunny will just pick them off) or the bottom (the bunny will just remove the hay). You need to mix it all in. Chop up the hay if that’s easier
Method 2 – the same as method 1 but use a more high-value treat. I recommend banana because it sticks to hay better. Mash up half a small banana and coat the hay with it – put it in a bowl unless you want banana everywhere.
Your bunny may resist at first, but few can resist the smell of banana for long
You can also try mixing in herbs, grated carrot, or those mixed bags of dried herbs they sell in pet stores.
Method 3 – You may question your sanity if you resort to this, but I’ve known a lot of people have had success with this one. Add baby food (pure fruit puree only – apple and pear seems the most popular) or puree your own fruit, then mix with the hay, as you did with the banana. I’d be surprised if your bunny can resist.
Method 4 – you can try this one first if you have an overweight bunny, and I want to clarify that whilst it may seem a bit cruel, I swear it won’t harm your bun AT ALL. In fact, this feeding regime is recommended for either overweight buns or those that struggle with stinky bunny butt (I’m sure there’s a medical name for it).
Cut out pellets. Pellets actually aren’t 100% necessary to a rabbit’s diet, but they are a convenient way to make sure a bunny gets all their vitamins and minerals.
You can keep a perfectly healthy bunny without ever feeding it pellets if you need to.
I had one of my rabbits on a no-pellet diet for the best part of a year, and it really helped her digestion. The only issue I had is that she became extremely pellet fixated after we reintroduced them, and would get mad if we fed her at 8.01, not 8.00.
Make sure your rabbit has some fresh vegetables every day – romaine lettuce, cilantro, carrot tops (not carrots) basil, mint, and watercress can be given every day. other veggies can be given, but mix them up. Broccoli for example can cause gas if given too frequently.
Watercress and herbs provide all the necessary vitamins and minerals if not giving pellets freaks you out.
If your rabbit refuses to eat ANYTHING in 20- 24 hours (unlikely), give a small amount of pellets mixed in with hay, then try again the next day. Rabbits can be as stubborn as mules, but you know best.
Final thoughts on getting rabbits to eat hay
It can take a while to convince your bunny to start eating hay, but it’s important that they do. Not only is it cheap for you to buy, but it can save a lot of money in the long run by staving off vet visits.
The good new is that usually once a rabbit decides hay isn’t the devil, they’ll quickly increase the amount they eat naturally.
I’ve actually never had a rabbit that doesn’t love eating hay – sometimes they just need a gentle push in the right direction.