Rabbits -- family Leporidae, order Lagomorpha -- are small, furry mammals found all over the world. Although they exist in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors, and may be found in habitats from desert to arctic tundra, perhaps the most familiar wild rabbit to Americans is the cottontail rabbit (Sylvilagus spp.), so-called for its round, fluffy, white tail. Among the cottontails, the Eastern cottontail (Sylvilagus floridanus) is most common.
Herbs For Herbivores
As the name implies, rabbits are herbivores -- literally eaters of herbs or plants. In the case of the Eastern cottontail, who favors farm fields, meadows and other open spaces, as well as blackberry thickets and open woodland, his diet will comprise grasses of many species, herbaceous undergrowth such as low shrubs, weeds like dandelions and plantain, clovers and even garden greens. In winter, when vegetation becomes scarce, rabbits often turn to bark, buds and twigs for sustenance.
The House Rabbit
The domestic rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) is not in the same genus as cottontails and is not native to the Americas. It originates in Europe, and is the ancestor of all breeds of pet, or house rabbits. Domestic rabbits, while enjoying many foods that their wild cousins consume, have been habituated to a human-manufactured diet in much the same way as other domestic animals. Because we keep them largely in confinement, house rabbits require careful tending to ensure their diets are nutritious and complete.
Meals in a Box
According to the House Rabbit Society, pet rabbits need a daily ration of high-quality pellet food with a minimum fiber content of 18 percent. HRS recommends never storing more than a six-week supply to ensure the pellets -- made from alfalfa or timothy grasses -- are as fresh as possible. In addition to pelleted grasses, rabbits need fresh hay -- timothy or other grass in preference to alfalfa, especially for older rabbits. Hay provides essential roughage for proper digestion and dental care. House rabbits need fresh vegetables and clean water daily, as well.
Veggies of Choice
Not all vegetables are created equal. Domestic rabbits, in order to simulate the complete nutrition wild rabbits get while browsing widely over areas of natural vegetation, need a selection of as many varieties as possible, including those of different colors. Dark green, leafy vegetables make up the bulk of a natural rabbit diet -- about 75 percent, ideally. Root vegetables are also important, but introduce new items slowly and in small quantities to ensure your rabbit suffers no ill effects. Avoid feeding toxic plants by feeding only human-safe veggies, consulting your vet and pet-safe plant lists when in doubt, and never overfeeding any single thing -- variety is the spice of life for rabbits as well as humans.
A healthy rabbit diet of hay, fresh vegetables and herbaceous material is adequate, but because wild rabbits also turn to trees and other parts of plants for added nutrition, supplementing your pet rabbit's diet on occasion with seeds and fruits in small quantities, broccoli and cauliflower flowers or florets, and tender shoots and twigs -- especially those from apple trees -- is a special treat. As a bonus, carrots, twigs or wooden toys will keep your rabbit's constantly-growing teeth trim and in top shape.
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