Zoologists, the scientists who study animals, generally classify mammals into three categories based on their nutrition: herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores.
All animals which eat plants or only plant-based foods are considered herbivores. On the contrary, the animals which are only meat-eaters are called carnivores. Mostly, these are predators who hunt other small animals. There are also some other animals that eat meat as well as plants; these are omnivores.
The question that arises here is whether bunnies are herbivores or do they fall in the category of either carnivores or omnivores. Let’s find out.
What Are Herbivores?
Herbivores are mammals that feed only on plants and plant products. Unlike omnivores which can eat both plants and meat, herbivores are totally dependent on a plant-based diet for their nutrition, as they can’t eat meat. Ruminants like cows, buffalo, sheep, and goats, all fall in the category of herbivores.
Are Rabbits Herbivorous Mammals?
Yes! Rabbits are herbivores. In fact, we often call them obligate herbivores. (An obligate herbivore is an animal that entirely depends on the plant material to satiate its hunger and obtains energy from it.)
Both the wild and pet rabbits are herbivores. A plant-based diet for pet rabbits usually consists of fresh water and hay. On the other hand, wild rabbits survive by feeding on hay, grasses, twigs, leaves, seeds, and some vegetables that grow in the wild.
Can Rabbits Eat Meat?
As mentioned earlier, herbivores cannot eat meat; the same goes for rabbits. This is because a rabbit’s digestive system has been designed by Nature so that it can process only high fiber diets low in proteins. Meat is completely opposite to this category of food. Hence rabbits can’t digest meat. Therefore, eating meat will make them sick.
Most people consider rabbits omnivores because one breed of their closest cousins, the snowshoe hares, sometimes feed on the meat of other animals or insects to survive in the coldest regions of the world. However, you must not confuse bunnies with hares; feeding rabbits meat will make them sick.
Why Are Rabbits Herbivores?
Every animal has a specific body plan, and so does the rabbit. The reason for a rabbit being an obligate herbivore is merely due to the fact that its body plan doesn’t allow it to consume meat.
Some specific reasons that a rabbit’s diet does consist and should primarily consist of only plant material are :
Life is ever-evolving. In the long run, only those animals are selected by Nature that are physically adapted to their environment in a better way than others. For prey animals like rabbits, it is impossible for them to go out in the wild and hunt other animals. Predators will catch these victims and tear them into pieces in no time.
A rabbit eating plants in open fields will be able to detect the presence of a predator more readily and will escape. Moreover, the low-protein plant-based diet prevents a rabbit from gaining weight so that it can run fast to escape from predators. A fat bunny is more likely to be caught up by the hunting animals.
Design of Digestive System
Although we can’t digest cellulose in fibers, the digestive systems of herbivores are long enough to enable the digestion of cellulose in the plant fibers. In addition, their vermiform appendix is also larger than that of us and aids in the digestion of plant material.
Similarly, a rabbit’s digestive system is also specialized to digest and extract energy from the high-fiber diet like the one constituting mainly plants. Their digestive systems are what make the rabbits herbivores. Bunnies are hind-gut fermenters, meaning that most of the fermentation of fibers occurs in the blind-ended cecum. This happens with the help of microflora present in their hindgut.
Although cecum can ferment fibers perfectly, it cannot digest and absorb vitamins, minerals, proteins, and other nutrients. This is also the reason why rabbits eat and re-digest these nutrients that are excreted in their feces (caecotrophs) in a process called coprophagy.
Aradicular Hypsodont Teeth
Like rodents, rabbits have aradicular hypsodont dentition. These include the incisors and cheek teeth of rabbits. These teeth have a high crown and open-ended roots, meaning that they grow or erupt continuously. These constantly growing teeth are also sometimes referred to as ‘elodent dentition.’
The rabbits, therefore, consume a plant-based diet high in fibers to avoid oral and dental problems. Dental attrition from chomping down a high-fiber diet keeps their dental growth in check. This is one of the major reasons that make rabbits herbivores.
List of Rabbit Foods
You must have seen a number of pet food manufacturers advertising some kinds of rabbit foods, but are these commercial rabbit feeds safe for consumption by your pet? Or should a pet rabbit’s diet primarily consist of only natural plants and plant material? Following are some of the rabbit’s diet essentials:
Hay is the main staple for a rabbit. Rabbits need fresh grass hay to keep their digestive health in check and to wear down their growing incisors. In addition, expertstion, experts recommend feeding your rabbit timothy hay daily; it is high in fibers and low in calcium and thus prevents your bunny from developing kidney stones.
Oat hay, orchard hay, herbal hay, or meadow hay are also fine if your rabbit likes eating any of these. Alfalfa hay is high in proteins and calcium and is more suitable for baby rabbits, especially those less than seven months of age. If you feed your adult pet rabbit alfalfa hay daily, it can make him obese and prone to kidney stones.
In addition to grasses and hay, rabbits can also feed on leafy greens. The darker these leafy greens, the healthier they are for your bunny. Rabbits eat almost all kinds of leafy greens with relish. Carrot tops, bok choy, romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, cilantro, mustard greens, broccoli, and kohlrabi are all healthy if your bunny eats them. However, some of these leafy green vegetables are not safe for rabbits; iceberg lettuce is one of them.
You can also feed your pets the rabbit pellets available at the pet shops as they are usually vegan. These are made of hay, grass, grains, vitamins, salts, and oils. Although a diet with a mix of hay, grass, and pellets is balanced, pellets should not be the main rabbit food. Vets often recommend feeding pellets to babies as they are high in proteins, vitamins, and minerals. However, feeding them to an adult rabbit daily can make him fat. Moreover, the colorful ones you often see on the shelves of a pet store are not healthy.
Fruit and Veggies
Fruit treats and fresh vegetables can also form a part of rabbit food. Green vegetables like lettuce, spinach, broccoli, Brussel sprouts, kale, etc., are safe if fed in moderate amounts. However, vegetables rich in carbohydrates like carrots and potatoes should be provided to them only sparingly.
Fruits like apple, banana, mango, pear, strawberry, raspberry, orange, and papaya are all rabbit-safe foods. However, beware of the seeds or pits as they may contain cyanide in small quantities. In addition, avocado is not safe for rabbit consumption as it is high in fats. Furthermore, all of these fruits should be added to rabbits’ diet only in a small amount as they may disturb their digestive system.
Problems in Rabbits Due to Improper Diet
Since rabbits are very specific in their dietary needs, feeding them inappropriate food or introducing new food to the rabbit’s diet out of blue can put their health at stake. Some of the common health problems which are seen in rabbits due to the lack of proper diet are:
A high-protein or high-carbohydrate diet can lead to diarrhea and loose stools in your rabbit. Improper diet can disturb the microflora present in the rabbit’s digestive tract. It can result in incomplete fermentation and may lead to GI stasis which is deadly for a rabbit.
As a rabbit’s teeth never stop growing. It needs fiber to wear them down. Lack of fiber in its diet can result in overgrown teeth, which can cause different dental and oral problems in your bunny. The pet may stop eating anything due to the hindrance in mastication.
If a diet is unable to meet the nutritional requirements of the pregnant female rabbits, they can experience a condition called pregnancy toxemia or ketosis. It can cause miscarriage, depression, convulsions, and incoordination in these does. Severe forms can also cause death.
Rabbits are herbivorous mammals and can’t eat meat. Instead, both living in the wilds and the pet ones eat hay, grass, leafy greens, and fresh vegetables. Pets can eat plant-based pellets too. Their dental and digestive design is what makes the rabbits herbivores. Suppose their nutrition is lacking in an adequate amount of fibers. In that case, they may develop different ailments like gastric problems, slowed down food digestion, dental issues, ketosis, and can be as severe as to cause their death.