Rabbits are found all across the world – except for Antarctica – and there are over 45 beloved domesticated breeds. These long-eared creatures were once considered to be rodents, due to their bottom incisors which grow continually and need to be trimmed on roughage found in plants. These dietary requirements are often difficult to adhere to, and pet owners are frequently tempted to feed their bunnies food and other snacks from their own plate
One of the most notorious choices of foods to feed pets, is bread. Found in most kitchen cupboards and often in need of being “disposed” of when it goes stale, pets are commonly on the receiving end of this staple. But, does rabbits’ plant-based diet mean that they can safely eat bread?
What is in bread?
Bread’s main ingredients are wheat, water, yeast and sometimes eggs and oil, depending on the type of bread. Most sandwich breads are enhanced with minerals and vitamins, to make sure that everyone gets a “healthy” meal in their lunchbox. That doesn’t sound so bad, does it?
Wheat is the seeds produced by the grass family Triticum, and has a infamous reputation. Without it, we wouldn’t have foods like bread, pastries, pizza or pasta, yet it is held accountable for health problems such as allergies, irritable bowel syndrome and obesity. Various varieties of wheat are found all across the world, the most-farmed variety being “common wheat” or “bread wheat.”
Wheat is often preferred to other grains due to its complex carbohydrates and high protein content. However, the proteins in wheat are not of optimal quality, and bread can largely be seen as a nutritious food in terms of monetary value. Bread provides plenty of nutrition in terms of what you pay for it, but it doesn’t change the fact that most vegetables, leaves, fruits and edible roots are far higher in nutritional content.
To get the full benefit of bread wheat’s nutrients, one would have to include all parts of the seed, including the hull, which contains a type of fiber called arabinoxylan that is high in cellulose. This is referred to as “whole wheat” flour, but are generally considered as an acquired taste and not readily used for commercial baking. Instead, refined flours are used which retain almost none of the fiber found in whole wheat.
Although bread contains complex carbohydrates, they are quickly broken down by the body into sugar, and is not necessarily a good choice as an energy food.
The real question is not “can rabbits eat bread?” but rather “should rabbits eat bread?”
What should you feed your rabbit?
The domesticated rabbit had been derived from the European rabbit, who lives in grassy and bushy areas. Therefore, experts recommend that, like their wild cousins, pet rabbits should live on a hay-based diet, supplemented with vegetables, herbs and fruit. Yet, pet rabbits are often fed with a variety of “treat” foods ranging from pellets to dog biscuits, to hamster food, to bread.
It is recommended that a good 75-80% of your rabbit’s diet should consist of hay, which should be as fresh as possible and be available to your rabbit round the clock. Hay-based pellets can be used to supplement this, but are usually not necessary for adult rabbits. Hay is high in fibers containing cellulose and pectin, which are essential to a rabbit’s digestive system, as its intestines are specially adapted to convert these components into energy. Rabbits have special bacteria in their intestines which aid in breaking down the tough composition of hay. This causes rabbits to produce a soft, moist dropping that is immediately re-eaten and allows their digestive systems to absorb the maximum amount of nutrients from the cellulose.
A variety of leafy green vegetables is the more ideal choice to supplement a hay-based diet with. You should feed your rabbit one cup of leafy greens per pound of body weight per day. Safe varieties of leafy vegetables and herbs include kale, bok choy, carrot tops, and cilantro.
Non-leafy vegetables such as bell peppers, cucumbers and carrots should be fed in smaller amounts, as they contain higher amounts of starches and sugars and lower levels of cellulose. These vegetables are often remarkably high in nutrients and feeding them in small amounts is usually safe. You should feed your rabbit approximately one third of a cup of non-leafy vegetables per pound of body weight per day.
The leafy and non-leafy vegetables foods rabbits eat should make up about 15-20% of their diet and should contain plenty of variety. Some vegetables are high in oxalic acids, which are compounds found in especially green plant foods that inhibit the absorption of other nutrients. These oxalic acids can bind to minerals and contribute to bladder problems and the formation of harmful crystals such as kidney stones. These types of vegetables do not have to be avoided altogether, but should be fed in small portions and not more than one variety of these should be given daily
Rotating vegetables and fruits on your rabbit’s menu is always a wise idea, to ensure their nutrient intake remains balanced.
Fruit should always be fed in small portions and should not make up more than 5% of your rabbit’s diet.
Legumes, such as dried beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils and peanuts are not safe foods for rabbits to eat. They contain antinutrients that prevent nutrient absorption, and irritants that can cause bloating and inflammation in the digestive system.
That brings us to grains: are they safe for rabbits to eat?
Can rabbits eat grains?
There tends to be a lot of disagreement in the world of rabbit owners when it comes to the topic of grains. It is easy to think that rabbits could benefit from grains, due to the complex carbohydrates they provide to the diet.
The truth is, that the complex carbohydrates in grasses and grains differ substantially, and the processes of breaking them down in the intestines to extract nutrients are not the same.
Some argue that rabbits in the wild have been observed eating grains from time to time. It is important to remember that grains are seasonal crops and rabbits mostly eat unripe grains that contain higher levels of cellulose and lower levels of starchy carbohydrates, and this only happens a certain time of the year.
Rabbits will gladly eat grains when they are offered, but this does not indicate a healthy snack choice. Most domesticated animals will eat an unhealthy treat food if it is tasty.
Grains’ starchy composition is often said to cause obesity in rabbits. Many rabbit breeders do feed a variety of grains, such as wheat, barley, oats and corn. However, these are typically owners who breed rabbits for meat and trading, and for whom it is ideal to have rabbits that are overweight. Breeders are not necessarily concerned with long-term health problems in rabbits.
Should rabbits eat bread?
Most exotic animal veterinarians will tell you that rabbits do not digest complex carbohydrates and proteins found in wheat efficiently. Besides the fact that rabbits do not require the type of carbohydrates found in grains, starchy compounds that are poorly digested cause imbalances in the natural fauna of the bowels and irritate the lining of the digestive tract.
Some varieties of bread wheat, especially those used for white bread and pastries, have undergone substantial processes of cross-breeding, which might improve the taste and texture, but makes them even harder to digest. Therefore, modern bread is to some extent not completely natural in its composition.
Keeping all of this in mind, it is not healthy to allow your rabbit to eat bread.
How much bread can your pet rabbit eat?
When asking the question of how much bread your rabbit should be allowed to eat, the answer is “as little as possible, but preferably none!”
Although some owners argue that bread is simply an occasional treat for their rabbit, the truth is that there are far better treat foods to choose from. The only real advantage to feeding bread as a treat food is that it is cheap and usually available around the house. However, this should never be used as an excuse to let your rabbit eat bread.
You may wonder whether feeding your rabbit bread made from whole wheat flour would be a safer choice than white bread, since it is higher in cellulose. However, the hull of wheat is high in phytic acid, which acts as an antinutrient that limits the uptake of other nutrients. Although whole wheat bread would technically be a healthier choice to feed your rabbit, it is still not a good one. Your bunny is far better off getting its cellulose from fresh hay.
Alternatives to bread for rabbits
Bread is in no way essential to a rabbit’s diet, and most owners only feed it as a treat food. Since bread can do more harm than good, it is always better to opt for treat foods that are nutritious and safe for your rabbit to consume. Remember, it won’t be much of a treat if your rabbit ends up with diarrhea or other health problems.
Some treat foods might seem safe and nutritious, such as nuts, seeds, cereals, granola or energy bars. However, these foods are intended for humans, and your rabbit’s digestive system is not adapted to break down these foods.
Bits of fruit or berries make excellent treats for rabbits. Strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, blackberries, blueberries and cranberries are all loved by rabbits and are jam-packed with nutrients! These are all high in sugar, so don’t forget to feed fruits and berries in very small portions.
If you do feel compelled to include some raw grains in your rabbit’s diet, sprouting them is a perfect solution. Sprouted grain seeds, such as wheat and barley, are extremely nutritious and low in starch, and rabbits love nibbling on them. Very young sprouts tend to be higher in oxalic acids, so wait at least five days since they’ve sprouted before letting your rabbits eat them.
Edible flowers, such as daisies, marigolds and roses are colorful and pretty and will make a special treat for your rabbit. Make sure that they are safe to eat. Do not give flowers taken from arrangements as food; these are often treated with chemicals.
Many manufacturers of rabbit foods produce special rabbit treats in the form of biscuits or fruit mixes. Unfortunately, many of these types of treats are not of a good quality and contain artificial additives or chemicals which can be harmful or even toxic to your rabbit. Always check the expiration date and ingredient list of these types of treats to ensure only natural and minimally processed ingredients are used.
Although many owners are wary of feeding rabbits pellets, they do prove to be a far better choice of treat food than bread, and are a convenient size to use for training. Ensure that the pellets’ main ingredient is one or more rabbit-safe hay and check that no sugars or artificial components are added.
Dried herbs and flower mixtures can also be purchased and mixed into their food as a seasoning.
When it comes to your bunny’s diet, its “bread and butter” should always be fresh hay and vegetables. Bread’s main ingredient is wheat, which is high in carbohydrates and low in cellulose and other fibers needed in a rabbit’s diet. It does therefore not provide adequate nutrients to your rabbit.
Rabbits’ digestive systems are adapted to extract nutrients from foods like hay, leaves and vegetables. When rabbits eat bread or any food containing wheat, their intestinal fauna is disturbed; this can lead to diarrhea and the reduced absorption of other nutrients.
Bread is not a healthy food choice to feed to your rabbit – not even as a treat. Fruits, berries, and flowers are all excellent choices for special treats and contains the nutrients your rabbit can safely digest.