diet

What herbs are safe for my rabbit?

What herbs are safe for my rabbit?

Introduction

You love your rabbit. We love our rabbits, Fish and Chips. And we love giving them the best foods and treats we can. When we first got Fish and Chips, one of the first greens we bought was some fresh coriander, which they loved – eager to devour it. It complemented their main diet of Timothy hay well (why Timothy? Find out here). Great, let’s get some more herbs from the local supermarket – any will do, we thought. After all, can’t rabbits eat every type of herb? Big mistake.

There are many herbs which rabbits can enjoy, but a few (including one common one) are dangerous, and can lead to serious illness for your pet bunny. If you’re like me, you want to be able to wander down the vegetable aisle, pick up a pack of fresh herbs, and feel relaxed that your bunnies will be safe and enjoy the treat. So what herbs can I feed my rabbits? The short answer follows, and below that there are more details about how much to give and whether dried herbs are OK. You can also find out why some herbs are dangerous, and what to do if your rabbit eats some.

What herbs are safe for my rabbit?

The following herbs are safe for rabbits:

  • Basil
  • Coriander (also called Cilantro)
  • Dill
  • Fennel
  • Lavender
  • Mint
  • Mustard
  • Oregano
  • Parsley
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Tarragon
  • Thyme
  • Watercress.

Do not give your rabbit chives. This herb, along with spring onions, garlic or any food within the onion family, are all poisonous to rabbits.

If you are unsure about a food, check with your vet!

How much herbs should I feed my rabbit?

The main food we give Fish and Chips is hay – usually Timothy hay. Rabbits need unlimited supplies of this, and hay should make up about 85% of a rabbits diet. We also give up to an eggcup full a day of pellets. So any herbs you give will be in relatively small quantities. It’s good to mix it up a bit, and give some variety, so any herbs you give will be part of a larger diet including other fresh leafy greens and vegetables (like kale).

What does this look like in practice? For a 4lb (2kg) bunny, about 2 cups each day (either in one go, or spread out over different feedings). A cup is about the same as an adult handful of greens.

You also need to be careful with younger rabbits – their digestive systems are delicate, and they need time to adjust to new foods in their diet.

Can rabbits eat parsley?

Herbs
Anyone else like Simon and Garfunkel? If it’s in the song, it’s safe.

Rabbits can eat parsley safely as part of a sensible diet mainly based on hay. You can feed an adult bunny a handful of parsley as their daily allowance of greens.

Some people suggest that you need to be careful with how much parsley and fresh mustard you give your rabbit.

This is because parsley (along with some vegetables, like spinach) contains a relatively high level of a type of chemical called oxalates (you can see a table of the amount of oxalates in different vegetables here).

Oxalic acid, in huge quantities, could lead eventually to liver damage. However, this would require feeding your rabbit exclusively parsley (instead of hay) over a long period of time.

So long as parsley is not the major part of the diet (this should always be hay), it’s fine to give your rabbit some. For example, if you check out the PDSA advice on safe foods to give your pet rabbit, it includes parsley. It’s also on the approved list from the Royal Veterinary College.

I have also seen worries about whether the amount of calcium in parsley is too high for rabbits. Rabbits process calcium differently from most other animals, and too much calcium can lead to a variety of problems including urinary stones.

However, while parsley has higher calcium levels than some other foods, it isn’t particularly out of the ordinary (figures taken from this Rabbit Welfare Association article):

Calcium levels – mg per 100g
Kale130
Spinach170
Parsley200
Spring greens210
Mint210

This means that parsley has a calcium content of 0.17%. In contrast, Timothy hay typically has a calcium content of 0.4% – over twice as high – and your rabbit is going to eat far more hay than parsley.

Fish enjoying some spinach

Your rabbit would need to eat about 10 small packets (30g – amount 1 oz) of fresh parsley in a day merely to reach the recommended daily allowance.

So you shouldn’t be concerned about the calcium content of parsley or other green vegetables unless your vet has recommend a specific diet for specific problems. (See also this article on calcium levels in various foods – the main takeaway is that you are far more likely to give too much calcium with pellets, and that it’s extremely difficult to give too much calcium with sensible amounts of green herbs).

And parsley contains a variety of other useful minerals and minerals. In particular, parsley is a good source of vitamin A and iron, both of which rabbits need in their diet. Find out more about the minerals and vitamins that rabbits need here.

The bottom line? As is often the case, parsley, like other foods, is fine in moderation.

Can rabbits eat thyme?

Rabbits can eat thyme safely as part of a sensible diet mainly based on hay.

I have seen some suggestions on the web that thyme can be helpful if your rabbit has diarrhoea. Whilst it may be true, I could find no evidence to back this up. More importantly, if your rabbit has diarrhoea, consult a vet straight away.

Can rabbits eat cilantro / coriander?

Rabbits can eat cilantro (coriander) safely as part of a sensible hay based diet. You can feed both the stem and the leaves of coriander to bunnies. The herb is an excellent addition to give variety to your rabbit’s diet, helping ensure their nutrition is balanced. A handful of cilantro / coriander is about a serving for a mature rabbit.

Cilantro (coriander) is a great source for bunnies of vitamin K, copper, potassium and iron. We have a detailed post if you’re interested in finding out more about the nutritional needs of rabbits.

In fact, coriander is our bunnies’ favourite herb. When we give our rabbits a handful, they gobble it down.

Can rabbits eat rosemary?

Rabbits can eat rosemary safely as part of a sensible diet mainly based on hay and fresh water. You can feed both the stalk (sprigs) and the leaves to bunnies. Rosemary is a great herb to give to rabbits, providing variety to their diet and helping to ensure that they have a balanced nutrition. A handful (a few sprigs) is a portion for a day for a mature rabbit.

However, not all bunnies will like rosemary. Some rabbits dislike strong smelling herbs, so don’t worry if your bun turns up their nose.

If your bunny does like rosemary, you can be happy knowing that it will provide your rabbit with vitamin A and potassium, along with some fibre.

Can rabbits eat sage?

Rabbits can eat sage safely as part of a varied diet mainly based on hay and fresh water. You can feed bunnies both the leaf and stem of sage. Sage is a source of potassium, iron and vitamin K to rabbits. A portion size is a handful of leaves.

Sage has a historical reputation of being a healing herb – in mediaeval times, it was also known as ‘sage the saviour’ (Salvia salvatrix), and to the Romans it was the holy herb. Sage was used to treat everything from the plague to wasp stings.

While modern medicine doesn’t consider sage a miracle drug in the way that the past might have, it’s still a great herb for your bunny to eat.

Can I give dried herbs to my bunny?

You can give dried herbs to rabbits as part of a varied, healthy diet. People sometimes want to mix in some dried herbs with other foods (including hay, or pellets). You can even buy some types of hay with herbs mixed in (some bunnies love this, others don’t). Again, moderation is the key. And you shouldn’t give dried herbs instead of fresh greens.

What about wild herbs?

I’m not an outdoor type, so I wouldn’t particularly recognise wild herbs if I came across them anyway. I get my herbs from the supermarket. But I found this list of plants to avoid. Some people like foraging – if that’s you, it’s probably best to decide on four or five plants that you recognise and know are safe, and collect them.

Why are some herbs dangerous for rabbits?

No chives

Chives are dangerous for rabbits because they can lead to gut problems and blood problems.

Along with other plants in the onion family (allum family) such as spring onions, onions and garlic, chives can lead to haemolytic anaemia (the red blood cells in the body become more fragile and some rupture) in many animals, including rabbits. The effects don’t happen instantly, but can take place over a period of days.

An oxidising substance called n-propyl disulphide binds to the sides of red blood cells, is recognised as a foreign body by other cells, so the red blood cell is destroyed.

Seek out professional advice from a vet if your rabbit eats chives or anything similar.

Humans are much less sensitive to this than other animals, which is why we can enjoy chives and garlic, and our pets can’t.

What should I do if my bunny eats a dangerous herb?

If in any doubt, contact your vet for advice.

Conclusion

Most herbs, including parsley, are safe for our bunnies. Fish and Chips love the various green herbs that we give them, along with other greens, as part of their diet. We get small packets regularly from our supermarket. They provide nutrients and flavours for our pet rabbits.

If you’re giving a sensible amount as part of a diet mainly based on hay, you don’t need to worry about oxalate content or calcium content – so parsley is fine along with all the others on the safe list. But make sure that you avoid chives – they are dangerous for your rabbit.

As you care about your bunny’s diet, check out our page on what fruit you can safely give your rabbit as a treat (and how much), and our page on why Timothy hay is so good for your rabbit.

You can also check out more about what vitamins and minerals rabbits need for a healthy life.

If you want to make sure you can always afford the best care for your rabbit, check out our page on pet rabbit insurance here.

Where can I find more information?

If you go searching on internet forums, you’ll end up with all sorts of conflicting advice about diet, and what foods are bad or good for your bunny. There are a lot of myths out there. Instead, I stick with the sites with some authority for my information. Here are some of the ones I consulted:

RSPCA advice about diet for rabbits

House Rabbit Society (a non-profit rabbit rescue and education organisation) advice about vegetables and fruit

The PDSA (a leading veterinary charity) advice about safe vegetables for rabbits

The PDSA also have this download about feeding rabbits (opens pdf file)

The Rabbit Welfare Association has a page on recommended vegetables and herbs

Posted by Jonathan in General
Timothy hay: what is it; why is it called Timothy; why is it good for rabbits?

Timothy hay: what is it; why is it called Timothy; why is it good for rabbits?

Introduction

Being a newcomer to the world of rabbits, I asked the pleasant assistant in the pet store what we needed to feed our rabbits. We talked first about pellets (only an eggcup) and treats, but then moved on to the main part of any rabbit’s diet, hay.

‘You need Timothy hay’, she told us.

‘What?’

‘Timothy hay’ she repeated confidently.

‘Oh, Ok,’ I replied, and sure enough, there were some bales marked ‘Timothy’.

‘Must be some brand-name’ I thought to myself. But it wasn’t.

Timothy hay, to my surprise, is a type of hay. But this led to a range of questions – what is Timothy hay? Why is it called Timothy? And why do my rabbits need Timothy hay?

Timothy hay, named after an American farmer of the eighteenth century, is a high fibre, high energy, low protein, low calcium type of grass hay that helps your rabbit’s digestion and teeth.

Here’s some more information on what Timothy Hay is, why it’s called Timothy, and why it’s so good and important for your rabbit.

What is Timothy Hay?

Timothy hay is a type of grass hay that is great for feeding both rabbits and horses. It can grow up to around 1.5m (about five foot tall), and is quite rough and stalky. It can come in three varieties, depending on which cut of the season you buy. Timothy hay is good for rabbits as provides fibre and protein with low calcium. Rabbits need the fibre both for their teeth and their guts.

Timothy hay comes in three different cuts, which vary a bit from each other:

  • First cut is the roughest and highest in fibre, and slightly lower in nutritional value.
  • Second cut is a balanced amount of fibre and protein.
  • Third cut is softer and greener, with relatively less fibre and more protein.

Having said that, the Timothy hay that I found on sale in pet shops and the local supermarket didn’t say which cut it had come from (maybe a mixture?) so I wouldn’t worry too much about this.

Types of hay

Timothy grass

Timothy grass. Credit Blokenearexeter [CC0]

I thought hay was hay, but I was wrong. You can get a range of different types, but they fall into two broad categories: legumes and grasses. Timothy hay is a grass hay.

Another type of grass hay is meadow hay. This is softer than Timothy hay, and may include some edible plants such as dandelions. Because it contains a variety of plants, it can also be a bit more variable in contents than Timothy.

Legumes include alfalfa hay and clover. Alfalfa is greener, and high in protein and calcium. It may be suitable for younger rabbits (always check with a vet), but mature rabbits need less calcium – and too much is bad for them (see below).

Here’s a chart of typical values for the three types.

%                     Timothy           Meadow          Alfalfa

Fibre                30                    30                    30

Protein            6                      7                      16

Calcium           0.4                   0.6                   1.2

You can get Timothy hay from a variety of places, and the values will vary a little. Our local supermarket stocks bales of Timothy in the pet aisle, and of course so do most pet stores.

Burgess Excel hay

This is the hay we buy. It’s 100% Timothy hay – but they only tell you that on the back of the packaging. Weird.

We get Burgess Excel Long Stem Feeding Hay in 1kg (2.2lb) bags. Bizarrely, you have to search quite hard on the packaging before you find it that it is 100% Timothy Hay. We get our hay from our local Jollyes, who also have an online service.

You can also get Timothy hay from Amazon UK and Amazon US who will deliver to your door.

Why is it called Timothy hay?

The earliest account I could find comes from a 1949 book on crops. A grass from Europe (called cat’s tail) ended up in the eastern states, and became well-known when it was cultivated and sold by a farmer called Timothy Hanson.

Here’s the account:

‘The most important hay grass in America now is timothy. It was first grown by a man named Herd prior to 1720 near the Piscataqua River mouth in New Hampshire. It was introduced from England where it was found growing in waste places and was known as cat’s tail grass. Early records indicated that it was known as herd’s grass in the New England area. Timothy seed was taken to New York, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina by a Timothy Hanson who lived near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was widely accepted in these states and became known as Timothy Hanson’s grass, which was later shortened to timothy. Jared Elliot sent seed of it to Benjamin Franklin in 1747, and when it was planted and grown Franklin described it as ‘mere timothy’. Large portions of the eastern part of the United States were planted to timothy by the colonists, and it has been the dominant hay grass in this region ever since.’

Gilbert H. Ahlgren, 1949, Forage Crops, New York: McGraw-Hill, p7.

You can also see an early reference to timothy hay in this 1859 newspaper article.

The Latin classification name for timothy grass is Phleum pratense. Knowing this allows us to access all sorts of databases and information (if you want to go further). For example, you can see the distribution worldwide of timothy grass here.

Three reasons why Timothy hay is so good for your rabbit

RabbitsOne of my questions was ‘why is Timothy hay good for rabbits?’ When I searched around, I came across three different but important reasons:

Reason 1 – fibre

Hay is the most important part of a rabbit’s diet, and the fibre part is essential. You know how we are always advised to make sure we get fibre in our diet? And so you might choose wholemeal bread or eat a high fibre cereal, and this helps keep us ‘regular’. This is even more important for our bunnies, who have eating systems that are designed around a high fibre intake. The high fibre content helps makes sure that their intestines don’t clog up (gastrointestinal stasis). Gastrointestinal stasis is extremely serious – even fatal. A diet of fibrous hay helps avoid this.

Reason 2 – teeth

High fibre hay also helps keep your bunny’s teeth healthy. A rabbit’s teeth can grow up to 5 inches in a year (or 3mm a week) – problems start when the teeth grow faster than eating wears them down.

One type of problem is when the teeth grow too long – they can make it harder for your bunny to breathe, as the teeth start to block nasal passages.

The second problem is when the teeth aren’t smoothed down by eating rough food. Without eating rough hay and grass, rabbits can develop sharp bits on their teeth, called spurs. These can be painful for the rabbit. To avoid using that tooth, the rabbit then starts overusing other teeth, and changing the way they chew. So one small sharp point can lead to problems with the entire mouth, including other teeth, ligaments and muscles.

So the coarse fibres in hay are not only good for your rabbit’s intestines, but also help keep their teeth healthy.

This is also why providing toys for your rabbit to chew on is a good idea – not only fun, but good for their mouths. You can see some of our favourite rabbit toys in our post here.

Reason 3 – calcium

This was the reason that surprised me the most when I did some investigating. It turns out that rabbits are very efficient at extracting calcium from the food they eat. Most animals only absorb a little from the food eaten, and then excrete a small amount. Rabbits, unusually, try to absorb all the calcium from the food they eat. Then, up to nearly half they excrete in their urine. If they have too much calcium, their urine may turn chalky as their bodies try to get rid of the excess. In the worst case, this can lead to urinary stones (urolithiasis).

Timothy hay is relatively low in calcium, and so ideal for mature rabbits. They can be given unlimited quantities safely.

How much hay should I give my bunny?

You can give as much hay as you like to your furry friend – but make sure it’s enough. A rabbit eats a bundle about the size of its own body every day. For more information on the best diet for pet rabbits, see this advice from the RSPCA.

Conclusion

So that’s what I found out about Timothy hay. It’s named after an American; it’s a type of tall, fibrous grass that’s high in fibre and low in calcium, and it’s important for my bunnies because it’s good for their guts and their teeth.

Rabbits eat more than hay – you can also give them a handful of greens every day. Want to know what herbs are safe for your bunny? We have a post that lets you know what herbs are OK, and what might harm your rabbit.

Want to know what fruit you can give your bunny as a treat (and how much you should be giving them)? Check out our in-depth guide on what fruit are safe for rabbits.

And we also have a guide to what vitamins and minerals rabbits need.

Posted by Jonathan in General