Feeding Wild Rabbits, the Do’s and Don’ts

For many of us, spotting a wild rabbit munching plants or grass in our yards sparks an instinct to want to leave food out for these cute creatures. But should we feed wild rabbits, and if so, what’s safe and healthy to offer them? Get ready to dive deep into the do’s and don’ts of feeding wild rabbits. We’ll explore fascinating insights on wild rabbits’ diverse diets through the seasons, nutrient needs, natural foraging behaviors, peak feeding times, and typical intake amounts. You’ll find tips for winter supplemental feeding, landscaping for rabbits, rabbit-friendly gardening, avoiding common mistakes, and more helpful guidance. Let’s hop to it and learn how to safely share bounty with the wild rabbits in our midst!

What do wild rabbits normally eat?

Wild rabbits are herbivores, meaning they eat plant materials rather than meat. Their diets consist mainly of grasses, clovers, herbaceous plants, tree bark, and crops. Rabbits require diets that are high in fiber to aid their digestive systems. They have continuously growing teeth that require abrasive vegetation to wear them down.

In the spring and summer, rabbits will eat grasses, legumes, plant shoots, leaves, flowers, and cereals like oats and wheat. They particularly enjoy clover and alfalfa. Rabbits consume large volumes of vegetation daily to get adequate nutrition.

During fall and winter when green vegetation is less available, rabbits will eat woody plant parts including tree bark, twigs, branches, and buds. Bark from fruit trees is a favorite winter food. Dried grasses and herbaceous plants will also make up part of their diet in colder months.

Wild rabbits are crepuscular, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. You are most likely to see them eating in the early mornings or evenings as they forage for vegetation. Rabbits eat selectively, choosing the most nutritious and palatable foods first.

What do rabbits eat in the winter?

In winter when fresh greens are scarce, rabbits will switch to eating woody vegetation, including:

  • Tree bark – Rabbits peel and eat the inner bark of trees and shrubs. Fruit tree bark is a particular favorite.

  • Twigs and small branches – Rabbits gnaw on the ends of branches to reach the inner wood.

  • Buds – Leaf and flower buds provide nutrition when most plants are dormant.

  • Dried grasses and plants – Rabbits will eat any leftover dried vegetation from the previous growing season.

  • Crops – Rabbits may raid hay stores meant for livestock or feast on any unharvested produce still in fields.

  • Conifer needles – Evergreen trees provide year-round greenery. Rabbits may eat limited amounts of soft pine and fir needles.

  • Sumac, rose, and blackberry bushes – Rabbits eat the bark and woody stems from these shrubs.

  • Burdock and thistle – Dried stalks from these weeds provide crude fiber.

To find food, rabbits will stand on their hind legs to reach higher branches and strip off loose bark. Smaller woody stems are eaten whole. Rabbits have specialized digestive systems that allow them to extract nutrients from fibrous woody material.

How much do wild rabbits eat?

Wild rabbits are prolific grazers and consume surprisingly large quantities of vegetation each day. Exact amounts vary by the rabbit's size, time of year, and food availability.

  • An average adult eastern cottontail rabbit eats 1/2 to 1 1/4 pounds of vegetation daily.

  • Larger jackrabbits may consume over 2 pounds per day.

  • Baby rabbits and juveniles eat smaller amounts as they have smaller stomachs.

  • When nutritious greens are readily available, rabbits eat smaller meals multiple times per day.

  • In winter, rabbits maximize each meal due to scarce food supplies.

  • Nursing female rabbits need extra nutrition and will increase their food intake.

  • Rabbits excrete soft feces during the day to re-ingest high fiber food and fully digest nutrients.

Wild rabbits spend much of their waking time engaged in foraging behaviors to meet their dietary requirements. Their high volume food intake supports their fast metabolisms.

When will you usually see wild rabbits eating?

Rabbits are most active and engaged in feeding behaviors around dawn and dusk. Here are the prime times you will spot them eating:

  • Early morning – Just before sunrise is a very busy feeding time. Rabbits will venture out to grassy areas and meadows to graze on dew-covered plants before the day warms.

  • Daytime – Rabbits minimize daytime activity to avoid predators but will cautiously feed. Watch for them along field edges.

  • Late afternoon – A few hours before sunset, rabbits start emerging to feed again while cover is still ample.

  • Dusk – Feeding activity peaks as the sun goes down. Rabbits will be out on lawns, pastures, and roadsides grazing.

  • Night – Where human presence is minimal, rabbits continue grazing under the cover of darkness. Moonlight aids visibility.

  • Overcast days – Rabbits expand daytime feeding on darker, stormy days when potential predators are less visible.

Notice that rabbits focus their feeding around the lower light conditions of dawn and dusk. This helps conceal them from predators like hawks, foxes, and coyotes that rely on vision to hunt.

Is it okay to feed wild rabbits?

Most wildlife experts advise against routinely feeding healthy wild rabbits. Rabbits are adapted to find all the food they need in the wild. Feeding can make them dependent on handouts, negatively alter their natural behaviors, and attract predators.

However, supplemental feeding can be beneficial in some circumstances, such as extreme winter weather when natural food is scarce. The key is moderation. Follow some general guidelines if you choose to offer food:

  • Only feed during inclement weather when fewer natural options are available. Avoid feeding in spring, summer, and fall.

  • Limit feedings to once every few days at the same location and time. Don't feed daily.

  • Provide only enough for the rabbits present to finish in one sitting, not unlimited buffets.

  • Offer healthy natural foods rabbits recognize, not inappropriate human foods.

  • Stop feeding once conditions improve so rabbits return to self-foraging.

  • Don't attempt to tame or touch any wild rabbits.

Occasional winter feeding can provide needed calories but should not replace their natural foraging activities long term.

Vegetable scraps

Leftover vegetable pieces from preparing human food can supplement rabbits' diets in winter. Stick to vegetarian produce free of fat, dressing, or seasoning. Good options include:

  • Carrot and sweet potato ends
  • Romaine lettuce leaves
  • Broccoli and cauliflower stalks
  • Celery ends and leaves
  • Bruised or spotty apples
  • Soft melons rinds
  • Corn husks and cobs
  • Green bean and pea vines

Chop large discards into bite-sized pieces. Mix vegetable scraps together to provide variety. Scatter them in a pile on the ground in the morning when rabbits are most active. Avoid leaving produce overnight to prevent spoilage. Monitor and adjust amounts so none is left uneaten.

Hay or dried grass

Loose hay or straw makes an excellent winter supplement that mimics rabbits’ natural dry vegetation. Look for untreated grass hay, oat hay, timothy hay, brome hay, or wheat straw. Avoid alfalfa which has too much calcium and protein.

Scatter a small handful or flake in a sheltered spot out of wetness. Dried grass provides essential roughage and helps rabbits pass food through their digestive systems when fresh greens are lacking. Grass hay is also nutritious, high in fiber, and low in calories, meeting rabbits’ winter needs.

Commercial dry rabbit food

Specially formulated commercial rabbit pellets are made to meet domestic rabbits' nutritional needs. These extruded dry foods can also be offered very sparingly to wild rabbits in winter. Select a timothy or grass based pellet.

A small handful once a week helps supplement protein, vitamins, and minerals. The pellets provide concentrate nutrition in a small volume rabbits can quickly eat. Scatter pellets on the ground like you would vegetable scraps or hay. Don't leave large amounts that could become waterlogged.

The natural way to feed wild rabbits

The healthiest way to support wild rabbits is to nurture their natural food sources. Some easy ways to supplement their habitat include:

  • Plant or protect stands of brush for winter browsing. Rabbits favor wild rose, blackberry, raspberry, and sumac.

  • Allow goldenrod, clover, plantain, and dandelions to thrive in untended corners. These are favored rabbit foods.

  • Leave fallen tree branches and dead shrubs for rabbits to gnaw on.

  • Maintain brush piles they can hide and nest in while foraging.

  • When pruning fruit trees, leave the trimmings for rabbits to eat the bark.

  • Allow grasses to grow taller before mowing to provide more grazing.

  • Use chemical fertilizers and herbicides sparingly to encourage natural vegetation.

Improving their natural habitat provides food and shelter for rabbits to follow their seasonal foraging behaviors.

Gardening for wild rabbits

If you'd like to actively feed rabbits through gardening, here are some prime plants to grow:

  • Grasses – Wheatgrass, rye, orchard grass, timothy, brome, and bluegrass. Rabbits will eat these shoots and seed heads.

  • Clover – White and red clover provide nitrogen-rich foliage. Plant clover among grasses.

  • Alfalfa – When young, alfalfa is palatable and nutritious. Cut frequently as mature alfalfa is too high in protein.

  • Oats – Graze tops when young and harvest oats later for straw.

  • Vegetables – Leafy greens, peas, beans, peppers, and root crops. Use row covers until ready for harvest.

  • Herbs – Dill, cilantro, parsley, basil, and mint. Rabbits will eat both leaves and stems.

  • Fruits – Raspberries, blackberries, and strawberries. Protect ripening fruit with netting.

  • Trees – Fruit and nut trees provide bark, twigs, and dropped produce.

Focus on planting perennial crops, herbs, and grasses that continue growing back after rabbits browse. Use fencing as needed to protect valued annual vegetables and soft fruits.

Lawn care for rabbits

When managing lawns and open areas, make some adjustments to support wild rabbits:

  • Raise mower height – Keep grass 2-3 inches high for grazing.

  • Avoid weed killers – Let clover, plantain and dandelions thrive for food.

  • Leave brush patches – Allow areas with longer grass and brush for shelter.

  • Use compost – Improve soil to support healthy turf growth.

  • Overseed bare spots – Repair thin areas rabbits have grazed down.

  • Avoid grub control – Rabbits dig and feed on beetle grubs in lawns.

  • Tolerate some digging – Lawn pits help loosen and aerate the soil.

  • Leave leaf litter – Don't remove all fallen leaves that provide grazing.

  • Allow fallen fruit – Apples, berries, and cherries supplement summertime diets.

Keeping lawns lush but also slightly wild and natural creates a balanced habitat for rabbits. Reduce chemical inputs to encourage winter vegetation rabbits can utilize.

Plants to feed rabbits in the winter

Here are some good options for providing supplemental fresh vegetation for rabbits in winter:

  • Wheatgrass – Grow trays of wheatgrass and set them outside once long enough for grazing.

  • Fodder heads – Hang oat or wheat fodder bundles for rabbits to nibble.

  • Root crops – Beets, carrots, turnips, and sweet potatoes can be grown in cold frames or left in garden beds.

  • Cold hardy greens – Kale, collards, spinach, chard, parsley, and mustard tolerate cold for extended harvests.

  • Covered herb beds – Protect thyme, dill, cilantro, oregano and other herbs to remain green.

  • Unpruned perennials – Leave dried flower stalks and seed heads on perennial beds for interest.

  • Sprouts – Sprout wheat, rye, brome grass or alfalfa for nutritious greens.

  • Hay bales – Get creative placing bales near brush piles to provide both food and shelter.

  • Twig browsing bins – Cut and collect apple and other fruit tree trimmings in containers.

Growing cold hardy plants specifically for winter rabbit use encourages natural foraging. Focus on perennial, self-seeding options needing little maintenance.

Water in dry climates

Rabbits' main source of water is the moisture contained in vegetation. But in arid climates or drought conditions, providing water can be crucial winter survival aid. Use these tips:

  • Place shallow, wide bowls of water near brushy escape cover. Ceramic plant saucers work well.

  • Refresh water daily to prevent freezing and keep clean.

  • Add large rocks for perches to reach water easily.

  • Bury bowls at ground level if windy.

  • Use several smaller containers instead of large troughs to prevent drowning.

  • Water early so it freezes at night and thaws for the next morning.

  • Consider a bubbler, spring, or recirculating pump to keep water moving.

  • Position water against backdrops like boulders or logs to allow watchful drinking.

Avoid deep pails rabbits may fall into. Clean water and predator protection are key so rabbits feel secure drinking.

Should you worry about plants and flowers that are toxic to rabbits?

Rabbits instinctively avoid most plants that are poisonous or toxic to them. However, a few common garden plants can cause issues if eaten in large quantities:

  • Rhododendrons and azaleas – All plant parts.

  • Foxglove – Leaves, seeds, flowers.

  • Lilies – Bulbs, foliage, pollen.

  • Daffodils – Bulbs.

  • Iris – Rhizomes.

  • Tomato foliage – Leaves, stems.

  • Potato foliage – Leaves, stems.

  • Flowering cherry/peach/apricot pits – Seeds, branches.

Rabbits may sample small taste but won’t continue eating most toxic plants due to bitter taste. Remove plants totally unfamiliar to local rabbits to be safe. Focus any rabbit plantings on known edible choices.

What to AVOID doing when feeding wild rabbits

When offering supplemental food, be very careful not to inadvertently harm rabbits. Avoid these common feeding mistakes:


Birdseed and commercial wild bird feed mixes contain grains, millets, nuts, dried fruit, and corn appealing to rabbits. However, they are not formulated to meet rabbits' specialized nutritional needs. High calorie bird foods can lead to weight gain and digestive issues in rabbits. Refrain from putting out bird feeders hoping to attract wild rabbits. Stick to hay and vegetables for a healthy diet.

High sugar foods

Avoid feeding rabbits foods high in sugar including:

  • Fruits like grapes, bananas, and melon.

  • Carrots, beets, sweet potatoes.

  • Crackers, bread, cereal, baked goods.

  • Dried fruits, granola bars.

  • Prepared pellets with added sugary binders or treats.

Excessive sugar and carbohydrates disrupt delicate digestive bacteria in rabbits’ cecums needed to process vegetation. Stick to grass hay and leafy greens as staples.

Cooked human leftovers

Leftover cooked pasta, rice, pizza, fries, and other homemade people food can seem appealing but is unhealthy. Salt, fat, grease, and seasonings disrupt delicate rabbit digestion. Disease causing bacteria and mold quickly colonize most leftovers. Stick to raw fresh vegetables only.

Cat or dog food

Cat and dog kibbles are high protein and fat. They lack the high fiber rabbits need. Nutrients are not balanced for rabbit's unique systems. Occasional tiny amounts very sparingly can provide fat and carbohydrate calories during harsh winter only if truly desperate.


Despite depictions in books and cartoons, rabbits cannot properly digest the lactose in milk from another species. Milk may give fatal diarrhea. The only exception is nursing baby rabbits consuming mother’s milk specifically formulated for them. Avoid cow, goat or other milk.

Feeding orphaned wild baby rabbits

Only licensed wildlife rehabilitators have the training, facilities, and permits required to properly care for orphaned wild baby rabbits. However, if you find yourself unexpectedly needing to help:

  • Keep babies together in a covered box or carrier with air holes on a heating pad set on low. Don't overheat.

  • For quick emergency nutrition, mix pedialyte with water and rub on their lips and face to be licked off.

  • Get proper formula like Fox Valley day one for orphaned wild rabbits at a pet store. Feed with a small syringe or dropper.

  • Only feed warmed formula when babies seem hungry. Do not overfeed.

  • Get babies to a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible for long term care.

Raising wild baby rabbits is extremely challenging due to their delicate health needs. Always reach out to experts for assistance and supervised training.

Feeding wild Rabbits in Captivity

Zoos, wildlife centers and nature parks that keep wild rabbits in captivity feed balanced commercial rabbit diets specifically for their systems. Feed requirements differ from domestic rabbit breeds. Key points:

  • Grass hays must make up majority of diet for healthy digestion, worn teeth, and behavior. Timothy, orchard, oat, brome, and wheat hays are best.

  • Fresh vegetables and limited fruits are also provided daily. Dark leafy greens, root crops, peas, beans, peppers, apples, melon.

  • Commercial rabbit pellets formulated for wild species with optimal fiber and nutrients supplement the hay and produce.

  • Clean, fresh water must be consistently available in bottles or bowls.

  • Natural graze branches with leaves, twigs, buds and bark are added to enclosures for enrichment.

  • Variety is added


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