Foraging means searching for wild food resources. In rabbits, foraging includes grazing grass from the ground, browsing leaves from trees, eating leafy plants, stripping bark, and digging up roots to chew. These are all normal behaviours associated with eating that rabbits perform during different seasons when the availability of different plants varies.
Our pet rabbits are very rarely kept in a way that allows them to perform these normal seasonal behaviours to find all of their food. Therefore, foraging for pet rabbits refers to behaviours that they perform to search for food.
Why is it important?
Rabbits have evolved to spend many hours a day finding and eating food. If we only fed them pellets or nuggets from a bowl, they would eat very quickly, spend a lot of time bored, and rapidly become ill. When rabbits forage for food, they spend more time searching, eat more slowly, and eat more appropriate food, which reduces the chance that they will become overweight or ill.
How can we enable rabbits to show this behaviour?
We can help rabbits to show normal foraging behaviour in three ways – by providing companionship, by providing the right diet, and by providing the right environment in which to eat.
Rabbits with companions forage more because they are less stressed. Rabbits have evolved to live in groups, because this reduces the time that any one rabbit needs to be alert and listening for danger. If we keep rabbits on their own, they spend more time alert and have less time to spend on activities such as foraging for food.
Rabbits that are fed mostly hay and grass show more foraging behaviour. Good quality hay and freshly picked grass typically contains many different plant species. Although it can look similar to us, the different plants taste and smell different, so rabbits will nose through the grass and hay to find the bits they like best. You can make your rabbits more likely to show foraging behaviour by sprinkling their small daily ration of nuggets through the hay or grass so they have to search for it. Picking handfuls of garden weeds (see the ‘recommended vegetables and herbs’ page) will also provide variety and fresh fruit tree branches will stimulate different forms of eating behaviour.
Rabbits that are fed in the right environment will spend more time foraging. Ideally, rabbits would graze on a lawn with lots of different plant species in it. This means that the rabbits have to move around a lot to find the food they need and they have many opportunities to select different plants to eat. However, this often isn’t available. You can also spread hay or grass around the rabbits’ enclosure or tuck it in multiple boxes or tubes – this stimulates the rabbit to explore different areas. You can use ‘puzzle feeders’ with the daily ration of nuggets – these make your rabbit perform some behaviour to extract the nuggets from the toy. And you can hide the rabbits’ leafy greens in different places so they have to work for their treats.
Rabbits that can show normal foraging behaviours are more likely to be happy and healthy. They are also interesting to watch – how quickly can your rabbit search for and find his favourite foods?