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Reviewed by Lucile Moore, PhD.
A quick google search will show you conflicting information regarding the health and safety of feeding your rabbit nuts and seeds. So let's dive into this more because, as with most things in life, it's not a simple 'yes' or 'no' answer!
Our modern domesticated pet rabbits originated from wild rabbits of the species Oryctolagus cuniculus.
The diet of wild rabbits varies pretty drastically depending on their geographic location and two factors: availability and palatability. Rabbit expert Lucile Moore, PhD, highlights these two factors in her book Rabbit Nutrition and Nutritional Healing. She poses the question: Is it really possible to mimic a wild rabbit’s diet when we feed our domestic rabbits? Should we even try?
Ultimately, Moore comes to the personal conclusion that it is not vital to try to mimic a wild rabbit's diet for our pet rabbits. However, what is important is to keep in mind that certain qualities of the wild rabbits' diet likely still hold true for our domestic rabbits.
One factor that holds true for both wild and domestic rabbits is that they are both selective feeders. This means that given a choice, they will often choose to consume low-fiber, succulent, nutrient-dense, & high-sugar foods.
Part of their unique digestive system called the cecum enables them to extract some nutrition from more difficult-to-digest complex carbohydrates and enables rabbits to take advantage of and utilize energy from a wide range of plants including grasses, twigs, bark, shrub leaves, herbaceous plants, fruits, nuts, and seeds.¹
You may have seen a variety of sources making broad blanket-statements that rabbits should never be fed nuts or seeds (usually followed by "grains, corn, beans, etc.") because they can cause dental, digestive, and weight issues. These are all very general issues of which it proves difficult finding reputable sources (citing peer-reviewed studies) illustrating their direct correlation to nuts or seeds.
What is abundantly clear is that the major source of nut/seed-phobia stems from the anti-muesli movement.
Muesli is a type of commercial pellet that is a mixture of a varying combination of cereals, legumes, pellets (fortified with vitamins and minerals), locust beans, alfalfa, dried fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and/or grains. They generally have a low fiber content and a high content of fat and carbohydrates. Along the same lines as muesli mixes are treat sticks which luckily aren't as popular as they used to be but unfortunately do still exist online and in many pet shop chains.
Treat sticks oftentimes include ingredients like corn that you really don't want your rabbit ingesting at all, even if it's ground. "Corn, fresh or dried, is NOT safe for rabbits. The hull of corn kernels is composed of a complex polysaccharide (not cellulose and pectin, of which plant cell walls are more commonly composed, and which a rabbit can digest) which rabbits cannot digest".⁹ They are high in sugar (oftentimes coated in honey) that can feed bad bacteria in the gut. Another issue with treat sticks is that seeds and nuts are mixed with other ingredients so, while the nuts and seeds themselves may be fine for your pet to consume as a healthy treat, you are not able to control the dosage you are providing to your rabbit.
To be abundantly clear, we are in complete agreement that muesli is not an acceptable pellet mix to be fed to rabbits. That being said, we also aim to remove the stigma it has caused against all nuts and seeds.
So let's dissect the three disorders most commonly associated with nuts and seeds as well as how and why the anti-muesli movement has unfairly caused a negative stigma against them.
As far back as 1996 a paper ³ was published that highlighted the problems of selective feeding from muesli mixtures. More recent research⁴ has confirmed that selective feeding is a problem and that obesity and dental disease can be induced by feeding muesli mixes.⁵
Imagine you have a child and it's dinner time. You present them with a plate of cake, cookies, candy, potato chips, ice cream and lastly broccoli. What will your child choose to eat? Everything BUT the broccoli of course, which is extremely unhealthy!
This analogy illustrates offering a muesli mix to your rabbit...the broccoli representing the nutritious pellets in the mix. The pellets are fortified with necessary vitamins and minerals like Vitamin D and calcium. If rabbits don't eat the pellets because they are selecting all the other enticing bits and pieces, they are missing out on vital nutrients. These rabbits will likely have serious problems absorbing sufficient calcium to mineralize the teeth and bones...thus causing dental issues. An excerpt from a study titled "Calcium deficiency, diet and dental disease in pet rabbits" describes this in more detail:
Rabbit food from pet shops consists of a mixed ration, of which the most commonly rejected ingredients were pellets and whole grain. The food manufacturers reported that calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D supplements are incorporated into the pellets. Food analyses demonstrated that rejection of the pellets and whole grain from the food can reduce a rabbit's calcium intake to below the minimum dietary requirement.¹⁰
As you can see, the real problem is not nuts or seeds. They don't create dental issues. The problem stems from rabbits naturally being selective feeders and when fed a muesli mix, they'll oftentimes miss out on vital nutrients in their diet, thus leading to health issues.
There is a misconception by some that domestic rabbits should never enjoy nuts or seeds because of their high levels of fat and starch. There is also a misconception that wild rabbits (that our domestic rabbits descended from) do not have diets that are high in starch. In one study it was found that acorns (a relatively high-starch food) were an important part of the diet of a wild rabbit population year round.² Wild rabbits evolved eating small amounts of nutrient and energy-dense foods high in starch and fat (like seeds and nuts) and there is no reason a healthy adult domestic rabbit cannot eat these foods in moderation—if introduced slowly into the diet—without experiencing unduly negative effects.²
Of course, rabbits in the wild are expending many more calories than a companion house rabbit. They are roaming and foraging every day and using more calories in the winter just to stay warm. So they require a diet that is higher in nutrient and energy-dense foods high in starch and fat, like seeds and nuts. A house rabbit clearly will not need these foods to survive. Therefore, as always, we stress the importance of moderation and balance in the house rabbit diet. Anything fed in extreme excess can cause disruptions in the gut, even including hay! Just as we humans benefit and thrive from balance in the diet, so do rabbits. Feeding a variety of grass hays, fresh greens, herbs, high quality pellets, and even small amounts of fruits, nuts, and seeds provides a wonderful array of nutritious variety for them.
I would argue that seeds and nuts are a healthier option than most commercial treats on the market as they are a whole-food source containing many beneficial vitamins, minerals, omega's, and fiber rather than fillers, preservatives, and empty calories.
*Note: if your rabbit is overweight or has another medical problem that contraindicates their consumption, it is advisable to refrain from offering high fat foods like nuts and seeds. On the flip side, if your rabbit is underweight, certain nuts & seeds can be a healthy additive to help them gain weight.
When googling nuts and seeds and their safety for rabbits, you will most likely come across sources stating that they will cause digestive issues. What is important to clarify in this case is that you can't simply state that all nuts and seeds cause digestive issues. Very small seeds (e.g., milo) can be a danger to rabbits because of the possibility a rabbit might swallow them whole. Swallowed whole, small seeds could become stuck in the pylorus and cause a serious blockage.² This is why it is advisable to only provide larger seeds for your rabbit such as black oil sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds.
Some members in online rabbit forums often suggest that sunflower seeds can split and get stuck in the throat and gut and either choke rabbits or can slice through the gut. This is unfounded and rather dramatic hearsay. ANY food item, especially very small particles, can be choked on so it's inappropriate to single out seeds. Oftentimes, choking is actually caused not by the food item itself but by the rabbit inhaling too quickly. This can often happen with their pellet food.
One distinction to make is that many people mistake STRIPED sunflower seeds for BLACK OIL sunflower seeds. They are very different!
❌ STRIPED have thicker, tougher hulls (shells) that are difficult to chew, less nutritious
✔️ BLACK OIL (BOSS): have much thinner, softer shells that are safe and healthy to eat as they add necessary fiber and are a more nutritious seed
The world isn't always black and white. Some posit that it's best to instruct the general public to just stay away from foods like nuts, seeds, and grains so that they don't invariably overfeed these food items. While we understand that sometimes it's easier for large organizations to make blanket statements to the general public to be "better safe than sorry", this attitude misleads people who are genuinely searching to become properly educated and find answers.
The fear that pet owners will want to overfeed nuts and seeds (or any other food item for that matter) should not determine whether or not the whole picture is provided to the public. What about rabbit caretakers who try to do what they are supposed to and not over-feed treats? What about people who want to learn about nutrition? Why provide a half-truth and take away their power to decide?
Unfortunately these organizations do not explain that some nuts and seeds, fed separately and in moderation, can be a healthy treat for rabbits, especially for large breeds and those with long hair. This attitude is out-of-date and it's important to us that we always provide all of the most up-to-date information to you that we can so you can make your own educated decision feeling confident you are well-informed.
We are not advocating for everyone to feed their rabbits nuts and/or seeds but rather simply trying to illustrate that certain kinds are perfectly safe to feed should you decide to provide some variety in your pet's diet and occasionally offer some as treats. There are many benefits to nuts and seeds:
1. Nuts and seeds are rich sources of fiber, plant protein, essential vitamins and minerals, and other bioactive compounds, including an array of phytochemicals that appear to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.⁷
2. Nuts and seeds can be a good source of heart-healthy fat in a rabbit's diet. While fat always gets a bad wrap, it is a NECESSARY nutrient. One of its most critical roles for rabbits is in the production of motilin, which is required for proper gut movement. Fat is also needed for the absorption of vitamins A, D, E and K.
3. Nuts and seeds can provide enrichment and variety to your pet's diet when provided to them responsibly.
Rabbits like variety in their diet. There is a biological basis for this preference, and rabbits do best on diets that include a variety of foodstuffs. Even when it comes to fiber, it has been found that the botanical origin of the fiber can influence digestion and the activity of the cecal microflora and that supplying fiber from a single botanical source is not as healthy as supplying it from several sources...
...For most domestic rabbits, a diet composed of a good-quality commercial rabbit feed, grass hay, greens, and small amounts of fruit, nuts, seeds, and grains will fulfill their digestive and nutritional needs. (2).
4. Seeds such as Black Oil Sunflower Seeds can benefit a healthy molt and help bring in a shiny, healthy coat.⁸
5. Nuts and seeds can be extremely beneficial for underweight, senior, and disabled rabbits as well as those with megacolon who oftentimes have trouble keeping weight on. Nuts have fatty acids balanced with fiber that can help with weight gain with reduced proliferation of "bad" bacteria compared with fruits.
A general rule of thumb is to offer up to 1 tsp of seeds per 5 lbs body weight. A couple (literally 1 or 2) nuts is enough. It is our personal recommendation to only feed a 1-2 times a week. This prevents over-feeding and also preserves them as a very special treat! Remember that just as with any other treat item, do not overfeed! Overfeeding any food item can cause gut disruptions.
Nuts and seeds got a bad wrap and were overgeneralized as "bad" for rabbits mainly because of muesli mixes and treat sticks. Many rabbit advocate organizations and individuals make blanket states such as "Don't ever feed your rabbit seeds, nuts, corn, etc. They can cause dental, digestive, and weight issues." While the anti-muesli movement is admirable and well-intentioned to encourage people to stop feeding unhealthy pellet mixes, it created the illusion that all nuts and seeds were dangerous for rabbits which simply isn't true. Certain nuts and seeds, like our Black Oil Sunflower Seeds, fed occasionally and in small amounts can certainly be a healthy treat for rabbits providing beneficial nutrients and variety.
At TWKR, we vow to always improve and expound upon the most up-to-date information on rabbit health and nutrition.