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Introduction and General Information

"The goal of zoo nutrition programs must be to provide nutritional support for all stages of life, including gestation, lactation, and early postnatal growth." (B429.10.w10)

Provision of the correct diet is extremely important to the care, management and breeding of any animals. Incorrect or inadequate nutrition may lead to emaciation, obesity or specific deficiency diseases, but is more frequently associated with increased susceptibility to other diseases, reduced reproduction and/or decreased longevity.

Wild mammals are adapted morphologically, physiologically and behaviourally to acquire and make use of a wide range of foods. Availability of foods may vary between seasons and in spatial distribution.

  • Where there are pronounced seasonal patterns in food availability, animals may be adapted to maximise their use, with reproductive stages which require the most nutritional input (lactation and early post-weaning) taking place during the time of greatest food abundance; some other species are adapted to maximise use of nutritional resources whenever they appear, in a non-seasonal manner. Some animals are also adapted to minimise energy use, and therefore nutritional requirements, in seasons when food is scarce or not available, by hibernation.

Animals under human care tend to be provided with foods which are easily available in human society - fruits, vegetables and grains which are commercially grown, commercially available dairy and egg products, commercially caught fish, meat and by-products from domestic livestock, grass and legume hays produced for feeding domestic livestock, prepared cat and dog foods, prepared livestock feeds.

Food tends to be provided in discrete meals, at set times of the day, and in similar quantities throughout the year. This is different from the wild situation in many respects; consideration should be given to the natural feeding habits of the species.

Note: Proper records should be kept of foods given, including quantities provided, changes in diet, whether certain foods provided are left uneaten, and whether some food items are being consumed only by some individuals (e.g. dominant individuals eating all of favoured items). 

The diet and feeding programme for captive animals should: (P1.1980.w3)

  • Provide all the animal's nutrient requirements;
  • Use the teeth and digestive system properly such that these remain healthy;
  • Provide occupation and contentment with feeding;
  • Allow for changes such as external environmental changes and the breeding season;
  • Avoid the development of stress.

The information given on this page should be used in conjunction with the information in the sections on Feeding Behaviour and Natural Diet of the individual species. 

(B105.19.w6, B214.2.3.4.w15, B429.10.w10, B438.24.w24, B469.3.w3, V.w5)

Bear Consideration

Bears, although in the order Carnivora - Carnivores, are omnivorous; they are the largest omnivorous mammals. In the wild, bears have a very varied diet. (B430.w1) Among the bear species there are considerable variations in the relative importance of vegetable matter and meat in the diet. Ursus maritimus - Polar bears are primarily meat eaters, while Melursus ursinus - Sloth bears have termites as a large percentage of their diet, and brown bears in some areas at some times of year have a diet high in fish. In contrast, the diet of Tremarctos ornatus - Spectacled bear is primarily vegetable in origin.

When considering the dietary requirements of bears it is important to consider not only the "average" nutrition for the species but also seasonal variations in diet, and behaviours associated with feeding.

Further information on the natural diets and feeding behaviour of the different species of bear is provided in the species pages.

Natural Diet:

Feeding Behaviour:

Lagomorph Consideration

Lagomorphs are herbivores. They are monogastric, and they are hind-gut fermentors. They have a digestive system adapted to a high-fibre diet and use a specialised system, caecotrophy, to get the most nutrient value out of their food without needing to store very large volumes of food material in the gastrointestinal tract. Caecotrophy involves consumption of a special type of faeces, called caecotrophs. These are usually eaten directly from the anus.
  • In the wild, rabbits are "concentrate selectors": that is, they preferentially choose parts of plants which are relatively high in protein and carbohydrate and relatively low in fibre. (B604.2.w2, B614.14.w14, J284.79.w1)
    • [Note: in the wild a preference for such items is important to ensure adequate energy and protein intake in environments where most available food items are of relatively low nutritional value. (J284.79.w1) However, rabbits have evolved to eat a high-fibre diet. In human care, if high-protein, high-carbohydrate food items are provided ad libitum, this preference may result in a seriously unbalanced food intake which does not provide optimum gut function.]
  • It is important to make any changes in the diet gradually to avoid unbalancing the intestinal microflora. Any new diet should be mixed with the old food, with the percentage of the new food in the mix being increased gradually. (B622.4.w4, B614.14.w14)
Ferret Consideration Ferrets are obligate carnivores with a very short intestinal tract (small intestine only about five times the length of the body, large intestine only about 10 cm long), and lacking a caecum or an ileocolic valve. Intestinal passage is rapid and absorption inefficient. Transit may take as little as one hour in ferret kits three weeks of age fed milk, and three hours in an adult. It is normal for ferrets to feed little and often, and to store food. The gut flora is scanty and unsophisticated. (J213.2.w5)
  • The normal diet of wild polecats (Mustela putorius - Polecat) and of feral ferrets in New Zealand includes a variety of mammals, also birds, amphibians, reptiles, fish and invertebrates. (B652.5.w5, J194.3.w1, J209.22.w2) Small prey items such as mice are eaten whole, while with larger prey the skull, long bones and skin are discarded. The fur or feathers of prey act as roughage, assisting in gut passage as well as helping to clean the teeth. (B652.5.w5)
  • On a natural light-dark pattern, ferrets will show seasonal variation in food consumption, eating more and gaining weight in winter, eating less and losing weight in spring. (J213.2.w5)
  • Ferrets have low concentrations of some brush-border enzymes such as lactase. Adult ferrets fed milk will produce very soft stools within a short time (e.g. one hour). (J213.2.w5)
  • Ferrets spontaneously secrete hydrochloric acid. (J213.2.w5)
  • Because of the scanty, unsophisticated gut flora, ferrets can be given broad-spectrum antibiotics for long periods (weeks, months) without developing diarrhoea or other gastro-intestinal problems. However, experiments with caesarean-derived germ-free ferrets indicate that Vitamin K supplementation is needed in the absence of intestinal microflora. (J213.2.w5) 
Bonobo Consideration In the wild, bonobos are mainly herbivorous, with the majority of their food consisting of two broad types of vegetation: fruits, and terrestrial herbivorous vegetation (THV), including pith, leaves, stems and flowers. Which plant species are eaten varies with the vegetation between different sites. They consume considerably less THV than do gorillas, but more than do chimpanzees (D386.3.3.w3c). Some animal protein is consumed, mainly invertebrates (earthworms, insect larvae, adult insects, millipedes). Catching and eating of vertebrates does occur, with prey species including squirrels, duikers and (so far observed for one community only) other primates. Cannibalism of a dead infant has been reported from the same community that is known to catch and eat other primates.  For more information on wild diets, see Bonobo Pan paniscus - Natural Diet (Literature Reports)
  • Chemical analysis suggests that THV is consumed mainly as a source of protein, while fruits provide carbohydrates and vitamins. (D386.3.3.w3c)
  • Studies have shown that bonobos eat about 10 different plant species per day, about 40 different species per month and more than 100 different species over the year, but at each study site, most of the diet (80-90% or more) consists of only about 10 species. (D386.3.3.w3c)
  • Dialium spp. fruits are staple items at both Wamba and Lomako. (D386.3.3.w3c)
  • Fruit may vary from about 40-50% of the diet at Lomako to about 80-90% of the diet at Wamba. (D386.3.3.w3c)

In designing captive diets, it is important to consider that fruits available may differ greatly in nutritional value and digestibility from those available to wild bonobos. (D386.3.3.w3c)

Published Guidelines linked in Wildpro

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Nutritional Requirements and Diets Commonly Fed in Captivity

Correct nutrition is important for general health, and ensuring proper nutrition is a part of preventative medicine. (P1.1980.w3)
  • Nutrient deficiencies can cause specific diseases. Nutritional excesses may also be harmful: excesses of some minerals may interfere with utilisation of other minerals and also cause disease; excessive levels of fat in ruminant diets may have an adverse effect on the function of the rumen; excess vitamin D may lead to soft tissue calcification. (P1.1968.w1)
  • General nutritional deficiencies also may make an animal more susceptible to diseases such as parasitism. (P1.1968.w2)
  • Diets developed for use in captive wild animals are generally prepared based on information about the animal's diet in the wild, data on related domestic species, and tradition. They also are dependent on availability of foodstuffs. (B438.24.w24)
    • When adequate information on foods and feeding is not available for a species, data on similar species may be useful. (B214.2.3.4.w15)
  • Care must be taken when substituting available food components for wild foodstuffs, since the nutritional composition may be different. (B438.24.w24)
    • While the nutritional composition of a white mouse (Mus domesticus - Laboratory mouse) may be generally similar to that of a wild mouse, horse muscle meat is very different nutritionally from the whole prey (of whatever species) eaten by wild carnivores. (B438.24.w24)
    • Prepared, compounded feedstuffs are available, convenient to store, and offer reliable nutrient content, but may not meet the animal's behavioural needs. (B438.24.w24) See section below: Food Presentation and Behavioural Considerations
    • Commonly, a mixture of compounded feeds and more "natural" feedstuffs are given. (B438.24.w24)

Factors which should be considered in providing diets include:

  • The functional anatomy of the digestive tract of the animal. The digestive tract tends to be relatively simple in carnivores and to be more anatomically complex in species eating plant materials which are less easily digestible;
  • Dental adaptations of the animal to its natural diet;
  • The animal's diet and feeding behaviour in the wild;
  • The basis by which the animal selects particular food items in the wild (e.g. levels of certain compounds in leaves);
  • Behavioural implications of food type and distribution - e.g. whether food in the wild is found evenly distributed, or in scattered patches.


  • Feeds provided in captivity should be designed to emulate the nutritional content of the natural diet of the species being fed. 
  • Both "natural" food items and complete diets may be used; there are advantages and disadvantages associated with both types of food materials:
    • Natural dietary items are advantageous in generally being of high palatability, providing good use of the mouth and teeth (although they may sometimes be harmful), providing variety in the diet, and possibly containing constituents which are important, but the functions of which are not yet understood. However, they may have inadequate nutrient content and lack trace minerals and vitamins, parts of the diet may be wasted, different individuals within a group may eat different items, and in general these items may be expensive. (P1.1980.w3)
    • Complete diets can be carefully balanced nutritionally, with vitamins and minerals added as required; a good nutritional plane may improve reproduction. They provide complete nutrition to all individuals, store easily and may be fed with minimum wastage, which reduces costs. However, they may have poorer palatability than natural foodstuffs, not use the animal's teeth properly, and do not provide any variety for the animal (i.e. they can be boring). (P1.1980.w3)
  • Dietary items should be analysed to determine their nutrient content. This is particularly important with items such as hay which may vary considerably depending on the stage it has been cut and the soil on which it has been grown. (P1.1968.w1, P1.1968.w2)
    • Proper control of nutrition requires that accurate measuring devices (weighing scales, volumetric measures) are both available and used properly. (B438.24.w24)
  • There has been considerable work on developing nutritionally balanced pelleted diets for herbivores and meat mixes for carnivores. These may provide required nutrients, but complete feeding of herbivores such as ruminants also involves considerable quantities of roughage, while for carnivores the provision of whole prey items for small species and large bones for large species is important. (P1.1980.w3)
    • Muscle meat alone is not suitable as a diet for carnivorous mammals; it is not nutritionally balanced. (B214.2.3.4.w15)
    • Care is required when calcium supplements are added to meat in the form of powders, in order to ensure that the supplement is actually eaten. (P1.1968.w2)
  • It should always be remembered that food provided is not necessarily the same as food eaten. (B214.2.3.4.w15)
    • Animals may be provided with a balanced diet but eat an unbalanced diet, if the animals feed selectively; this may occur if the total food provided is more than required, and if not all components provide balanced nutrition. (P1.1968.w2)
    • Even when the whole ration is eaten by a group of animals, preferred items within the diet may be eaten more by dominant individuals, and items which are less palatable to the animal may be eaten by subordinate individuals. (P1.1980.w3)
    • Given a choice, mammals will tend to eat the most palatable items, rather than put together a balanced diet. (B468.8.w8m)
Variation in diet
  • In the wild, diets vary on a day-to-day and seasonal basis. 
    • Diets provided to captive animals should vary appropriately, for example increasing fat content in autumn (fall) prior to cold weather, and decreasing fat in spring as warm weather approaches. (B438.24.w24)
    • For animals which hibernate or become torpid in winter, food requirements may be substantially reduced at this time. (B469.3.w3)
    • Adjustments are required to meet the needs of different individuals such as pregnant, lactating and elderly animals. (B438.24.w24)
    • For fish-eaters, a variety of different fish should be provided, all of high quality (fit for human consumption), including high-fat and low-fat fishes, and both fin fish and invertebrates, (B64.25.w6, D313) "which complement each other in nutrient concentrations and, to the extent possible, represent the types of items the animals may consume in the wild." (D313)

(B64.25.w6, B214.2.3.4.w15, B438.24.w24, B469.3.w3, D313, P1.1968.w1, P1.1968.w2, P1.1980.w3)

Bear Consideration

Dietary Requirements
  • Bears have a typical Carnivora - Carnivores (Order) digestive system, with simple stomach, a short intestinal tract and no caecum. (B399.3.w3, B491, D247.5.w5) As indicated above, bears are omnivores; polar bears have the most carnivorous diet but do eat some vegetable matter in the wild. The amount and type of food required varies between the species and with the size of the bear; males of a given species are generally larger than females and need more food. (B288.w11) Food intake of the northern species usually decreases during the time that they would hibernate in the wild. (B288.w11) It is important to remember that zoo bears may easily become obese. (B336.51.w51)
Diets commonly fed in zoos

Bears of all species in zoos are mainly fed fruit (particularly apples, plus seasonally available fruits), and vegetables (especially carrots and lettuce), generally supplemented with bread, pelleted concentrate foods and vitamin/mineral supplements. (D247.5.w5)

  • Meat (beef, horse, rarely pork) and fish is always given to polar bears. (D247.5.w5)
  • Meat, eggs, chicken or fish is given to other species in varying quantities. (D247.5.w5)
  • Leafy branches are offered most regularly to Tremarctos ornatus - Spectacled bear but only occasionally to other species. (D247.5.w5)
  • In Sarawak, Malaysia, Helarctos malayanus - Sun bears in a wildlife rehabilitation centre were fed bananas, papayas, watermelon, sugar cane and commercial dog food, supplemented with multivitamin syrup and a calcium tablet; food was given twice daily. (J27.63.w2)
  • Bears are usually fed mixtures of commercially prepared dry dog foods, carnivore diet, and produce (fruits and vegetables). Ursus maritimus - Polar bear are often fed on commercial meat diets plus fish. (B336.51.w51)
    • If frozen fish is fed in large quantities, thiamine supplements must be given. (B336.51.w51)
  • Ursus maritimus - Polar bear often have been fed commercial omnivore pellets or dog food, plus fish, to give about 3% (dry matter) of body weight in food per day. A diet at Brookfield Zoo contained canine diet, omnivore diet, dog food, fish (smelt), bread, apples and oranges; fish was supplemented with 100 mg Vitamin E and 30 mg thiamine per kg (wet weight) fish. (B185.37.w37) They will readily eat plant matter as well as animal matter based foods. (D315.2.w2)
  • Note: Tremarctos ornatus - Spectacled bear fed large amounts (3.6 kg per day) of dry dog food, and not given access to grass to eat, developed loose stools, while this was not a problem when 2.1 kg/day of the dry dog food was given, or when the bears ate grass. (P1.1985.w7)

Historical note

  • Historically, bears in zoos have been fed on a diet based on meat and bread, supplemented with fruit and vegetables. The daily diet for Ursus arctos - Brown bear at New York Zoo was described as "10 pounds of raw horse meat, 5 pounds of whole fish, and 5 loaves of bread, with apples, vegetables, and greens as available." (B288.w11)
Do NOT feed bears:
  • Chocolate. (W627.Mar06.w1)
  • Highly seasoned or spicy foods. (W627.Mar06.w1)
  • Any food which has gone mouldy - nuts should be checked carefully before being given. (W627.Mar06.w1)
  • Excessive quantities of sweets. (W627.Mar06.w1)
Recommended diets
  • The diet for bears in captivity should be as varied as possible and reflect the range of plant and other food types eaten by wild bears. (B407.w6, B407.w9, D247.5.w5)
  • Different requirements should be noted for different species, reflecting their diet and seasonal variations of feeding in the wild. (D247.5.w5)
  • To promote oral health in bears, soft foods should be fed first and items with skin/hair or bones last. (D315.2.w2)
  • Note: meat from pigs (swine) should not be given to bears since bears are susceptible to Aujeszky's Disease (see: Pseudorabies in Bears) (D247.5.w5) and Trichinella infection (see Trichinella Infection in Hedgehogs and Bears).
Suggested foods for (North American) bears during rehabilitation include:
  • Dry dog food; this must be high-quality named-brand and labelled as "complete". (B468.8.w8m, B468.8.w8p)
  • Ferret Diet 5280 (Purina). (B468.8.w8p)
  • National Gro-Fur Mink Pellets. (National Fur Foods Company)(B468.8.w8p)
  • Nutro Max Puppy. (B468.8.w8p)
  • Puppy Eukanuba. (IAMS)(B468.8.w8p)
  • ZuPreem Omnivore Diet. (Premium Nutrition Products, Inc.)(B468.8.w8p)

Suggested diets by species

For Ursus arctos - Brown bear, Ursus americanus - American black bear and Ursus thibetanus - Asiatic black bear

For individuals which have put on fat prior to the winter and then have voluntarily decreased their food intake, a seasonally varying diet can be provided: (D247.5.w5)

  • Spring. Mainly green vegetables (not iceberg lettuce), including items such as dandelions (with roots), wheat shoots, fresh cut grass, clover or alfalfa, willow branches, grass and weeds, hay (i.e. grass from the previous year), root vegetables such as carrots or kolrhabi, plus occasional meat (including bone and skin if possible). (D247.5.w5)
    • Normal or possibly increased vitamin/mineral supplements should be given. (D247.5.w5)
    • For lactating females, a protein- and energy-rich diet is required to prevent them weaning their cubs early. (D247.5.w5)
  • Summer. Gradually change to increase fruit, bread and other more nutritious items. (D247.5.w5)
    • Items suggested for spring can be given sometimes for variety. (D247.5.w5)
    • Normal or possibly increased vitamin/mineral supplements should be given. (D247.5.w5)
  • Autumn. Provide fruit, carrots and mast - nuts and seeds - together with occasional fatty meat. (D247.5.w5)
  • Winter. Bears should be fat, have decreased food consumption, and become less active. They may even hibernate if the weather and facilities provide suitable conditions. Water should be provided at all times. (D247.5.w5) [no information is provided in this reference on what to feed these species if they are not hibernating]
  • Note: These bears may hibernate over winter, or semi-hibernate for weeks at a time, if provided with ample food over summer and autumn (fall), but will remain more active, not hibernate, if they have been fed less during the late summer and autumn. (B407.w7, J23.29.w2)
For Ursus maritimus - Polar bear

These bears normally have a rich meat/seal blubber diet in late winter and spring, with greatly reduced food availability in summer and autumn until the pack ice returns. (D247.5.w5)

EEP Ursid Husbandry Guidelines:
  • Late winter and spring. Fat meat, plus fish and oil. The diet should be rich in polyunsaturated fatty acids therefore fat horse meat may be preferred by the bears rather than fat beef.
  • A large quantity of meat (e.g. a rump or shoulder of beef or horse for two bears) can be given; the bear will eat this about every 4-5 days (as in the wild); (D247.5.w5) see below regarding frequency of feeding.
    • The meat should be supplemented with green food such as alfalfa, green lettuce and wheat shoots. (D247.5.w5)
  • Summer and autumn. The diet should be changed, including more fruits and vegetables. Polar bears which have been fed well in winter and put on fat may voluntarily reduce food intake in summer and may stop feeding for a while in late summer or autumn. (D247.5.w5)

The Polar Bear Nutrition Guidelines (provided in full):

  • These guidelines have been based on an analysis of diets eaten in the wild and in captivity, and calculation of the nutritional requirements of polar bears determined by combination of known requirements for domestic carnivores (cats and dogs) and nutrients eaten by healthy bears in zoos. 
  • It has been recognised that the foods eaten in captivity will be very different from the natural diet, therefore the captive diet must attempt to reproduce the nutritional values, not the packaging, of the polar bear's natural diet. 
  • It has been suggested that the diet should include: dry nutritionally complete food (e.g. extruded diet) as 5 - 50% of the diet, raw meat mix (nutritionally complete) as 30 - 75% of the diet, saltwater fish as 15 - 30% of the diet, produce (e.g. root vegetables) as 0 - 10% of the diet, meat from shank bone as 5 - 7% of the diet, whole prey (large rats or rabbit) as 2.5% of the diet and miscellaneous items, such as those used for environmental enrichment, as up to 3% of the diet.
  • Gel complete diets, which are palatable but highly perishable, may be useful for oral medication or as treats.

(D251.4.w4 - provided in full)


  • In the US, APHIS standards for marine mammals, including Ursus maritimus - Polar bear state: "The food for marine mammals must be wholesome, palatable, and free from contamination and must be of sufficient quantity and nutritive value to maintain marine mammals in a state of good health. The diet must be prepared with consideration for factors such as age, species, condition, and size of the marine mammal being fed. Marine mammals must be offered food at least once a day, except as directed by the attending veterinarian." (LCofC9)
  • The Manitoba Polar Bear Protection Regulation requires that any polar bear be fed a balanced diet containing both hard and soft foods. (LCofC10 - [Full text provided])
  • Whenever fish are fed, particularly fish such as herring, smelt and mackerel which are known to contain discernable amounts of thiaminase, it is important to ensure that the correct supplements are given. The Nutrition Advisory Group recommends that 25-30 mg of thiamine should be given per kg (wet weight) of fish, because of inactivation of thiamine in the fish by thiaminases. Additionally, Vitamin E in fish is destroyed as polyunsaturated fish oils undergo peroxidation, therefore animals fed thawed frozen fish are very susceptible to vitamin E deficiency and 100 IU of vitamin E should be given per kg (wet weight) of fish. (D313)
  • Foods offered should be varied, avoiding a bear becoming dependent on one food type and refusing to eat alternatives; this is particularly important with fish, which may vary in seasonal availability (as well as the possibility of changes in fish stocks in the future). (D315.2.w2)
  • Providing a variety of food items helps to ensure that the diet is balanced. (B64.25.w6, D313, D315.2.w2)
  • To avoid unbalancing the diet, supplementary enrichment food such as honey, raisins, peanut butter should be varied and should not exceed 3% by weight of the total diet. (D251.4.w4, D315.2.w2)
  • There have been many reports of skin lesions in polar bears in zoos. Some (but not all (V.w102)) of these bears have responded well to vitamin A supplementation. It has been suggested that polar bears may need high levels of this vitamin, higher than other carnivores. (P1.1981.w5, ) See: Vitamin A-responsive Skin Disease in Bears
For Helarctos malayanus - Sun bear
  • Provide a varied diet, with daily variation in items offered. (D247.5.w5)
  • A wide range of fruits should form the basis of the diet, with additions of vegetables, nuts, honey, mealworms, crickets and occasional meat and fish. (D247.5.w5)
For Melursus ursinus - Sloth bear

The natural diet of termites plus fruits is low in fat and contains formic acid and (in honey) propolis. The noted high incidence of malignant neoplasia, particularly biliary adenocarcinoma (see: Neoplasia in Bears, Hepatic and Bile Duct Neoplasia in Bears), in these bears in captivity may be related to diet. Bears with these tumours have been shown to have eaten diets relatively high in fat and low in manganese and selenium. (D247.5.w5) 

  • A diet similar to that provided for giant anteaters may be useful; this has been used at Berlin Zoo. (D247.5.w5)
  • Most zoos give fruit, crickets, mealworms, vegetables and bread. (D247.5.w5)
For Tremarctos ornatus - Spectacled bear

The natural diet appears to vary seasonally, with vegetation such as leaves and bromeliads available year-round but fruits available mainly in the first half of the year. The foods eaten are generally the easily digestible and high protein soft parts of the plants. (D247.5.w5)

  • Food should include cereal-rich items (e.g. bread), fruit, vegetables rich in fibre (not iceberg lettuce), plus fresh grass, alfalfa and whole maize plants.(D247.5.w5)
  • A low-fat diet is recommended. (D247.5.w5)
  • Meat (e.g. pigeon, chicken, beef) should be offered occasionally, as should eggs. (D247.5.w5)
  • Browse should be provided, such as poplar, birch, beech or hazel. (D247.5.w5)
  • Pregnant females should be fed ad libitum. (D247.5.w5)
  • A suggested diet of about 7600 kcal offered food, giving about 6500 kcal ME (metabolizable energy), is suggested. For example, 3.5 kg daily made up of 60% by weight of dry cereal grains (including omnivore or dog pellets), 15% fruits (raw, unpeeled, as seasonally available), 15% root crop vegetables (e.g. carrots, potatoes, yams, beets, parsnips, swedes, turnips, also unhusked sweetcorn, whole pumpkins or squash) and 10% green produce and locally available browse (green leafy produce, not iceberg lettuce). (P77.1.w9)
    • It should be remembered that domestic fruits are lower in protein and higher in simple sugars than wild fruits. Vegetables may provide a diet closer in nutrient (protein, complex carbohydrates, fibre) to the wild diet than do cultivated fruits. (P77.1.w9)
    • Late in gestation, and during early lactation, it may be preferable to increase green forage, using this to replace the fruit, thereby increasing both protein and fibre in the diet, then gradually increase the fruits when the mother and cubs start emerging from the den. (P77.1.w9)

Lagomorph Consideration

 Wild rabbits eating grass. Click here for full page view with caption Timothy grass. Click here for full page view with caption. Bag of hay. Click here for full page view with caption Timothy hay. Click here for full page view with caption. Rabbit eating vegetables. Click here for full page view with caption. Rabbit eating herb. Click here for full page view with caption. Supreme Russel Rabbit mix food for rabbits. Click here for full page view with caption. Supreme Selective food for rabbits. Click here for full page view with caption. Food package with appropriate information. Click here for full page view with caption.

Domestic rabbit

This section includes:

  • Nutrient requirements
  • Types of food
  • Recommended diet
  • (Feeding of other lagomorph species is considered at the end of this section)

Nutrient requirements

Most of the nutrient requirements for domestic rabbits have been determined for commercial rabbits (e.g. grown for meat production) first, and after that for laboratory rabbits. (B554.21.w21, B614.14.w14) Nutrient needs of pet rabbits have been considered only much more recently. Diets used for captive wild lagomorphs have generally been based on the known requirements for Oryctolagus cuniculus domesticus - Domestic rabbit.


  • Large, indigestible particles of fibre are required for natural chewing and wear of the rabbit's teeth and for normal motility and function of the rabbit's gastro-intestinal tract. (B606.2.w2, J60.9.w1)
    • Experimentally, increased growth rates were obtained by the addition of fibre (alfalfa meal) to high-energy diets of weanling rabbits, with the maximum gains occurring at 20% alfalfa. The effect occurred even with ethanol-extracted alfalfa, indicating that it was the fibre that was responsible for the effect. Mortality, associated with diarrhoea (usually Escherichia coli), was seen mainly when low-fibre diets were fed. (J495.28.w3)
  • On a mainly high-fibre diet such as hay, rabbits will spend several hours a day feeding, reducing boredom. (B606.2.w2)
  • The diet should contain 18 - 20% fibre, including at least 10% crude indigestible fibre. (B606.2.w2)
  • Indigestible fibre includes particles, mainly lignin and cellulose, of at least 0.3 - 0.5 mm diameter; particles of this size or greater are moved through the colon, not entering the caecum and are not digested. Particles smaller than this size are moved into the caecum and are "fermentable"; they may be digested to a greater or lesser extent depending on their chemical composition. (B600.2.w2)
  • A minimum dietary fibre level of 20 - 25% has been suggested for optimum gut health. (J284.79.w1)
  • A high-fibre diet helps to maintain the normal caecal bacterial flora. (B606.2.w2)
    • With inadequate fibre, changes in caecal pH may lead to overgrowth of Clostridia spp. and Escherichia. coli. (B606.2.w2)
  • A low-fibre, high energy diet actually results in reduced growth rates in the rabbit, as well as lower palatability and higher rates of enteritis. The presence of indigestible fibre is important for gut health in the rabbit. (B614.14.w14)
  • Note; For pet rabbits, avoiding excessive weight gain and promoting intestinal motility are important, not maximising efficiency of food conversion. (B600.2.w2)
    • If fresh grass or grass hay is provided ad libitum, and eaten by the rabbit, fibre intake will be adequate. (B600.2.w2)
    • Ingestion of hay may be inadequate if the rabbit has dental disease, or if the hay available to it is soiled or otherwise unpalatable. (B600.2.w2)
    • Alfalfa hay is also a source of fibre; it also has a high calcium content. (B600.2.w2)
    • Garden weeds provide fibre. (B600.2.w2)


  • A protein level of 12-13% is recommended, increasing to 16% for growing rabbits and up to about 18% for breeding (pregnant and lactating) rabbits. (B554.21.w21, B606.2.w2, B614.14.w14)
  • Note:
    • Excess protein in the diet may cause caecal ammonia, and therefore pH, to rise; this can allow pathogenic microorganisms to increase. (B614.14.w14, J284.79.w1)
    • High protein diets leading to ammonia production and excretion may increase susceptibility to respiratory and eye diseases. (B606.2.w2)
    • With excessive protein levels, rabbits may not ingest all their caecotrophs and this may lead to "sticky bottom syndrome." (B606.2.w2)


  • A fat level of 1% (for maintenance) up to 3% (for growth and pregnancy) is appropriate. Often, fat levels (listed as "oils") are higher than this. Fats from vegetable sources are more digestible than animal fats. (B606.2.w2, B614.14.w14
    • A level of 3%, with 5% for lactating does, has been suggested. (B614.14.w14)
    • Fat at 2% is adequate; the fat level should be no higher than 5%. (B554.21.w21)
    • Higher levels of fat can be utilised; weanling rabbits showed good growth on a diet containing 21% corn oil and 40% alfalfa meal. (J495.28.w3)
  • If processed food is old before it is fed, it may be low in essential fatty acids; this may lead to the rabbit's coat becoming dull and dry. (B606.2.w2)


  • The following has been suggested: (B614.14.w14)
    • For maintenance, digestible energy of 2,200 kcal/kg and metabolizable energy of 2,120 kcal/kg;
    • For growing rabbits (4 - 12 weeks old), digestible energy of 2,500 kcal/kg and metabolizable energy of 2,400 kcal/kg;
    • For pregnant rabbits, digestible energy of 2,500 kcal/kg and metabolizable energy of 2,400 kcal/kg;
    • For lactating rabbits, digestible energy of 2,700 kcal/kg and metabolizable energy of 2,600 kcal/kg;
  • Or: calculate as follows:
    • Maintenance:100 kcal (418.4 kJ) x (weight in kilogrammes)0.75 per day. (B554.21.w21)
    • Growth: 190 - 210 kcal (798 - 882 kJ) x (weight in kilogrammes)0.75 per day. (B554.21.w21)
    • Gestation: 1.33 times maintenance at the start of gestation, rising to twice maintenance by the end of gestation. i.e. 135 kcal (567 kJ) x (weight in kilogrammes)0.75 per day. (B554.21.w21) rising to 200 kcal (840 kJ) x (weight in kilogrammes)0.75 per day. (B554.21.w21) (B554.21.w21)
    • Lactation: 300 kcal (1260 kJ) x (weight in kilogrammes)0.75 per day. (B554.21.w21)
  • Note: the main sources of energy for the rabbit are sugars, absorbed from the small intestine, and the volatile fatty acids (VFA) produced by microbial fermentation in the caecum and absorbed from there. (B614.14.w14)
  • The highest energy requirement occurs at peak lactation, about 21 days after parturition. At this time the doe is in negative energy balance, mobilising body resources to support lactation. (B614.14.w14)
  • For maintenance, a domestic rabbit needs about 2100 kilocalories per kilogram of diet, increasing to 2500 kcal/kg diet in growing, pregnant or lactating rabbits. 
    • If fed a complete pellet diet, a medium-sized adult rabbit needs about 90 - 120 g (3 - 4 oz, 2/3 cup) of pelleted food per day. (B604.2.w2)
    • Food requirement is also affected by temperature, therefore about 184 g for a rabbit at 5 C but only 125 g for a rabbit at 30 C. (B604.2.w2)


  • Carbohydrates can be digested by the rabbit in the stomach and small intestine, and absorbed, or may be fermented by microbes in the caecum. Simple polysaccharides are absorbed in the small intestines. Starches are broken down in the small intestine and absorbed; the extent to which this occurs depends on the type of starch, its level in the diet and the age of the rabbit. Starch which passes through to the caecum actas as a substrate for bacterial fermentation. It is thought that this is a predisposing factor in the development of enterotoxaemia in young rabbits: glucose released during fermentation of carbohydrates by bacteria becomes available as a substrate for formation of iotatoxin by Clostridum spiriforme bacteria. Adults appear much more able to digest starch, with little ingested starch reaching the caecum. (B600.2.w2)
  • Excess carbohydrate in the diet may lead to obesity and predispose to enterotoxaemia. (B606.2.w2)


  • The following vitamin levels have been suggested: (B614.14.w14)
    • Vitamin A 6,000 IU/kg feed for growing rabbits (4 - 12 weeks) and 12,000 IU/kg in diets for pregnant and lactating rabbits.
    • Carotene 0.83 ppm.
    • Vitamin D 900 IU/kg feed.
    • Vitamin E 50 IU/kg feed.
    • Vitamin K 2 ppm in feed for pregnant and lactating does.
    • Thiamin 2 ppm in feed for growing rabbits
    • Riboflavin 6 ppm in feed for growing rabbits
    • Pyridoxine 40 ppm in feed for growing rabbits
    • Vitamin B12 (Chemicals Summary)Vi0.01 ppm in feed for growing rabbits
    • Folic acid 1 ppm in feed for growing rabbits
    • Pantothenic acid 20 ppm in feed for growing rabbits
  • Vitamin A
    • Vitamin A is usually included in concentrate feeds at 10,000 iu/kg. (B606.2.w2)
    • Vitamin A deficiency may lead to infertility, abortion, embryo resorption and increased neonatal mortality. (B606.2.w2) See: 
    • Vitamin A insufficiency and vitamin A excess both may lead to hydrocephalus (Hydrocephalus in Bears and Lagomorphs). (B606.2.w2)
    • Alfalfa is high in vitamin A activity. (B606.2.w2)
    • Note that the amount of beta-carotene (vitamin A precursor) in dried foods such as grass hay and alfalfa will decrease over time and be influenced b storage/handling conditions. (B554.21.w21, V.w16)
    • Vitamin A is important in maintenance of mucous membranes and other epithelial tissues; deficiency may lead to an increase in susceptibility to enteritis and to infection in general. (B614.14.w14)
    • Note: it may be beneficial for reproduction if beta-carotene is available even if vitamin A levels are already adequate. (B554.21.w21)
  • B vitamins 
    • B vitamins are produced by micro-organisms in the colon, ingested in caecotrophs and absorbed by the rabbit. (B554.21.w21, B606.2.w2)
    • If a rabbit is unable to practice caecotophy for any reason, supplementation with B vitamins may be needed. (B606.2.w2)
    • Generally some supplementation is included in feeds. (B554.21.w21)
  • Vitamin C
    • Vitamin C is produced by micro-organisms in the caecum, ingested in caecotrophs and absorbed by the rabbit. (B606.2.w2)
    • Supplementary vitamin C may be useful in treatment of respiratory disease and in preventing enterotoxaemia (Clostridial Enteritis and Enterotoxicosis in Rabbits). 50-100 mg/kg may be given daily; any excess will be excreted through the kidneys. (B606.2.w2)
  • Vitamin D3
    • Vitamin D is usually included in concentrates at 900 iu/kg. With excessive levels (2,300 iu/kg feed) it may lead to excessive calcium uptake and dystrophic calcification of renal arteries and the aorta. (B606.2.w2, B614.14.w14)
    • The diet should be less than 1,000 IU/kg diet to avoid soft tissue calcium deposition. (B554.21.w21)
    • See: Soft Tissue Mineralization - Kidney Calcification in Rabbits
  • Vitamin E
    • Vitamin E is usually included in concentrates at 50 mg/kg.
    • Insufficient vitamin E may reduce fertility. 
    • Wheatgerm can be added to the diet to increase vitamin E levels. 
    • Vitamin E deficiency can be seen if diets are fed with less than 16 mg/kg and lead to muscular dystrophy and hind limb paralysis in young rabbits. (B554.21.w21, B606.2.w2)
    • Levels of vitamin E decline by about 5 - 205 per month during storage, therefore should be higher than the recommended level of 40 - 50 mg/kg initially. (B554.21.w21)
    • See: Vitamin E - Selenium Deficiency
  • Note: Rabbits with hepatic coccidiosis (Hepatic Coccidiosis in Lagomorphs) may have lowered vitamin A and vitamin E levels and require higher levels than usual. (B606.2.w2, B554.21.w21)
  • Vitamin K 
    • Vitamin K is produced by micro-organisms in the colon, ingested in caecotrophs and absorbed by the rabbit. (B606.2.w2)
    • If a rabbit is unable to practice caecotophy for any reason, supplementation with vitamins B and K may be needed. (B606.2.w2)
    • Vitamin K deficiency may adversely affect reproduction; this should be included in the diet even though coprophagy would be expected to provide adequate levels. (B554.21.w21)


  • Rabbits need calcium for proper growth and maintenance of bones and teeth as well as for essential functions such as nerve cell activity, blood clotting etc. Rabbit teeth grow about 2 mm per week, so a constant source of calcium is important. (B600.2.w2)
  • Rabbits readily absorb dietary calcium, using both passive diffusion and, particularly when calcium levels in the diet are low, active absorption (vitamin D-dependent). (B600.1.w1)
  • At least 0.44% calcium is required for calcification of bones. (B600.2.w2)
  • Grass, weeds and hay contain appropriate amounts of calcium, although poor-quality hay may be low in calcium and/or vitamin D. (B600.2.w2)
  • Alfalfa is high in calcium. (B600.2.w2)
  • Excessive calcium is excreted through the kidneys and large amounts of calcium carbonate may be found in the urine; this predisposes to "sludgy urine" and to development of cystitis.
  • Calcium levels of different vegetables and fruits vary; apples and carrots are low in calcium.
  • Calcium absorption from the gut may be affected by pH, phosphates and oxalates, as well as fats. (B600.2.w2)
  • Note: in rabbits with a long life span (as is intended for pets (and laboratory rabbits) excessively high calcium levels in the diet, as seen when the rabbits are fed mainly a commercial pellet based on alfalfa, can lead to renal damage and deposition of calcium in the urinary tract. (B614.14.w14)
  • Calcium levels in the diet should be adequate but not excessive. (B554.21.w21)
  • For pet rabbits, 0.6 - 1.0% calcium in the diet has been recommended. (B600.2.w2)


  • Recommended levels in feed include 0.4% (with 0.6% calcium) for maintenance, 0.3% (with 0.5% calcium) in growing rabbits, 0.8% (with 1.1% calcium) in lactating rabbits and 0.5% (with 0.8% calcium) in pregnant rabbits).
  • For pet rabbits, 0.4 - 0.8% has been suggested. (B600.2.w2)
  • The minimum required for growing rabbits is 0.22%. (J284.20.w1)


  • Copper in the diet at 4 - 30 mg per kg of feed may reduce enteritis and increase weight gain. (B606.2.w2)

For adult pet rabbits, the following nutritional food analysis is suggested: (B600.2.w2)

  • Crude fibre >18%
  • Indigestible fibre >12.5%
  • Crude protein 12 - 16%
  • Fat 1-4%
  • Calcium 0.6 - 1.0%
  • Phosphorus: 0.4 - 0.8%
  • Vitamin A 10,000 - 18,000 IU/kg
  • Vitamin D: 800 - 1,200 IU/kg
  • Vitamin E: 40 - 70 mg/kg
  • Magnesium: 0.3%
  • Zinc: 0.5%
  • Potassium: 0.6 - 0.7%
  • Note: for growing rabbits it is important to ensure calcium levels are sufficient. (B600.2.w2)
  • The amount eaten by rabbits varies with factors such as ambient temperature, and water availability. (B604.2.w2)
  • Rabbits like sweet foods such as molasses. They also readily eat bitter foods such as alfalfa. (B604.2.w2)
  • Diets which are high in fibre pass through the rabbit's GIT rapidly, allowing the rabbit to eat more. (B604.2.w2)
  • Food requirements increase in cold temperatures. In breeding females, a peak of food consumption is seen at mid-pregnancy, decreasing again to parturition (kindling) then increasing again to a second peak at two to three weeks of lactation, then reducing again to weaning at about 30 days post-partum. (B604.2.w2)

Types of food
  • Diets fed to pet rabbits include "complete" pellets, "mixes", hay, grass, vegetables and fruit etc.
  • Commercially-produced foods may be labelled as "complete" (no supplementary food items needed), "complementary" (to be fed as part of the diet, together with e.g. hay., or "food supplement" (concentrated nutrients, e.g. vitamins and minerals, intended to supplement the diet. (B600.2.w2, D353, J60.9.w1)
  • Note: In the UK, as a minimum, commercially-produced foods must be labelled with protein, oil, fibre and ash levels. Directions for use and a "Best Before" date must also be displayed, together with the name and address of the person who guarantees accurate information, and the name of the food and a description. (B600.2.w2)


  • These may look visually appealing to the rabbit's owner, are widely available, cheap and convenient. (B600.2.w2, B554.22.w22, D353)
  • Mixes are generally palatable to rabbits. (B600.2.w2)
  • Usually mixes are complementary feeds, designed to be fed alongside hay, which will provide indigestible fibre for the rabbit.
  • There is a lot of variation in the composition of mixes between different manufacturers. Common ingredients include cereals (flaked, rolled or micronized) and legumes together with pellets (containing vitamins and minerals), often lucern (alfalfa) stems, and extruded "biscuits"; molasses, compressed linseed, locust beans etc. may also be included, as well as dried carrot or leek. In some countries, sunflower seeds, peanuts and whole corn kernels may be present in mixes.
Selective feeding
  • Rabbits can be selective when feeding from mixed diets; for example they may separate out the cereal kernels and leave the husk (intended as a source of fibre), and may fail to eat the pellets. Selection is made worse if the owner repeatedly refills the bowl and discards the uneaten parts of the diet. (B554.22.w22, B600.2.w2)
  • Note: Portions of the diet which are the most palatable for many rabbits, flaked maize and flaked peas, are calcium deficient, with a poor calcium:phosphorus ratio. (B600.2.w2)
  • If feeding a mix, note if the rabbit eats all the mix or leaves some components. It is important to ensure that the rabbit eats all parts of the mix to keep the diet balanced. If some parts are left regularly:
    • Encourage the rabbit to eat all the food by feeding a smaller amount of the food and by feeding the daily portion split into two small meals rather than one larger meal. (W718.Jan09.w1)
    • If it persistently feeds selectively, change to a different diet which does not allow selective feeding. (B600.2.w2, W718.Jan09.w1)
  • Note: 
    • If a mix is fed to groups of rabbits, it is impossible to tell if different individuals are eating different parts of the diet, and therefore whether or not each rabbit is eating a balanced diet. (B600.2.w2, D353)
    • Depending on what is included in the mix, there is a risk of some ingredients, particularly accidental whole locust beans, but also whole dried peas or maize kernels, being swallowed whole by the rabbit and causing an obstruction in the small intestine. (B600.2.w2)

(B600.2.w2, B554.22.w22, D353, W718.Jan09.w1)


  • Pelleted foods are made from ground food particles, compressed together along with a binding agent, and with additives such as vitamins, minerals, molasses (as a sweetening agent) etc. The size of the particles affects digestibility; if the particles are small, they are more likely to accumulate in the caecum and may increase the risk of enteritis.
  • Pellets are convenient, easy to store and prevent rabbits from picking out preferred ingredients and leaving others. (B600.2.w2, D353)
  • Different pelleted foods are available for different stages of the rabbit's life, such as growth, pregnancy or lactation, as well as for maintenance. 
  • Pelleted foods often contain coccidiostats to reduce coccidiosis (a common problem in intensively reared rabbits).
  • Although pellets can include fibre, the processing involved in pellet production tends to reduce the beneficial effects of the fibre. (B600.2.w2)
  • Pelleted diets may be less palatable to the rabbit than cereal-based mixes.
  • To the owner, pelleted diets appear boring.
  • Pellets do not provide much opportunity for chewing.
  • Pellets are often a relatively poor source of indigestible fibre for the rabbit.
  • If pellets are fed, grass hay should be given as well. (B600.2.w2)
  • If pellets are fed, preferred size is about 5 mm diameter and 12 mm length. (B604.2.w2)
  • Note:
    • Feeding a pelleted diet only may be associated with increased risk of obesity, urolithiasis, gastro-intestinal diseases and hair chewing. These problems can be reduced if the amount of pelleted diet is decreased and the rabbit is given free access to a good quality, high fibre, low calcium grass hay. (B604.2.w2)

(B600.2.w2, B554.22.w22, D353)

Extruded/expanded diets

  • These diets are created by grinding, mixing and steam-heating ingredients to form a paste which is extruded through a shaped die, and cooled. The lightweight hard biscuit can be practically any size or shape desired.
  • Extruded diets store well.
  • Compared with pellets, longer fibre particles can be included without the end result tending to break up.
  • Vitamins are partially denatured by the production process (heating), therefore higher amounts need to be added to the initial mix.
  • The heating increases the digestibility of starch, thereby reducing the risk of hindgut carbohydrate overload.
  • Rabbits tend to find these diets more palatable and digestible than standard pellets.
  • They are not particularly attractive to owners, although they can be made in a variety of shapes and colours to appear more attractive.
  • They contain only limited amounts of indigestible fibre.
  • Extruded diets prevent rabbits from eating selectively and choosing an unbalanced diet, since each piece of food is nutritionally identical (even if they are different shapes and/or colours). 
  • Example: Science - Selective Rabbit (Supreme Petfoods) is a 19% fibre extruded diet containing "a prebiotic which boosts immune function, aids digestion and improves caecal consistency." (W718.Jan09.w2)
(B600.2.w2, B554.22.w22, D353, W718.Jan09.w1)

Grass / grass hay

  • Grass is a natural diet for rabbits. (B600.2.w2)
  • Hay should smell pleasant and be free from mould and excess dust. (B622.4.w4, D353)
  • Grass can be cut from the garden, but mown grass is not suitable (it ferments quickly and may be contaminated by fuel fumes). Additionally, grass should not be used if it may be contaminated by fertilisers. (B622.4.w4)
  • Grass and young nettles cut in the early summer can be hung up or spread out on racks to dry and used as hay later. (B622.4.w4)
  • Grass and pasture hay vary greatly in nutrient content: (B600.2.w2)
    • Crude protein may be as high as 30% in highly-fertilised young growing grass, but as low as 3% in mature plants on a DM (dry matter) basis. (B556.17.w17)
    • Mineral content varies with plant species, soil type, application of fertilizer and stage of plant growth.
    • Crude fibre content varies with species, and with the stage of growth (e.g. under 200 g/kg DM in the young plant but 400 g/kg DM in the mature grass crop). (B556.17.w17)
      • Crude fibre content also varies with hay quality, e.g. 29.8% in good quality hay, 38% in poor quality hay. (B600.2.w2)
      • Crude fibre content varies with species, e.g. 34.1% in timothy hay, 30.5% in ryegrass hay, 29.8% in meadow hay (B556.19.w19).
    • Green herbage is high in vitamin A activity, vitamin E and B-vitamins, particularly riboflavin. 
    • Sun-dried hay has a higher Vitamin D content than does young grass; rapidly-dried hay contains less vitamin D but more vitamin A.
    • Lignin content is low in young grass and increases with age; this affects the availability of many other nutrients.
    • Grasses may contain 20 - 30% cellulose and 10 - 30% hemicellulose (DM basis).
    • Poor quality hay may be deficient in calcium and/or vitamin D. (B600.2.w2)
    • Timothy hay has a good stem to leaf ration and provides an excellent amount of fibre. (B622.4.w4)
  • Hay seeds and stems can become lodged in the skin or mucosa (oral, pharyngeal, nasal passages, nasopharynx, larynx) resulting in foreign body reactions with irritation and infection. (B600.2.w2)
  • If hay is dusty, the conjunctiva and respiratory tract can become irritated; this predisposes the rabbit to the development of bacterial infections such as Pasteurella infection. (B600.2.w2)
  • Haylage can be used as a dust-free alternative. (N12.38.w2)
  • Note: there are risks of grass, grass hay or lucerne (alfalfa) hay being contaminated with infectious agents including viruses and parasites.
    • In North America, hay (grass or lucerne) may be contaminated with Baylisascaris eggs from raccoons or skunks. In rabbits this ascarid can cause visceral larval migrans (Cerebrospinal Nematodiasis in Lagomorphs).

Alfalfa / lucerne

  • This legume is commonly used for making hay in the USA, and less commonly for making silage and hay in the UK. (B600.2.w2, B622.3.w3)
  • Dried alfalfa has a crude fibre level of about 25%. It is high in protein, calcium and vitamin A. (B600.2.w2)
    • It is higher in both protein and calcium than grass hay. (B622.4.w4)
  • Alfalfa has high levels of oxalates, which bind calcium in the GIT, affecting absorption (20-30% of calcium is bound). (B600.2.w2)
  • Note: there are risks of grass, grass hay or lucerne (alfalfa) hay being contaminated with infectious agents including viruses and parasites.
    • In North America, hay (grass or lucerne) may be contaminated with Baylisascaris eggs from raccoons or skunks. In rabbits this ascarid can cause visceral larval migrans (Cerebrospinal Nematodiasis in Lagomorphs).


  • Green vegetables, wild plants and herbs add variety to the diet. They should be introduced into the diet gradually. (B622.4.w4)
  • Safe plants to feed rabbits include: (B554.21.w21, B600.2.w2, B601.1.w1, B621.II.w2, B621.III.w3, B624, D354, W716.Jan09.w1)
Cultivated plants/vegetables
  • Artichoke leaves, 
  • Asparagus
  • Baby Sweetcorns (but not full size ones)
  • Beetroot (care with leafy tops as high levels of oxalic acid)
  • (W716.Jan09.w1)
  • broccoli (including leaves) ,
  • Brussels sprouts, 
  • Cabbage, (can sometimes cause digestive upsets) W716.Jan09.w1
  • Carrot (and carrot tops), the roots should be limited as they are high in sugars (W716.Jan09.w1)
  • Celeriac
  • Celery, including leaves
  • Cauliflower, cauliflower leaves,
  • Chicory
  • Chinese cabbage
  • Corncobs
  • Courgette (and flowers)
  • Cucumber
  • Endive
  • Fennel
  • Green beans,
  • Jerusalem artichokes - leaves (the roots can be fed in small quantities with plenty of hay as they are rather high in sugar). (B621.II.w2)
  • Kale, curly kale
  • Kohl rabi, 
  • Lettuce (in moderation); give a dark lettuce such as Romaine lettuce (not Iceberg or light coloured leaf) (W716.Jan09.w1) Do not give to weanlings. (B621.II.w2)
  • Lucern/alfalfa (B621.II.w2)
  • Mangolds, parsnip, 
  • Peas, including leaves and peapods, 
  • Peppers (red, green and yellow)
  • Pumpkin
  • Radish, radish tops
  • Spinach (occasional) W716.Jan09.w1
  • Spring cabbage (spring greens, ollard greens),
  • Squash (e.g. Butternut)
  • Strawberry leaves and runners. 
  • String beans
  • Swede, 
  • Sweetcorn plants, 
  • Turnips (occasional) W716.Jan09.w1
  • Watercress. 
Wild plants/garden plants
  • Grass.
  • Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale)
  • Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria)
  • Borage (Borago officinalis)
  • Bramble leaves, 
  • Bindweed (Calystegia spp.)(B554.21.w21)
  • Calendula
  • Camomile
  • Chickweed (Stellaria spp.)
  • Clovers
  • Coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), 
  • Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale),
  • Common or climbing ivy (Hedera helix) (B621.III.w3)
  • Cow parsnip/hogweed (Heracleum sphondylium)
  • Crosswort (Galium cruciata),
  • Young (green) docks, 
  • Goosegrass (Galium aparine)
  • Ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria)
  • Groundsel (Senecio vulgaris)
  • Heather (Caluna vulgaris)
  • Hedge parsley (Torilis anthriscus),
  • Knapweed (Centaurea spp.)
  • Knot grass (Polygonum aviculare)
  • Lavender (Lavandula officinalis)
  • Lucern, (B554.21.w21)
  • Mallow (Malva sylvestris), 
  • Nipplewort (Lapsana communis),
  • Plantains (e.g. Plantago major)
  • Mayweed (Matricaria spp.)
  • Nasturtium (leaves and flowers)
  • Nettle (Urtica dioica)
  • Plantains (Plantago spp.)
  • Poppies (B554.21.w21)
  • Raspberry
  • Sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia)
  • Sea beet (Beta vulgaris ssp. maritima)
  • Shepherd's purse (Capsella bursa pastoris)
  • Sorrel (Rume acetosa)
  • Sow thistle or milk thistle (Sonchus oleraeu) - while the stalks are still tender and juicy. (B621.III.w3)
  • Trefoil (Trifolium sp.)
  • Vetches (Vicia sp.)
  • Watercress (Nasturtium officinale).
  • Wild carrots (Daucus carota),
  • Wild strawberry (Fragaria vesca)
  • Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum)
  • Yarrow (Achillea millefolium)
  • (B554.21.w21)(B600.2.w2)
  • Tree leaves, particularly hazel leaves and leaves from fruit trees. (B600.2.w2)
  • Basil
  • Coriander
  • Dill
  • Mint (peppermint)
  • Parsley
  • Oregano
  • Rosemary
  • Sage
  • Thyme
  • Note: these have powerful tastes; it may take a while for a rabbit to get used to them. (W716.Jan09.w1)


(small amounts)

  • Apple
  • Apricot
  • Banana (high in potassium)
  • Blackberries (and leaves excellent astringent properties)
  • Blueberries
  • Cherries
  • Grapes
  • Kiwi Fruit
  • Mango
  • Melon
  • Nectarines
  • Oranges (not the peel)
  • Papaya
  • Peaches
  • Pears
  • Pineapple
  • Plums
  • Raspberries (and leaves excellent astringent properties)
  • Strawberries (and leaves)
  • Tomatoes (not the leaves)
  • Note:
    • Plants rich in oxalates (spinach, turnips, swede) should be fed no more than once a week.
    • Fruits (including tomatoes) and succulent vegetables such as lettuce should be fed in moderation. 
    • Offer two or three different plants/vegetables daily (in addition to grass or hay), and vary what is given; this will reduce the risk of any item being fed in quantities which may have toxic effects. (B600.2.w2)
    • Feed only small amounts of root vegetables. (B624)
    • Only moderate amounts of fruit and succulent foods such as lettuce. (B600.2.w2)
  • While feeding buttercups is not recommended, small amounts found in hay are not a problem. (B554.21.w21)
Recommended diet
Rabbits are adapted for a high-fibre diet and need plenty of fibre both for dental health and proper functioning of the gastro-intestinal system. The following general recommendations are made:
  • New foods should always be introduced gradually. (B600.2.w2, B601.1.w1, B554.21.w21)
  • Hay/Grass: The main bulk of the diet should be grass (fresh or dried) and/or grass hay (e.g. Timothy hay); haylage can also be used. Hay should be available at all times, fed ad libitum. (B600.2.w2,  B601.1.w1, B622.4.w4, D353, J213.2.w4, N12.38.w2)
    • Hay is particularly important for weanlings to minimise gastrointestinal upset. (B601.1.w1)
  • Green foods: The next largest part of the diet should be green foods such as dark green leafy vegetables. (J213.2.w4)
    • Provide a variety of green food; give at least three different items per day. (B600.2.w2, B621.I.w1, N12.38.w2)
    • Introduce new items gradually. (B602.16.w16)
    • Note: fruits, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber and other succulent salad ingredients are not good fibre sources; feeding these can lead to transient production of uneaten caecotrophs. (B600.2.w2)
  • Concentrates: Concentrate foods (whether pellets, mix or extruded diets) should be a small part of the diet for most rabbits. (B622.4.w4, J213.2.w4)
    • Only small amounts (no more than 2-3% of the rabbit's body weight) of concentrate food should be given, once daily, with the food bowl removed after a couple of hours. (B600.2.w2)
      • Only a handful a day is needed (alongside hay and green vegetables) for an average-sized rabbit. (B622.4.w4)
      • 0.25 cup of high fibre pellets per day for an average 2.3 kg (5 lb) rabbit. (J213.2.w4)
      • 26 g of high-fibre (25% fibre) pellets per kilogram body weight. (J284.79.w1)
    • Hay should be fed even if the rabbit is eating a "complete" rabbit food with a high percentage of fibre; it has behavioural benefits and is good for the teeth as well as providing good long fibre particles. (B600.2.w2, D353, J60.9.w1)
    • Note: Feeding hay, grass and vegetable in addition to a food which states it is complete and can be fed as the sole food, will not be harmful. (B600.2.w2)
    • If feeding pellets, feed one which is high in fibre (at least 18%) and does not contain too much protein (up to 16%). (B622.4.w4)
    • If feeding a mix, make sure the rabbit eats all the parts of the mix; do not keep topping the food bowl up with new mix and letting the rabbit eat only preferred items, as this can mean it eats an unbalanced diet. (B622.4.w4)
  • Foods rich in carbohydrates (including fruits and carrots) should not be fed, or only very small amounts should be given, as treats. (B622.4.w4, D353)

(B554.21.w21, B600.2.w2, B601.1.w1, B602.16.w16, B622.4.w4 D353, J60.9.w1, J213.2.w4, J284.79.w1, N12.38.w2 W718.Jan09.w1

Note: most domestic rabbits do not get a lot of exercise, so they are at greater risk of getting too fat. Obese rabbits are much more likely to develop a wide range of problems including skeletal problems and (because they cannot groom properly) skin problems.

  • If fed a complete pellet diet, a medium-sized adult rabbit needs about 90 - 120 g (3 - 4 oz, 2/3 cup) of pelleted food per day. (B604.2.w2) 
  • Food requirement is also affected by temperature, therefore about 184 g for a rabbit at 5 C but only 125 g for a rabbit at 30 C. (B604.2.w2)
  • For a pregnant or lactating doe, increase the amount fed as needed; the concentrate food should contain at least 16% protein. Some alfalfa can be given to make sure the diet contains enough calcium. (B622.4.w4)
    • For weanlings, hay should be fed, and a mix or pellet with at least 16% protein, together with small amounts of green food. Some alfalfa can be given to make sure the diet contains enough calcium. (B622.4.w4)
  • Rabbits normally eat the right amount of food to satisfy their calorie requirements. Therefore in winter, if outside in cooler temperatures, they will eat more, and it may be appropriate to feed a lower protein diet. (B604.2.w2, B554.21.w21)

See also:

  • Water should always be available. (B601.1.w1, B602.16.w16, B622.4.w4, D353)
  • Rabbits need 120 mL of water per kilogram bodyweight per day, increasing as the ambient temperature increases, so an average rabbit may drink 335 mL at 5 C but 450 mL per day at 30 C. (B604.2.w2)
  • More water is needed if the rabbit's diet is high in protein (to remove urea from the body) or high in fibre. (B604.2.w2)
  • Water drinking bottle tubes and automatic watering devices should be checked daily to make sure they are working properly. (B602.16.w16)
  • Note: in winter in outdoor enclosures, water bowls and particularly water drinking bottles may freeze. These should be checked at least twice daily and unfrozen as required - if water bottles are used, a second bottle is useful so the unfrozen bottle can be provided while the frozen bottle is thawed. (N34.Winter07.w2)
    • A couple of drops of medicinal glycerine added to the water can prevent it freezing. (N34.Winter07.w1)
Wild lagomorphs
  • The nutrient requirements of wild lagomorphs, unlike domestic rabbits, have not been determined, but domestic rabbit requirements would provide the best physiological model. (B64.22.w8, V.w16)
  • Diets for wild lagomorphs should mimic as closely as possible both the form and nutrient content of the wild diet. In particular, it is important to ensure that sufficient fibre is fed.
  • Good breeding success has been seen in lagomorphs kept in large, naturally vegetated pens in which they ate natural vegetation as the main or whole diet.

The following are examples of diets which have been used for captive wild lagomorphs.

  • Lepus europaeus - Brown hare kept for reproductive research (for breeding centres for wild hare restocking) were fed "carrot, hay, green fodder, oats and a full-component mixture for rabbits" plus fruit tree branches and willow branches. (J372.X2008.w1)
  • For breeding for repopulation purposes, Lepus europaeus - Brown hares have been maintained on fresh grass and commercial rabbit pellets, with ad libitum water. (J540.32.w1)
  • Romerolagus diazi - Volcano rabbit
    • At Jersey Zoo, UK, these were provided with a variety of foods. In addition to hay and commercial rabbit pellets (and water), always available, a selection of fresh foods were given daily: lettuce, apple, carrots, banana, pear, avocado and occasionally other fruits and vegetables, and leaves and shoots, with elm, hawthorn, willow and bamboo all being particularly appreciated. (J51.19.w1)
    • At Chapultepec Zoo, Mexico City, commercial rabbit pellets, fresh carrots and alfalfa were given; the rabbits also ate the zacaton (bundle-grass) in their enclosures. (J23.26.w2)
  • Brachylagus idahoensis - Pygmy rabbit were fed on grain-forage pellets containing 35.6 - 49.3% neutral detergent fibre and 15.8 - 21.3% crude protein, plus daily fresh greens (e.g. chicory, parsley, clover, dandelion, lettuce; about 40 g per day in the breeding season, 5 g per day the rest of the year, and clippings of big sagebrush Artemisia tridentata tridentata, 25 g per day during the breeding season and 15 g per day the rest of the year. (J332.87.w1)
    • In large pens the rabbits also eat available growing vegetation (planted domestic grasses and bunch grasses, and "volunteer" weedy herbaceous plants. Note: rabbits in these pens grow faster than those in smaller pens without such natural vegetation, even though fresh greens are provided daily in the smaller pens. (D373, V.w134)
    • Breeding of Columbia Basin pygmy rabbits was more successful on a higher protein diet. (W739.Jan09.w1)
    • When Columbia Basin Brachylagus idahoensis - Pygmy rabbits were brought into captivity, it was noted that sagebrush would be needed in the diet; this is a major part of the winter diet of these rabbits in the wild. (D370)
    • Sagebrush is not essential in the diet, but when offered to pygmy rabbits alongside pellets, it was eaten whatever the quantity and quality of pellets provided. (J537.32.w1)
  • In sufficiently large enclosures with natural vegetation, additional provision of food may not be necessary: e.g. for Sylvilagus bachmani - Brush rabbit in enclosures of 0.5 - 0.57 hectares (larger than the typical home range (0.33 ha) for the species), with natural vegetation (forbes, grasses and brambles), no additional food was required and the rabbits bred successfully; the pens did not appear overgrazed. (B623.w1)
    • Three adult male riparian brush rabbits Sylvilagus bachmani riparius (Sylvilagus bachmani - Brush rabbit) in individual pens were fed with pelleted rabbit food, alfalfa hay and timothy grass hay ad libitum; there was also a strip of grass (commercial grass sod) 16 x 3 ft approx. in each enclosure. (D377)
  • Bunolagus monticularis - Riverine rabbit kept in 50 x 50 m enclosures within their natural habitat were fed with lucern and with rabbit concentrate pellets. (V.w142)
  • At Denver Zoological Gardens, pikas (Ochotona princeps - American pika) fed on natural vegetation in their enclosure, including grass, dandelions, clover and fireweed (Kochia scoparia), supplemented with slices of apple, lettuce, and commercial rabbit pellets. (J23.15.w6)
    • Prior to this, they were fed chopped lettuce (handful), alfalfa leaves and stems (small handful), sliced apples (half cup), commercial rabbit pellets (1/4 cup) and vitamins; this was given twice daily. (J23.14.w6, P1.1972.w2)
    • For newly captured Ochotona princeps - American pika, dandelion leaves and apple slices were acceptable feedstuffs, with a subsequent gradual changeover to the artificial diet. (J23.14.w6, P1.1972.w2)
  • Ochotona dauurica - Daurian pika in captivity in Japan were fed a commercial diet for pikas, plus fresh vegetables, including root vegetables, and fruits. Later, breeding pairs were given the commercial diet plus green grass. (J511.47.w1)
  • Ochotona princeps - American pika kept in individual cage-dens were fed commercial rabbit food plus daily dandelion leaves or lettuce. Those kept in large enclosures, one acre in size, with "shortgrass prairie vegetative type", were initially given dandelions, but stopped eating these as they started eating the vegetation growing in the enclosures. (J331.89.w1)
  • Ochotona curzoniae - Plateau pika (black-lipped pika) have been kept successfully (gaining weight, maintaining healthy function of the gastro-intestinal system) on grass hay or haylage plus herbs, carrots, lettuce and a guinea pig diet (including vitamin C). (N37.2.w1, V.w30)
  • Water should always be available ad libitum. This is particularly important in warm conditions. (B64.22.w8)
  • Water should always be available ad libitum. This is particularly important in warm conditions. (B64.22.w8)
  • Note: unlike domestic rabbits, wild lagomorphs feeding on green vegetation may not drink free-standing water. (J47.9.w3)
  • Water should be provided in bowls; wild lagomorphs may not use drinking bottles (e.g. Brachylagus idahoensis - Pygmy rabbit will not use them. (V.w134)
Ferret Consideration There is little definite data on the specific nutritional requirements of ferrets. However, more work has been done on a closely-related species, Mustela vison - American mink, and it is generally considered that ferrets will have similar requirements to mink for both macro- and micronutrients. It is important to remember that unlike mink, ferrets do not particularly like the taste of fish; if fed a high-fish diet intended for mink, ferrets may reject it.

For feeding ferrets, it is important to consider the energy concentration plus protein digestibility and amino acid composition. (B232.3.w3)

  • Ferrets need a concentrated, high protein, high fat, low fibre diet, with fat as the main source of calories. (J213.2.w5)
  • An adequate maintenance diet is 30 - 35% crude protein, 15 - 18% fat. (J213.2.w5)
  • A lactating jill needs double her normal intake of food. Constant access to high-quality food plus constant access to water is essential. (J213.2.w5)
  • The diet should be high in fat for energy, with a high content of good-quality meat protein, and should be low in carbohydrate and fibre. (B602.1.w1)
  • A whole-prey diet, or a balanced fresh or freeze-dried carnivore diet can be used. (B602.1.w1)
  • Dry kibble diets are commonly fed. Cereals are included to maintain the shape of the kibble. If excessive, vegetable proteins from cereals lead to urolithiasis. (B602.1.w1)
    • On a kibble diet the stools are formed but soft and higher in volume. (B602.1.w1)


  • Ferrets require about 200 - 300 kcal (840-1260 kJ) per kg bodyweight daily. This would be equal to about 40 - 70 g of a high-quality diet. For reproduction and growth, a diet containing nearly 5,000 kcal (21,000 kJ) per kilogram of diet may be needed. (B232.3.w3, B627.5.w5) 
  • Diets which have been shown to be nutritionally adequate, supporting gestation, lactation and growth (i.e. have "sustained reproduction and growth of generations of healthy kits"), contain 3.9 - 4.58 kcal metabolisable energy per gram. (J213.2.w5)


  • Fats enhance texture, absorb and retain flavour, enhance palatability and, by delaying gastric emptying, may contribute to a feeling of satiety. (B232.3.w3, B627.5.w5)
  • A diet which is 15 - 20% fat is adequate for pets; up to 30% may be needed for growing or lactating ferrets. (J213.2.w5)
    • At least 20% for growing kits. (J213.2.w5)
  • Diets should be 18-20% fat, with up to 15% as unsaturated fats including essential fatty acids e.g. linoleic acid. (B232.3.w3)
    • Note: unsaturated fatty acids easily become rancid; this makes the food unpalatable. Additionally, more vitamin E is required. (B232.3.w3) 
  • Addition of excessive fat (e.g. a daily teaspoon full of "coat conditioner" high in linoleic and other fatty acids) can reduce intake of the normal diet to a point where protein and possibly vitamins and minerals may be deficient. (J213.2.w5)
  • Commercially-available diets on which ferrets have been maintained with apparent success have contained 9 - 28% fat and 7 - 15% linoleic acid. (B627.5.w5)

Protein and amino acids

  • A high protein diet is needed. For kits, at least 30% and preferably 35% protein is required, and for reproduction, 35 - 40% protein is needed; lower protein diets lead to reduced conception rates, litter size and kit survival. (J213.2.w5)
    • A 30-40% protein diet is recommended, with at least 35% protein for breeding and growing ferrets. (B232.3.w3)
  • Protein must also be highly (85 - 90%) digestible. (J213.2.w5)
    • Note: protein in many grocery-store cat foods is less than 75% digestible. (J213.2.w5)
  • It is assumed that, as for other species, argenine and methionine are essential amino acids. (J213.2.w5)
  • It is recommended that taurine should be provided in ferret diets at the same concentration as in premium diets for cats. (J213.2.w5)
  • It is assumed that, as for cats, arachidonic acid (found only in animal tissues) is essential for ferrets. (J213.2.w5)
  • Meat based diets are not likely to be deficient in arachidonic acid or taurine. (J213.2.w5)
  • Food intake is affected by the energy content of the food, therefore protein content must be considered in relation to energy content, and taking account of the digestibility of the protein and its amino acid content. As the caloric density of the feed increases, the required protein percentage also increases. Based on data for mink, growing kits to 16 weeks of age require a calorie-to-protein ratio of about 13 (42% protein for a diet containing 550 kcal per 100 g feed) and after this age, a calorie:protein ratio of 17 or possibly as high as 21 (36% protein, down to 26% protein) may be used. Commercially-available ferret diets provide calorie-to-protein ratios of 9 - 14 and about 34 - 47% protein. (B627.5.w5)
  • Diets high in plant-sourced proteins are associated with urolithiasis (Urolithiasis in Lagomorphs and Ferrets). (B232.3.w3)


  • Ferrets do not efficiently utilise carbohydrates, particularly complex carbohydrates, as an energy source. (J213.2.w5)
  • A treat such as raisins, which are high in sugar, should be fed only in very small amounts (a few raisins a day, not a handful), or consumption of the main, balanced, diet will be reduced, leading to deficiencies in protein and essential fatty acid intake. (J213.2.w5)
  • Ferrets can effectively use dextrin, maltose and glucose. If the diet contains more than 50% of calories as sucrose, measurable amounts of fructose and sucrose may be found in the urine. Commercial diets for ferrets contain 22 - 44% carbohydrate on a dry matter basis. (B627.5.w5)
  • Disaccharides are digested well, but ferrets have only a limited capacity to digest complex carbohydrates. If fat and protein levels are adequate, there is no real need for carbohydrate in the diet. (B232.3.w3)


  • It is assumed that, like mink, ferrets have the same requirements for minerals as most other mammals. (J213.2.w5)
  • The calcium:phosphorus ratio should be at least 1:1; ratios in diets which have been shown to be appropriate for growth and reproduction were 1.12:1 to 1.45:1. (J213.2.w5)
    • Commercially available ferret diets provide a calcium:phosphorus ratio of 1.2:1 to 1.7:1. (B627.5.w5)
  • Vitamin E needs to be supplemented if a raw meat/fish diet including rancid fats is fed. Pet ferrets fed high-quality pelleted diets are unlikely to need vitamin E supplements as these diets already contain excess vitamin E. (J213.2.w5)
    • Note: it is generally recommended (for all species) that there should be at least 0.5 - 0.6 mg tocopherol per gram of polyunsaturated fatty acid in the diet. Commercially available ferret diets exceed this and provide about 3 - 15 IU vitamin E per kg body weight daily. (B627.5.w5)
    • A diet low in vitamin E predisposes to the development of Nutritional Steatitis in Ferrets (yellow fat disease). (B232.3.w3)
  • Ferrets can convert beta-carotene to Vitamin A (B627.5.w5, J213.2.w5), but do so inefficiently (J213.2.w5), therefore the diet should contain added vitamin A (in the natural diet, this would be provided in the liver of the prey). (J213.2.w5)
  • Commercially available ferret diets contain vitamin A such that ferrets will consume 1,000 - 4,200 IU per kg bodyweight daily; no toxicity has been observed in pregnant females eating diets containing the higher amounts. (B627.5.w5)
  • Commercially available ferret diets provide 65 - 325 IU vitamin D per kg bodyweight daily. The requirement for vitamin D will vary depending on calcium and phosphorus intake and duration of exposure to sunlight (UV light), as well as age, sex and physiological status. (B627.5.w5)
  • Commercially available ferret diets contain 8.4 - 97.8 mg Thiamine (B Vitamin) per kg dry diet. Thiamine requirements are increased if the diet included fish containing thiaminase. (B627.5.w5)
  • Commercially available ferret diets provide more than the riboflavin requirement for most species. (B627.5.w5)


  • Ferret diets should be low in fibre. (B232.3.w3)

General notes

  • Since good-quality meat protein is expensive, it is unlikely that a cheap food will contain high-quality protein. (J213.2.w5)
  • The basic information on crude protein, crude fat, fibre and moisture do not indicate the quality of the ingredients. (J213.2.w5)
  • To correct an inadequate diet in kits, a mixture of pureed raw liver or hamburger, egg yolk and milk is effective. (J213.2.w5)
  • Note: it is normal for ferrets to increase food intake by about 30% in winter (short daylength), deposit subcutaneous fat and gain weight. When day length increases in spring, food intake decreases, the stored fat is metabolised and the ferret loses weight again. In the absence of photoperiod changes, some ferrets may stay either lean or "pudgy" year-round. (J213.2.w5)
  • For kits when they are just weaned, high-quality pelleted diet can be mixed with water with cooked eggs and animal fat then added to return the protein and calorie density to the same level as in the original dry pellet; this should be offered once or twice daily. (J213.2.w5)
    • The same diet can be offered to nursing jills, starting with a teaspoonful at a time, and providing as much as the jill wants to eat by the time she has been nursing kits for three weeks. (J213.2.w5)
Appropriate foods
Diets specifically designed for ferrets, or high-quality cat diets can be fed. Alternatively, a traditional, more natural diet of whole rodents and rabbits may be given. (B339.9.w9)
  • Pelleted complete diets
    • Pelleted diets designed for mink, with 30 - 35% meat-based protein, and 20% animal fat, are often fed to ranched ferrets. (J213.2.w5)
    • Pelleted diets designed for ferrets can be used if available. (B232.3.w3, B651.5.w5)
    • Some premium dry cat foods and pelleted diets formulated specifically for ferrets have been shown to be adequate to allow growth and reproduction. These include Marshall Premium Ferret, Purina High Density Ferret, Iams Kitten Food (original formula), Totally Ferret and Hills Science Diet Feline Growth. (J213.2.w5)
    • Commercially available complete ferret diets in the UK include those produced by Suprete Petfoods, James Wellbeloved, Alpha, Gilbertson & Page, Bephar and Chudleys. (D400)
    • Foods (e.g. premium pelleted cat foods and ferret foods) in which the first three ingredients are meat, poultry or meat or poultry meals probably contain adequate protein. (J213.2.w5)
    • Ferrets will eat much larger quantities of low-quality foods, in trying to consume adequate nutrients. (J213.2.w5)
    • Dry foods should be fed, rather than tinned diets, because of their higher as-fed energy and nutrient density. On a dry-matter basis, canned foods contain higher levels of protein and fat than do dry foods, but pelleted diets contain about 10% moisture while canned diets contain about 78% moisture. Pelleted diets are also better for the teeth. (J213.2.w5)
      • Ferrets develop less calculus if fed on pelleted rather than canned diets. (B339.9.w9)
    • For older ferrets, pelleted foods can be mixed with water, giving a softer diet but with a higher concentration of nutrients (on a dry matter basis) than is found in tinned foods. (J213.2.w5)
    • Note: ferrets on dry diets can be prone to obesity unless their body weight and food intake are monitored. (B631.17.w17)
    • If specialist ferret diets are not available, high quality dry cat or kitten diets can be used. (B631.17.w17)
      • Dry cat foods with an appropriate protein level can be given; small amounts of meat or tinned cat food can be added. (B232.3.w3)
  • Suitable whole prey:
    • A diet of appropriate whole prey is likely to provide the correct nutrition for a ferret. (B652.5.w5)
    • Whole-carcasses can make up the whole diet or part of the diet (e.g. given twice a week). (B652.5.w5)
    • Rodents and rabbits (whole). (B339.9.w9, B631.17.w17, B651.5.w5) 
    • Whole chicks can be given, but tend to be messy. (B631.17.w17)
    • Frozen rodents tend to be high in fat; this can lead to an overweight ferret. (B631.17.w17)
    • Ferrets used for hunting may be given fresh rabbit; it is thought this may motivate the ferret. (B631.17.w17)
    • The guts can be removed before the carcass is fed, but the remainder of the internal organs should be fed; the skin should not be removed. (B651.5.w5)
    • If feeding a small number of ferrets with a large carcass (e.g. rabbit), provide a portion of the carcass (with skin etc.) at a time; do not leave the whole carcass when it may go rotten before being eaten. If there are at least six ferrets, or a litter of kits eating meat, then a whole rabbit could be fed at one time. (B651.5.w5)
    • It is important to make sure that the prey item is fresh, or frozen when fresh then thoroughly thawed. (B652.5.w5)
    • Chicks, mice or rats should be from disease-free sources; these can be obtained from e.g. reptile food suppliers. (B602.1.w1)
    • Note: 
      • On a whole-prey diet, the stools are low-volume and firm. (B602.1.w1)
      • Frozen carcasses may lose vitamins during defrosting; consider supplementation. (B631.17.w17)
      • Supplement pregnant jills with calcium/vitamin D3 when feeding carcasses. (B631.17.w17)
      • Raw meat goes off quickly in summer; this can be a problem particularly if the ferret stores food. (D397- full text included, D400 - full text included)
  • Muscle meat and offal:
    • It is important not to just give muscle meat; this is not nutritionally balanced. (B631.17.w17)

Appropriate snacks and treats

  • Supplements/snacks such as raisins or coat conditioners should be limited to a maximum of 10% of the ferret's daily calorie intake. For example, 1.0 mL of coat conditioner, or less than a teaspoonful of raisins. (J213.2.w5)
  • Small amounts of cooked chicken/rabbit meat and offal can be given as treats when a ferret is on a complete kibble diet. (D397- full text included, D400 - full text included)
  • Treats such as soft-moist meat or liver snacks specifically made as cat/ferret snacks generally are appropriate treats. The nutritional content should be checked (remembering to convert from "as fed" to a dry matter basis). (J213.2.w5)
  • Other appropriate snacks are: one inch from a tube of Nutrical; a few teaspoonfuls of a human high-calorie, high-protein supplement, human baby meat foods which do not contain any carbohydrates; whole cooked egg or egg yolk; small amounts of raw meat/liver. (J213.2.w5)
  • Canned foods can be used as a treat, to sick ferrets to encourage eating, and to hide medicines, but should not be used as the main diet. (J213.2.w5)
  • Canned foods alone do not provide adequate protein, and may increase dental calculus. (B232.3.w3)
  • Fresh raw organ meat or muscle meat, and raw egg, can be used as supplements to dry kibble. (B602.1.w1)
    • Note: muscle meat and liver are poor sources of calcium; a diet of meat only results in calcium deficiency. (J213.2.w5)
    • A diet of raw liver only causes hypervitaminosis A. (J213.2.w5)
    • Raw meat goes off quickly in summer; this can be a problem particularly if the ferret stores food. (D397- full text included, D400 - full text included)
  • Beaten egg mixed with cat milk. (D400 - full text included) Egg yolk. (D397- full text included)
  • Small amounts of cod liver oil (D397- full text included); this can be smeared on fingers for the ferret to lick off (liked by some ferrets). (D400 - full text included)

Inappropriate foods

  • Cheap cat foods do not fulfil the nutritional requirements of ferrets. (J213.2.w5)
    • Foods (e.g. generic and grocery store cat foods) in which ground yellow corn (maize) is the first ingredient, with soybean meal as the main source of protein, or which contain meat by-products as the first ingredient, but cereals as the next several ingredients (and with high amounts of carbohydrates), are not likely to contain adequate digestible meat-based protein. (J213.2.w5)
  • Dog foods, even those of high quality, do not provide adequate nutrition for ferrets. (J213.2.w5)
  • Two diets which were associated with poor reproductive performance and development of urolithiasis in ferrets had the following characteristics: (J213.2.w5)
    • 1) guaranteed analysis: crude protein 31.0%, crude fat 16.0%, fibre 3.0%, ash 8.0%, moisture 11.0%, carbohydrate 31.0%. The first ingredient was low-quality poultry meal and the next two ingredients were cereals (ground wheat and ground yellow corn). (J213.2.w5)
    • 2) guaranteed analysis: crude protein 30.0%, crude fat 8.0%, fibre 4.5%, ash 6.3%, moisture 12.0%, carbohydrate 39.2%. The first three ingredients were whole kernel corn, soybean meal and corn gluten meal, with poultry by-product meal as the fourth ingredient and whole wheat as the fifth. (J213.2.w5)
  • Canned foods should not be used as the main diet. On a dry-matter basis, canned foods contain higher levels of protein and fat than do dry foods. However, canned diets contain about 78% water, compared with about 10% in dry diets. A ferret (particularly a growing or lactating ferret) will not be able to eat enough high-moisture canned diet to meet their nutritional requirements. Additionally, it is less good for the teeth. (J213.2.w5)
  • Processed meats such as sausage and bacon are not suitable. (B631.17.w17)
  • Bread-and-milk is not a suitable diet. (B652.5.w5)
  • Ferrets may enjoy foods such as fruits and vegetables, but do not digest these properly. (J213.2.w5)
    • Feeding on fruits should be avoided as they may lead to decreased consumption of healthy food. (B602.1.w1)
  • Water should always be available. Ferrets drink about three rimes as much water as dry matter. (B602.1.w1, B631.17.w17, B652.5.w5, J213.2.w5, D397- full text included, D401 - full text included)
    • An adult ferret is likely to drink 75 - 100 mL water daily. Water should always be available, ad lib. (B232.3.w3)
    • Constant fresh water is particularly important if a dry (pellet) diet is fed. (B339.9.w9, B631.17.w17)
    • Ferrets prefer drinking from a water dish. A heavy dish is recommended, as ferrets often rest their feet on the edge of the dish while drinking. The dish should be cleaned and refilled two or three times a day. (J213.2.w5)
      • A clean cat litter tray weighted down by a brick is a practical solution. (D401 - full text included)
    • Ferrets also like to play in the water, making it important to use a bowl difficult to overturn. (B602.1.w1)
    • A drinking bottle of fresh water should be available at all times. (J213.2.w5)
    • Ferrets will drink more in hot weather. (B652.5.w5)
    • Avoid using galvanised water containers, due to the risk of Zinc Toxicity. (B232.3.w3)
  • In winter, water containers may freeze. This is a particular problem when using a drinking bottle with a narrow spout. (D401)
    • Check the water several times a day in winter. (D401)
    • A tray with a large surface area is less likely to freeze up than is a drinking bottle. (D401)
    • About 15 mL (a atblespoon) of olive oil can be added to one litre of water. This will float on the water and help prevent it from freezing, but it is still necessary to check the water. (D401)
    • Do not add salt, de-icer or any other chemical to the water to prevent it from freezing; these may seriously harm your ferret. (D401)
Bonobo Consideration The diet provided for bonobos should provide physical and psychological stimulation as well as the required nutrients. (D386.3.3.w3c)
  • The exact nutrient composition of the diet of wild bonobos has not been determined. (D386.3.3.w3c)
  • All the great apes require vitamin C in their diets; except for this they have no unusual nutrient requirements. (B336.39.w39)
    • The amount of vitamin C required by primates is estimated as 2 mg/kg per day. (B10.44.w44d)
  • Note: Include food used for behavioural enrichment when daily dietary intake is calculated, to avoid overfeeding or nutritional imbalance. (B336.39.w39)

Fruits, vegetables (including roots and tubers), browse and monkey chow may be combined to form the diet. It is noted that the variety of fruits available for feeding to captive bonobos is limited compared with the diversity in the wild, and that terrestrial herbaceous vegetation is also important in the wild diet. (D386.3.3.w3c)

Main diet

In general, great apes are fed commercially prepared biscuits together with vegetables, fruit, browse and vitamins. (B336.39.w39)

The main diet supplied to bonobos in North America is based on carrots, various tubers (e.g. potato, sweet potato), celery, apples, pears, oranges, grapes, Romaine lettuce, bananas, green beans and raisins with other vegetables and fruits including kale, corn on the cob, collard greens, kiwi fruit, turnip, endive, broccoli, mustard greens, onion, melon, green pepper, tomato, peanuts, yams (cooked or raw), spinach, sunflower seeds and papaya. These are mainly given raw, either whole or chopped. (D386.3.4.w3d)

In some zoos, a limited number of items are given daily with additional items varied over the week. (D386.3.4.w3d)

Protein foods given include egg, pelleted food (e.g. Purine Hi-Pro Monkey Chow, Zu/Preem Science Diet), curd cheese, meat, a "porridge" at Cologne Zoo ("curd cheese, skimmed milk, cooked beef or chicken, dried dog food, monkey pellets, roasted soya beans, sunflower seeds, wheat, cooked rice, cooked potatoes, cooked eggs"), milk, monkey-cake, cooked mince meat.


  • A variety of plant materials have been supplied to bonobos as browse, including:
    • Mulberry (Morus alba)
    • Crown vetch
    • Viburnum
    • Ginger
    • Banana (Musa sp.)
    • Sugar cane
    • Honeysuckle
    • Grape vine
    • Willow
    • Rhubarb
    • Maple
    • Willow
    • Weeping willow
    • Poplar
    • Ash
    • Hazelnut
    • Linden
    • Cotoneaster
    • Oak
    • Ficus (including e.g. Ficus benjamina, Ficus rubiginosa, Ficus thonningi, Ficus rosa-sinensis)
    • Bamboo
    • Georgia cane
    • Acacia
    • Ensete sp. (Banana)
    • Harpephyllum kaffra [? Harpephyllum kaffrai - Wild plum]
    • Whole maize plants
    • Tetrastigma
    • Lucerne 
      • Alfalfa hay in winter


Foraging foods

A variety of foods have been scattered for bonobos to forage, including:

  • Sunflower seeds, peanuts, popcorn, spaghetti, noodles, biscuits, cereals, baked chips, "party mix", brazil nuts, cashew nuts, Pretty Birds HI-Energy and diced or shredded vegetables; two cups per bonobo, with three or four of the items mixed at a given feeding. (Cincinnati Zoo). (D386.3.4.w3d)
  • Popcorn (1-2 cups per bonobo), raisins(20 per bonobo), cereal (half cup per bonobo) and peanuts(10-15 per bonobo). (Milwaukee Zoo). (D386.3.4.w3d)
  • Raisins, sunflower seeds, apples, air-popped popcorn. (San Diego Zoo). (D386.3.4.w3d)


  • Some collections add daily vitamins/supplements to the diet, such as children's chewable multi-vitamins (one per bonobo, Cincinnati Zoo), Super Acerola vitamin C (500 mg, Columbus Zoo), Mazuri Vita-Zu vitamin supplement (Columbus Zoo), Vidaylin vitamins (Milwaukee Zoo); Minamino syrup [essential amino acids, B vitamins, manganese, copper and iron]. (D386.3.4.w3d)


Items which have been used as "treats" for training, rewards and administration of medication include grapes, raisins, sunflower seeds, peanuts, peanut butter, apples, bananas, pieces of melon, crackers, sugar, fat-free cookies, low-fat chips, pretzels and party mix. (D386.3.4.w3d)

  • Note: A peanut allergy has been observed in a bonobo at Milwaukee Zoo and a banana allergy in a bonobo at Leipzig Zoo. (D386.3.4.w3d)

Specific food items used for Behavioural Enrichment

Note: the following are examples; normal parts of the diet can be used as enrichment, for example by leaving large fruits or vegetables whole, by scattering food for foraging, or placing items into containers from which they have to be retrieved by various methods. (D386.3.3.w3c)

  • Coconut, cake, candy and honey have been used in environmental enrichmetn at Cincinnati Zoo. 
  • At Columbus Zoo, various browse items including ash (Fraxinus) leaves and branches, willow (Salix spp.), ficus, bamboo, pampas grass, forsythia, bananas, grapes and vitamins in enrichment. 
  • In Fort Worth Zoo, peanut butter, yoghurt, and oatmeal were used, smeared throughout the exhibit. 
  • In San Diego Zoo, as well as using foraging foods, honey in log holes was used to encourage tool use for foraging. In Milwaukee Zoo, herbs, spices and scent extracts, Kool-aid, juice, cereals, sugar-free Jell-O and (rarely) sugar-free chewing gum were provided.(D386.3.4.w3d)
  • In Planckendael Zoo, honey, pinda-cheese (peanut butter), small nuts or seeds are used in holes in a wooden block, raisins seeds or nuts are placed in plastic bottles filled with woodwool, cheese is smeared on items.


  • Bonobos have been noted to eat materials such as hay, sticks and alfalfa. (D386.3.4.w3d)
Water should always be available ad libitum. (D386.5.1.w5a)
  • Water has been provided to bonobos in pools, using "Lixit" nipple-like devices (water flows only when the animal placing pressure on the device while drinking), bowls, a waterfall, a stream and hoses. (D386.3.3.w3c)
  • Note: Pregnant and lactating bonobos have been noted to leave their night nests to go and drink. (D386.3.3.w3c)

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Convalescent diets / Nutritional support

In providing nutritional support for convalescent animals it is important to calculate carefully the actual nutrient requirements of each individual. 
  • Nutrient requirements will vary depending on the size of the animal, its general stage of life (e.g. growing versus adult) and extra requirements for healing, fighting infection and regaining lost weight.
  • Stress and trauma cause the release of hormones (including catecholamines, corticosteroids, glucagon) which act to increase the metabolic rate, with both gluconeogenesis and glycogenolysis being increased if ingested energy is not sufficient to meet the increased energy requirement. The increase in metabolic rate is in proportion to the degree of insult (i.e. greater increase with more severe injury or infection). There is a rapid oxidation of fat used for energy, and body protein may be broken down to meet the increased energy needs. Additionally, there is an increased requirement for protein for tissue repair and/or for the production of components of the immune system, both blood cells and antibodies.
  • In casualty animals, it must be remembered that by the time the animal is presented for treatment, several days may have passed since the time of the original insult; the animal may already have used most of its reserves by the time of presentation - particularly smaller individuals.
  • Note: recently captured animals (including animals presenting for rehabilitation), may not eat normally (or at all), particularly when offered unfamiliar foods. (B206.4.w4, B469.3.w3)
  • In social species, it is important to remember that an individual separated from the group may not eat properly. (B469.3.w3)


(PLEASE NOTE: This dietary information is replicated from the diet suppliers, or from referenced sources. They are provided as information and a decision to use a specific diet must be made using professional judgment. Wildpro does not endorse any particular diet at present, until full nutritional evaluations are available)

  • Human enteral products may be bought in liquid form. These may be useful in the feeding of convalescent carnivorous or omnivorous species. Their calorific content may vary from 1.0 to 2.0 kcal/mL, and the 2.0k cal/mL products should be used to reduce the volume which must be fed. Protein powder may be added to diets if necessary to increase the level of protein before feeding.
  • Monomeric diets (containing fatty acids, amino acids and sugars) may be used initially, as these have been designed for easy absorption.
  • Polymeric diets are also available, and many are isotonic, which reduces the risk of diarrhoea developing.
  • Baby foods may be useful. These are usually high in carbohydrates, with some vegetable fats, and are usually low in protein (e.g. Milupa baby foods, containing 422 kcal per 100 gm).
  • Complan (Glaxo) may be used. (B156.15.w15)
  • Convalescent diets designed for cats and dogs may be useful (e.g. Hill's a/d) in feeding of convalescent carnivorous or omnivorous, but not herbivorous, species.

(B156.15.w15, B206.4.w4, B469.3.w3, V.w5)

Bear Consideration

As omnivores, probably most convalescent diets could be used for bears. 
  • Commercial baby food or Hill's I/D may be given. (B16.9.w9)
  • Fruit-flavoured products might be very acceptable to most bear species. 
  • Convalescent diets designed for cats or dogs might be most suitable for Ursus maritimus - Polar bear.
  • For North American bears undergoing rehabilitation, the following foods have been suggested: high-quality named-brand dry dog food, Ferret diet 5280, National Gro-Fur Mink Pellets, Nutro Max Puppy, puppy Eukanuba or ZuPreem Omnivore Diet. (B468.8.w8p)

Lagomorph Consideration

Hospitalised rabbit eating Timothy grass hay. Click here for full page view with caption Rabbit eating vegetables. Click here for full page view with caption. Pro-Fibre supplement. Click here for full page view with caption Pelleted high-fibre supplement. Click here for full page view with caption Critical Care Formula. Click here for full page view with caption Probiotic supplement. Click here for full page view with caption Prebiotic and probiotic supplement. Click here for full page view with caption Feeding a rabbit using a syringe. Click here for full page view with caption

Domestic rabbit
  • While a rabbit is hospitalised, its food and water intake (and urine and faecal output) should be monitored. It is very important to ensure that the rabbit is eating (and drinking) properly.
  • Good quality grass hay should always be available, as well as the food the rabbit is used to (even if that is not an ideal food) and tempting green foods such as fresh grass, dandelion leaves, broccoli, dark green lettuce, watercress, parsley, green cabbage, kale etc. (B601.3.w3, J213.10.w1)
  • If the rabbit is anorectic, assisted feeding is needed via syringe, endotracheal tube etc. Various foods can be given in assisted feeding, including pelleted complete rabbit diets ground up and mixed to a slurry with water, liquidised vegetables, fruit-based or cereal-based baby foods (e.g. Milupa) and proprietary products designed for assisted feeding of rabbits or other small herbivores. (B601.3.w3, J15.13.w7) 
  • Ground pellets can be mixed with fresh greens, vegetable baby food fresh greens, and water or juice to form a gruel. Canned pumpkin can be added to the gruel as a palatable source of calories and fibre. (B609.2.w2)
  • Note: anorexia is a serious problem in rabbits which can be life-threatening within 48 hours, or in a shorter time in young, pregnant, lactating or obese rabbits. (B601.3.w3, J15.24.w3)
  • Further information on assisted feeding is provided in: Treatment and Care (Techniques Overview) - Supportive/Nursing Care

(B601.3.w3, J213.1.w1, J213.10.w1)

Prepared convalescent diets

  • Convalescent diets designed for cats and dogs are based on animal products and are not appropriate for rabbits, which are herbivores.
  • Fruit-based or cereal-based baby foods (e.g. Milupa) can be used. (B601.3.w3, B554.22.w22)
  • Proprietary formulae especially designed for rabbits and/or other small herbivores are available for assisted feeding and include:
    • Science Recovery (Supreme Petfoods): a complete food for assisted feeding and includes high levels of protein, carbohydrate and fibre. It contains 39.31 Kcal Metabolisable Energy (ME) per 20 g sachet. One sachet is sufficient to feed one 2.5 kg rabbit for one day. (W718.Oct08.w1)
    • Fibreplex for Rabbits (Protexin): formulated with high fibre, propiotics and prebiotics. It is designed "to encourage normal digestion following major disruptions." (W722.Oct08.w2)
    • Avipro Plus (Vetark Professional): contains probiotics, electrolytes, dextrose, soluble fibre and high levels of vitamins A, C and E to help stabilise the gut in stressed rabbits. (W719.Oct08.w1)
    • Critical Care Formula (CCF) (Vetark Professional): "a high energy and protein powder which can be mixed with water and given by direct administration off a spoon or via a gavage tube." (W719.Oct08.w1)
    • Critical Care for Herbivores. (Oxbow Pet Products, Murdock, NE, USA) 10 - 15 mL/kg at least every 8-12 hours - larger volumes and more frequently if the rabbit will take it. (B609.2.w2)
    • Advanced Nutrition Support Enterals (Rock Solid Herpetoculture): a powder enteral formula designed for herbivorous reptiles. It contains 8% fibre (lower than ideal for rabbits) and may be useful for feeding through a nasogastric tube (where the tube diameter limits the fibre content of the product) for two or three days. (J213.10.w1)
  • Ideally, the rabbit should be given a food which includes the indigestible fibre needed for normal gut function. Unfortunately, this may not be possible when feeding through an endotracheal tube, and may be difficult when feeding through a syringe with a standard tip; a syringe with a wide-bore tip should be used if available. (B601.3.w3, J213.10.w1)
  • Note: Tempting foods should always be available while a rabbit is on assisted feeding. (J213.10.w1)
  • Probiotics, vitamins (especially B-vitamins) and even transfaunation - by feeding a rabbit with caecoliths from a healthy rabbit - may be useful. (B601.3.w3, P113.2005.w3)
  • Avoid high carbohydrate or high fat nutritional supplements. (B609.2.w2)

Calculating food requirements

  • It is important to calculate the rabbit's energy requirements to determine the amount to be fed daily:
  • The rabbit's approximate basal energy requirements (BER) or Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) can be calculated as follows:
    • 70 x (bodyweight in kg)0.75 = Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR) kcal/day. For a 2.0 kg rabbit, BMR = 70 x (2.0)0.75 = 117.7 kcal/day. (B192, J213.10.w1)
    • The actual amount required will vary depending on the rabbit's state of health and may be from 1.2 x BMR to as high as 2.0 x BMR. During healing, the rabbit should be hypermetabolic and need more food. However a rabbit which has been starved or stopped eating due to gastrointestinal problems will be hypometamolic and have reduced energy requirement. (J213.10.w1)
    • Equations are available which indicate the energy requirement for animals in different circumstances; in most circumstances the amount of energy required per day is greater than the basal energy requirement (BER): (B192)
        • Growth: 1.5-2.0 x BER 
        • Enclosure rest: 1.25 x BER
        • Following starvation: 1.25 x BER
        • Post-surgery: 1.25 x BER
        • Severe burns: 1.5 - 2.0 x BER
        • Sepsis: 1.5-2.0 x BER
        • Trauma: 1.5 x BER
        • Neoplasia (cancer) 1.5 x BER
        • Hepatic (liver) disease: 1.25 x BER
        • Severe renal (kidney) disease: 1.25 x BER
      • (B192)
    • For a debilitated rabbit, start feeding at 40 - 70% of calculated daily energy requirement and increase to 100% over three to five days. (J213.10.w1)
    • For a rabbit in good condition, start at 75 - 100% of calculated daily energy requirement. (J213.10.w1)
    • Note: Once the caloric requirement has been calculated (kcal/day), it is necessary to calculate the required amount of the food which is to be given. (J213.10.w1) This will vary depending on the food used. Use of a proprietary formula is recommended. Formulae designed for assisted feeding have a known caloric content.
    • When an enteral formula is provided as a dry powder, the amount needed should be calculated for the powder, before adding water, since the amount of water added may vary. (J213.10.w1)
    • The required amount should be given divided into several feeds over the day (24 hours). (J213.10.w1)
    • e.g. 10-15 mL/kg of Critical Care for Herbivores orally every 6 to 8 hours. Larger and more frequent feeds may be accepted by the patient- feed as much as the patient will accept. (B609.2.w2)
Wild lagomorphs
  • Vitamin D3 is required in lagomorphs kept without access to daylight. (J332.10.w1)
  • Sylvilagus spp. (cottontail rabbits) have been kept on a diet of hay and oats, with small amounts of vegetables - carrot, apple, dandelion, lettuce). (J332.10.w1)
    • The diet was supplemented with cod-liver oil; lack of this led to poor growth, rickets and death. (J332.10.w1)
Ferret Consideration
  • In critically ill or anorectic ferrets, assisted feeding of 12 - 25 mL (about as much as the ferret will take comfortably), 2- 4  times a day is important. The food given may be a meat-based baby food or meat-based critical care diets for cats such as Prescription Diet A/D, Hills Pet Products, with the volume to give calculated on a bodyweight basis as for cats.
  • Milk replacers for kittens can be used if needed for supplementary feeding of kits.
  • Ferrets with respiratory disease have a reduced sense of smell and may find eating difficult due to inability to breath through the nose. warm wet foods are generally most acceptable. (J213.2.w5)
    • For kits, small amounts of warm food should be offered frequently. (J213.2.w5)
    • For adults, mixing Nutrical or Linotone with the regular food may be required to increase palatability. (J213.2.w5)
    • Hand-feeding of small amounts of food may be needed. (J213.2.w5)
    • Many ferrets will drink mixtures of milk and egg yolk. (J213.2.w5)
    • Warm meat baby foods - chicken or lamb - may be taken. (J213.2.w5)
  • Ferrets which are ill and refusing solid food may take liquid diets such as Science A/D; this may also be given via syringe or pipette. (J213.2.w5)
  • A warm mash of pellets with water plus added palatable supplement or milk and egg yolk may be useful. (J213.2.w5)
  • A high-quality diet, high in animal protein and fat, low in carbohydrates and fibre. Suitable foods include: (J29.6.w3)

    • Carnivore Care for Carnivores (Oxbow Enterprises, Inc., Lincoln, Nebraska, USA). (J29.19.w1, P120.2006.w6)
    • Emeraid Carnivore Elemental Gavage (Lafeber Co., Cornell, Illinois, US). (J29.19.w1)
    • Eukanuba Maximum Calorie (Iams company, Dayton, Ohio, USA). (B602.2.w2, P120.2006.w6)
    • A/D (Hills). (B232.18.w18, B602.2.w2, J29.6.w3)

    • Totally Ferret (Performance Foods, Dayton, Ohio, USA). (J29.6.w3)

    • Nutritional Recovery Formula (Iams company, Dayton, Ohio, USA). (J29.6.w3)

  • Short term (less nutritionally balanced):

    • Strained chicken or turkey based baby food. (B602.2.w2, J29.6.w3)

    • Chicken or beef broth. (B602.2.w2)

    • Nutri-Cal (Tomlyn). (B602.2.w2)

    • Furo-Vite (Marshall Pet Products, Wolcott, New York, USA). B602.2.w2

  • To increase calories, protein and/or fat, consider adding: (J29.6.w3)
    • Deliver 2.0 (Mead Johnson, Evansville, Illinois, USA). (J29.6.w3)
    • Heavy (double) cream. (J29.6.w3)
    • Cooked egg. (J29.6.w3)
    • Goat's milk. (J29.6.w3)
    • Raw beef liver. (J29.6.w3)
    • Nutrical (EVSCO Pharmaceuticals, Buena, New Jersey, USA). (J29.6.w3)
  • Give 5 - 20 mL three or four times daily by syringe. (J29.19.w1)
  • Give 10 - 20 mL four to six times daily by syringe. (J29.6.w3)
  • Give 5 - 10 mL three to four times a day. (B602.2.w2, P120.2006.w6)
  •  See: Oral Medication and Syringe Feeding of Ferrets
Home-made critical care diets
  • Home-made critical care diet can be produced by grinding the normal dry diet to powder, mixing with enough water to make a gruel, then adding premium quality canned cat food, meat baby food and high-calorie supplement (e.g. Nutri-Cal, Evsco Pharmaceuticals, Buena, New Jersey, USA, or Deliver 2.0, Mead Johnson Nutritionals, Evansville, Indiana, USA) to give a batter-like consistency. (J213.7.w4)
  • For anorectic ferrets, a high-protein, high-fat diet made into a semi-liquid gruel which can be given by syringe is useful. Such mixtures are commonly known as "Duck Soup." (J213.2.w5)
  • A short-term "Duck Soup", for example for anorectic ferrets post-surgery, can be made simply from the ferret's preferred dry diet, ground to powder and with water added to make a gruel, plus high-quality canned food (e.g. Science Diet Feline Growth) and enough of an appealing supplement (e.g. Nutrical) to make it palatable. This can be prepared then frozen in ice-cube trays, with individual cubes thawed and warmed for feeding. (J213.2.w5)
    • Other ingredients may include salt-free, sugar-free baby meats (e.g. chicken, lamb), Ensure plus (Abbott Laboratories), Sustacal or another high-calorie supplement (add a similar amount to the amount of water which was added to the dry food), Linotone (Ferritone, vitamin E (400 IU per two cups of total mixture), vitamin K (100 g per 2 cups mixture), brewer's yeast, puppy or kitten milk replacer, vitamin B complex, chromium (200 g per two cups mixture), and corn syrup. (J213.2.w5)
  • First-stage pureed baby foods (chicken or turkey), or Ensure plus (Abbott Laboratories, Ross Products Division, Columbus, Ohio, USA) can be used short-term. Change to a more balanced product once this is available. (J29.19.w1)
  • Note: avoid products high in carbohydrate; these are not suitable for ferrets. (B602.2.w2, J29.19.w1)
Bonobo Consideration
  • Ensure (Abbott Nutrition) has been used as a supportive addition to the diet of an underweight bonobo with congestive heart failure. (D386.3.4.w3d)

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Food Presentation and Behavioural Considerations

Species vary in their natural feeding habits, with many herbivores feeding during the greater part of their total period of activity, while some carnivores feed more intermittently and consume varying amounts at a given meal (depending on availability). (B438.24.w24)
  • In the wild, most mammals would spend a considerable proportion of their time foraging. In captivity, food is frequently presented in a nutritional but possibly monotonous form, and may be consumable in a short period of time. This may cause behavioural deprivation and may lead to the development of food-related stereotypic behaviours.
    • Some carnivores normally would hunt and kill a large prey animal, gorge, and feed again from the same kill on subsequent days.
  • Food is usually presented in feed bowls, troughs or similar (to reduce spillage and associated wasting, spoiling and encouragement of vermin); this unnatural concentration of food may lead to excessive competition between individuals, with a risk that subordinate individuals may not get sufficient nutrition. It is important to ensure that food are available to all individuals.
    • Increasing the number of feeding points, and spacing them at greater distances, should increase the number of individuals able to feed at one time, and minimise competition and conflict.
    • Separate or protected feeding stations may be needed for certain individuals, particularly when animals are newly introduced and not yet fully integrated into their new social group.
    • Care is required in design of feeding stations, number of feeding stations and times of feeding to ensure that all animals have access to the food, and also to minimise accessibility of food to pests.
  • Persuading animals to eat a food which is new to them may be difficult. As a rule, species with highly specialized diets are more difficult to encourage onto other foods than are more generalist species, although many species show some degree of reluctance to eat novel foods or food presented in a novel way. Gradual transition to a new diet may be required particularly for adult animals. In social species, acceptance by one individual may be the key to acceptance of the new food by the rest of the group.
    • Note: acceptance by a key, usually dominant, individual is important in some species (e.g. in primates). 
  • At all times, consideration should be made in providing food to making the presentation of the food compatible with the normal feeding behaviour of the species being fed.
  • The method of food presentation should also be chosen to provide environmental enrichment.
  • Food should be presented in an appropriate location for the species; for example, providing food on the ground should be avoided for species which are primarily arboreal.
  • Food for species which mainly feed at night should be provided in the evening, not placed in the enclosure early in the day. (B469.3.w3)
  • It is important to remember that when a variety of foods are made available, rather than a monotonous but balanced complete food, the animals will not necessarily choose "a balanced diet". Care must be taken to minimise the risk that food eaten by each individual will be nutritionally inadequate.
    • Group-fed animals are usually fed more than required, to ensure that sufficient food is available to subordinate individuals. Therefore not all food will be eaten. (B429.10.w10)
    • When animals are group fed, dominant individuals may choose preferred items and subordinate individuals may have to take what is left. Both dominant and subordinate individuals may thereby eat an unbalanced diet. (B429.10.w10)
  • While carcass feeding can be beneficial to promote a range of natural food processing behaviours, there are a number of health considerations limiting the use of carcasses: (D315.2.w2)
    • Animals which have died of illness or of an unknown cause must not be fed to other animals. (D315.2.w2)
    • Animals which are known or suspected to have Johne's disease should not be fed to other animals. (D315.2.w2)
    • Animals with signs of a CNS disorder must not be fed to other animals, due to the risk of the transmissible spongiform encephalopathies. (D315.2.w2)
    • "Downer" animals may be used only if they were suffering from physical injuries only, and these must be properly processed. (D315.2.w2)
    • Road-kill, if used at all, must be used only if fresh, wholesome and in good condition, having been checked internally for signs of illness, and the carcass must be removed from the enclosure when it begins to spoil, or after 12 hours. (D315.2.w2)
      • The use of road-kill is discouraged. (D317)
  • Note: Particular care may be required to encourage feeding in newly-arrived individuals and in individuals of social species which have been isolated, for example during quarantine.

(B33.1.w1, B105.20.w5, B429.2.w2, B438.7.w7, B438.24.w24, B469.3.w3, P1.1968.w2, P1.1976.w3)

For further information on feeding as a means of environmental enrichment see: Mammal Behavioural Requirements (Mammal Husbandry and Management) - Feeding Methods

Bear Consideration

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In the wild, for most bear species most of the time, food sources are scattered and the bear has to travel to reach different foods. Additionally, food must be gathered by digging through soil, tearing open logs, turning over stones, climbing trees and gathering branches etc. Bears may spend large proportions of the day foraging and take in food in a number of relatively small meals rather than one large meal (there are exceptions, such as polar bears feeding on seals, brown bears feeding on large mammal carcasses or spawning salmon, etc.). Feeding methods in captivity should take these wild behaviours into account. 

The standard system for feeding bears historically has been to provide food once daily within the indoor cages. (D247.5.w5)

  • Evidence suggests that this method of feeding promotes the development of stereotypic behaviour. (B446.w4, B447.w4 D247.5.w5)
  • Food presentation methods, and providing variety of food items, can be used to provide stimulation. (B407.w6)
  • Further information on the use of food provision for behavioural enrichment is provided in Mammal Behavioural Requirements - Feeding Methods
Frequency of feeding
  • Rather than feeding once a day, more frequent feeding with smaller amounts of food, by different means of presentation, more closely matches food availability in the wild. (J23.18.w1) 
  • In general, bears should be offered food at least three times a day, with most being offered scattered in the outdoor enclosure (see below: Feeding sites).
    • For species with seasonal variations in natural food intake, the number of feeds should be increased to increase the amount fed at the time when food would naturally be most plentiful - e.g. Ursus arctos - Brown bears may be offered six feeds a day in autumn. (D247.5.w5)
    • Fast days per se are inappropriate for bears. (B447.w5, D247.5.w5)
      • Anticipation of food appears to be an important stressor on captive bears (with stereotypic behaviours increasing prior to provision of food) and starve days appear to increase this stress. (B447.w5)
    • If Ursus maritimus - Polar bear are given a large meal of meat, filling the gut well, such that (from previous experience with the individual bears) it is known little food will be accepted in the day or days following, it may be appropriate not to feed until two or three days later. (D247.5.w5)
    • Feeding four times a day, including a main feed early in the day and at least two scatter feeds is recommended to increase foraging behaviour. (B447.w5)
  • If Ursus maritimus - Polar bear are fed main meals twice daily (early morning and late afternoon), this should be supplemented by additional feeding opportunities, irregularly timed and provided at different locations within the enclosure. (D315.2.w2)
    • Note: polar bears in zoos may easily gain excessive weight; the calorific value of foods used for enrichment should be calculated and allowed for in the overall diet. (D315.2.w2)
    • The Manitoba Polar Bear Protection Regulation requires that as well as the regular feeding schedule, polar bears are provided with "irregularly timed and located feedings involving foods not normally served." (LCofC10 - [Full text provided])
Food item preparation
  • Food should be provided in forms which require manipulation and processing of the food items by the bear. (D247.5.w5)
    • Whole fruits and vegetables (e.g. apples, pears, melons, cucumbers) promote food manipulation using the paws, claws, lips and teeth. (D247.5.w5)
    • Food provided inside ice blocks or containers increases foraging behaviour and gives bears an opportunity to work for their food. (B447.w5)
  • Food in small pieces should be given as scatter feeds, so that the bear has to forage for the food, moving around the enclosure. (D247.5.w5)
  • Meat should be provided as whole carcasses of small items (pigeon, chicken, rabbit, rat) or large portions of larger mammals, including bone and if possible hide. (D247.5.w5)
    • For enclosures with a water moat, a securing device should be provided to which the carcass can be chained. (D247.5.w5)
    • Note: There is a single report of foot infection associated with a foreign body (piece of turkey bone) presumably originating from a whole turkey carcass given to a Ursus maritimus - Polar bear as part of food-related environmental enrichment. Continued use of this enrichment after the diagnosis did not result in any further problems. (J2.32.w4)
  • Use of mechanical feeders should be considered only if these have been carefully designed and tested. (B447.w5)
  • Food should not be left near the enclosure, since bears can smell this food and will expect to be fed. (B447.w5)
  • For Ursus maritimus - Polar bear:
    • The Manitoba Polar Bear Protection Regulation requires that both hard and soft foods are provided. (LCofC10 - [Full text provided])
    • Soft foods such as ground meat or slab meat should be fed first, then dry diet, then fish and vegetables, with bones and chew items such as hide or carcasses fed last, to help remove soft and sticky foods from the teeth. (D251.4.w4, D315.2.w2)
    • It may be important to feed bones more than once a week to promote oral health. (D251.4.w4, D315.2.w2)
    • The presentation of food items should be varied to provide behavioural enrichment; foods used for environmental enrichment should be handled and stored to the same standards as other foods. (D315.2.w2)
    • Whole carcasses may be offered to promote a range of feeding and foraging behaviours. Care must be taken if road kill is used - it must be fresh, in good condition, with the carcass opened to allow inspection and detection of any internal lesions indicating infectious disease, and must be removed when it begins to spoil, or after 12 hours. (D315.2.w2)
    • Note: In the US, APHIS standards for marine mammals, including Ursus maritimus - Polar bear state that: "Food receptacles, if used, must be located so as to be accessible to all marine mammals in the same primary enclosure and must be placed so as to minimize contamination of the food they contain. Such food receptacles must be cleaned and sanitized after each use." For individual animal feeding, the standards state: "Food, when given to each marine mammal individually, must be given by an employee or attendant responsible to management who has the necessary knowledge to assure that each marine mammal receives an adequate quantity of food to maintain it in good health. Such employee or attendant is required to have the ability to recognize deviations from a normal state of good health in each marine mammal so that the food intake can be adjusted accordingly." (LCofC9)
Feeding sites
Hand feeding by keepers
  • Keepers may hand-feed bears with tit-bits as part of a process of building up trust and mutual respect. (B407.w5, D315.2.w2)
  • Hand feeding also provides a way to give oral medication. (D315.2.w2)
  • Note: for safety, hand feeding should be carried out by the use of "meat sticks", as strongly suggested by the AZA Bear Tag, (D315.2.w2); alternatively, it should be carried out by the bear sticking its tongue out through the barrier, not by the keeper putting a hand inside; care is needed to ensure the keeper's hands do not enter the bear's space. (B407.w5, D315.2.w2)
  • It is important to remember that bears are powerful and could easily injure or kill a human. In particular, it is important to remember this when dealing with juvenile or adult bears who were hand-reared and appear tame. (D315.2.w2)
Food presentation during rehabilitation
  • Feeding of bears in rehabilitation accommodation should be done in a manner such that the bears do not associate humans as the source of food. Food items should be scattered around the enclosure following cleaning, with a lag period of time before the bears are allowed back into the enclosure. The items should be distributed in a manner to encourage normal foraging behaviour and not be associated with a routine vessel such as a food bowl. Enrichment devices should also be employed as a means of food delivery. Observation of bear feeding behaviours should be accomplished remotely (i.e. via video monitoring or from a blind) so the bears do not become accustomed to being observed by humans. (V.w93)

Lagomorph Consideration

Water drinking bottle. Click here for full page view with caption Feeding box for hares, mixed species exhibit.  Click here for full page view with caption Rabbit with hay and water. Click here for full page view with caption. Rabbit pen with hite etc. Click here for full page view with caption Rabbit eating vegetables. Click here for full page view with caption.

Domestic rabbit
  • Rabbits generally feed mainly at night and in the early morning. (B614.14.w14)
    • Consider feeding the rabbit most of its food in the evening rather than the morning; wild rabbits feed at mainly dusk and dawn, rather than during the day (B620), and experimentally, feeding in the afternoon rather than the morning reduced abnormal behaviour of caged laboratory rabbits. (J83.33.w3)
  • Rabbits are fastidious eaters; odour, texture, form and presentation method may all affect whether a rabbit finds a food acceptable. (B604.2.w2)
  • Rabbits will decrease food consumption at temperatures above about 20 C. (B614.14.w14)
  • Note: Treats should preferably be made of hay, or be of herbs or e.g. broccoli, with high-concentrate treats (including fruit and carrots) given only sparingly. (B622.4.w4)


  • Ideally, domestic rabbits should be given several hours each day when they can graze. (B600.2.w2)
    • Take care to introduce access to grass gradually, particularly in spring when the grass can be very lush. (N12.38.w2)
  • If grazing is limited or unavailable, fresh grass can be picked daily and given to the rabbit. (B600.2.w2)
    • Grass should be hand-picked, not lawn mower clippings. Mower clippings rapidly ferment, so are not suitable. (B600.2.w2)
    • Note: there is a small risk that rabbits fed grass will ingest parasites from wild rabbits, dogs or foxes. (B600.2.w2)
  • Rabbits given access to a garden will eat a variety of plants, showing individual preferences, and eating not only new shoots but also older, fibrous vegetation, tree leaves (particularly fallen leaves in autumn), bark from branches and the bases of trees, and exposed roots (they may chew through these). Plants which they will eat include dandelions, brambles and raspberry leaves, young docks, chickweed, sow thistle, groundsel, clover, plantain, goose grass, vetches, ground elder etc. (They will also eat herbs, annual bedding plants and ornamental shrubs if they can access them). (B600.2.w2)

Feeding hay

  • As an alternative to grass, or to supplement available grass, hay can be offered. (B600.2.w2, J60.9.w1)
  • Good quality, fresh, dust-free hay suitable for horses should also be suitable for rabbits. (B600.2.w2)
  • Hay is eaten more slowly than are concentrate foods, which keeps the rabbit occupied, avoiding boredom. (J60.9.w1, N36.Jan05.w1)
  • Note: given free access to hay and to concentrate foods, rabbits will eat a significant portion of their diet as hay. (J60.9.w1)
  • Hay can be fed on the ground or in hayracks. (B600.2.w2)
    • Feeding from racks or hay nets reduces contamination of the hay and increases the time the rabbit spends feeding. (B601.1.w1)
    • However, feeding in overhead hayracks increases the risk of dust and hay fragments getting into the eyes of rabbits. (B600.2.w2)
Feeding green foods
  • The stalks of sprouts can be given to rabbits to gnaw - they can be cut into four pieces first. (B621.II.w2)
  • Offering different types of food may provide taste enrichment. (J232.46.w1)
  • Give access to the garden for rabbits to chose their own wild plants to eat. Rabbits given access to a garden will eat a variety of plants, showing individual preferences, and eating not only new shoots but also older, fibrous vegetation, tree leaves (particularly fallen leaves in autumn), bark from branches and the bases of trees, and exposed roots (they may chew through these). (B600.2.w2)
  • Offer branches of apple, willow or hazel. (B624)

Feeding concentrates

  • Concentrate foods should be fed in small amounts, once or twice a day; this encourages feeding on hay etc. the rest of the time. Constant access to high-energy concentrate foods increases the risk of obesity. (B554.22.w22, B604.2.w2)
  • Concentrate foods can be given inside a puzzle-feeder such as a ball with holes in, so that the food pieces drop out as the ball is moved. (N34.Autumn07.w2)
  • Concentrate foods can be hidden for the rabbit to find. (B620, N34.Autumn07.w2)

Changing diets

  • When changing diets, do so gradually over four to five days or more (mixing the old and new diets) to allow the rabbit's gastrointestinal system and associated microflora to adjust to the new diet. (B601.1.w1, B604.2.w2)
  • Note: Rabbits may get accustomed to a particular diet and be reluctant to change to a different diet. New diets should be introduced gradually. (B600.2.w2)


  • Water should always be available. (B554.22.w22)
  • Water bottle nozzles should preferably be stainless steel rather than softer aluminium, to better withstand chewing. (B554.22.w22)
  • Preferably have two bottles so the fresh bottle can be provided while the first bottle is being cleaned or, in winter, unfrozen. (B554.22.w22, N34.Winter07.w2)
Wild lagomorphs
  • At Basle Zoo, hares were given hay in racks attached to the doors of the enclosures. The racks had a sloping roof to ensure the hare would slide off, not get their legs caught. (B525.11.w11)
  • For wild lagomorphs undergoing rehabilitation see also: Feeding of Casualty Rabbits and Hares
  • Note: water should be provided ad libitum in a bowl or similar: do not assume that wild lagomorphs will use a drinking bottle as some may not. (B64.22.w8, V.w5, V.w134)
Ferret Consideration Ferrets are designed to eat little and often. Food and water should always be available. (B339.9.w9, J213.2.w5)
  • While it is possible to feed a ferret only twice daily, they would normally take a number of small feeds per day (e.g. nine or 10). (and more frequent "little and often" feeding is better. (B232.3.w3, B652.5.w5)
  • Ferrets can be fed to appetite (so that a small amount of food is left over). (B651.5.w5) 
    • Generally, unless fed large amounts of high-fat treats, ferrets will not become pathologically obese if provided with ad libitum food. (J213.2.w5)
  • Small prey items such as mice or chicks can be fed whole. Larger carcasses such as rabbits can either be divided into portions or minced (including the bones, skin and fur). (B652.5.w5)
  • Food preferences as indicated by ferrets offered various items indicate a liking for chicken, preference for animal fats rather than vegetable fats, and a dislike for fish. (J213.2.w5)
    • Diets designed for mink are often high in fish and, although nutritionally adequate for ferrets, will therefore be refused if offered alongside other foods. (J213.2.w5)
    • Fish does make up part of the diet of wild Mustela putorius - Polecat. (B652.5.w5)
  • Note: Ferrets may reject, and refuse to eat, foods which they consider unpalatable, such as those with a strong fish flavour, even if they are nutritionally adequate. (J213.2.w5)
  • Ferrets can develop a preference for just one or a small number of foods (flavour/texture). Once this has occurred, it is very difficult to persuade it to eat other foods. (J213.2.w5)
    • The preference is fixed by the time the ferret is just four months old. (B602.1.w1)
  • While ferrets may enthusiastically eat a wide range of snacks, if given free access to these they may choose an unbalanced diet leading to gross malnourishment. Snacks which are not in themselves balanced foods should be given in very small quantities, to avoid unbalancing the diet. (J213.2.w5)
  • Increase interest of pelleted diets by scatter feeding, or hiding the food (e.g. in boxes, drainpipes, or in a ball with large holes) so that ferrets have to search and/or work to obtain it. (B631.17.w17)
  • When changing diets, including from one brand of kibble diet to another, make the change gradually and check that the ferret is accepting the new food. (D400
Hoarding food
  • It is normal for ferrets to hide food, and then to make use of this food later. (J213.2.w5)
    • Note: Hoarded food needs to be found and removed frequently, particularly in summer, before maggots start developing in it. (B652.5.w5)
    • This is particularly a problem if raw meat is fed during summer. (D400)
  • Water should be provided in a bottle and/or a bowl. Bottles produce less mess: ferrets tend to play with water bowls. (B339.9.w9)
  • If a bowl is used it should be heavy, or securely attached to the cage, to prevent it being tipped up. (B339.9.w9)
  • A clean cat litter tray weighted down e.g. by a brick can be used. (D400)
  • Bottles should be thoroughly cleaned and refilled every day. (B339.9.w9)
  • Bowls or trays of water should be checked regularly. They should be topped up if the water level is getting low, and the water should be changed if it is getting dirty (discoloured, foreign matter floating in it). (D401 - full text included
Bonobo Consideration

Bonobo with browse Forage tray Feeder barrel for bonobos Bonobo with hose strips smeared with honey Feeder log with holes Bonobos using tube feeder Scatter feeding pieces of vegetable


Wild bonobos show several periods of feeding at fruit patches during the day, interspersed with periods of travelling, although some foods are also eaten while travelling. Food sharing other than mother to offspring has been observed associated with large fruits as well as with meat. See: 

In zoos, bonobos are generally fed several times during the day. (D386.3.3.w3c) Feeding times are generally fixed and may include when bonobos are placed in night cages and when they are let out into daytime accommodation in the morning, as well as one or more further feeding times during the day.

Bonobos tend to exhibit socio-sexual behaviours including G/G rubbing, copulation, penile erection and mounting during feeding times. (D386.3.4.w3d)

Food should be provided in several places to ensure that subordinate males are not prevented from feeding. (D386.3.3.w3c)

  • At some zoos, it has been necessary to separate some individuals for feeding, to ensure they get enough food, or get their share of favoured items. (D386.3.3.w3c)

Increased time spent in feeding can be encouraged by:

  • Providing browse.
  • Scattering food for the bonobos so that they have to forage through the substrate (grass, hay, straw, woodwool, leaves).
  • Providing food (e.g. honey, small nuts, seeds, peanut butter) in holes in logs or wooden blocks , to be retrieved using sticks as tools
  • Giving fruits or vegetables whole.
  • Hiding food in boxes or tree trunks.
  • Placing small items of food into a container (e.g. a bottle) stuffed with woodwool to stop it falling out.
  • Placing food items into cervices e.g. in tree trunks
  • Hiding food inside jute bags tied with rope.
  • Placing food on a mesh roof of an enclosure.
  • Placing food (peanuts) inside a boomer ball with only one or two hols for the nuts to fall out, then placing this on the mesh roof.


Bonobos will also make use of naturally available foods, for example in the group of bonobos at Wild Animal Park Plankendael, Belgium, the bonobos have been observed wading into the moat to collect naturally-growing vegetation, as well as to retrieve food thrown by visitors (such food throwing is discouraged, but happens). (P86.5.w1)

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Feeding of Mammals by the General Public

  • Feeding of mammals by the general public, whether in their own gardens, public places such as parks, or collections open to the public may be beneficial or detrimental to the mammals concerned.
  • There is a risk of disease associated with the artificial concentration of animals at feeding points, particularly where large quantities of feed are provided and, therefore, large number of animals congregate.
  • Within collections, feeding of mammals by members of the public is usually banned. Signs usually explain that the animals have a nutritionally balanced diet and that additional items will unbalance the diet and may harm the animals.

Bear Consideration

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In zoos
  • It is NOT recommended that members of the public be allowed to feed bears in collections.
  • Care should be taken to ensure that poisonous plants are not available near to bear enclosures and in reach of the public, to avoid the risk of their being given to bears by members of the public.
Bears eating garbage

In the wild, bears are inadvertently fed, sometimes considerable amounts of food, in the form of garbage. Bears sometimes aggregate at large garbage tips, as is seen with polar bears in Alaska.

  • Garbage piles may provide an important source of nutrition for bears. However, the use of garbage for food by bears may lead to increased conflict between bears and humans.
  • Within bear habitats, the feeding of bears on garbage may be discouraged by educating the public regarding the risks of allowing bears to eat garbage, and by the use of garbage containers which are specially designed so that humans can open them to deposit garbage, but bears cannot open them to retrieve objects.
  • For further information on the potential problems associated with bears feeding on garbage, and on reducing availability of garbage to bears, see: Management of Unwanted or Illegally Held Animals - "Nuisance" Individual Wild Animals
Feeding wild bears

In some areas, people feed bears so that they can watch and photograph the bears. Depending on the country/state, this may be illegal. (W626.Mar06.w1) Also, in some areas hunters place bait to attract bears, making them easier to shoot. This too may be illegal.

  • Feeding bears causes bears to associate people with food. This results in bears investigating humans and human activity, whether or not food is present, and can increase conflicts between humans and bears. (W626.Mar06.w1)

Lagomorph Consideration

DCB_Dont_Feed_Sign0478.jpg (40802 bytes)

Domestic rabbit
  • Feeding by the public (e.g. of rabbits in open farms and in a zoo "pets corner" should be discouraged, as they are likely to provide unsuitable items which may upset the rabbit's gastro-intestinal tract. Additionally, treats will unbalance the diet. (V.w5)
Wild lagomorphs
  • Feeding by the public should be discouraged, as they are likely to provide unsuitable items which may upset the gastro-intestinal tract. (V.w5)
Ferret Consideration
  • Members if the public should not be allowed to feed ferrets on display, as foods given are unlikely to be nutritionally balanced. (V.w5)
Bonobo Consideration
  • Feeding of bonobos by the public is discouraged, but cannot always be prevented. At Wild Animal Park Plankendael, Belgium, the bonobos have been observed wading into the moat to retrieve food thrown by visitors. (P86.5.w1)

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Food Handling and Hygiene

  • Foods commonly deteriorate during storage; the rate of deterioration varies depending on the type of food, and on storage conditions such as temperature and humidity.
  • Foodstuffs should be stored at the correct temperature and humidity conditions for the different foods. 
  • Large plastic bins or galvanized feedbins may be used for storing food such as grain and pellets. Bins should be kept closed to exclude vermin, and spilt food swept up and removed to avoid encouraging vermin. 
  • Feed in sacks should be stored in a cool dry place. Sacks should be stacked on pallets rather than placed directly onto an earth or concrete floor. For longer storage, pellets may be kept refrigerated or frozen.
  • Manufactured feeds have a "use by" or "expiry" date, after which their stated composition (particularly vitamin levels) may not be considered valid.
  • Foods should be used in rotation, avoiding new foods being used before older batches. If feed is removed from feed bins by being scooped from the top of the bin, it is advisable to completely empty the bin before adding a new batch of food, to avoid old food remaining at the bottom of the bin. This is good practice with any feedstuff, whether or not it has an official expiry date. If feed is stored in a sack within a bin, spilt food should be removed from the bottom of the bin every time a sack is finished.
  • Periodic emptying of food storage containers also reduces the risk of food becoming mouldy. Mouldy food may lead to Aspergillosis, or may contain mycotoxins (fungal toxins). Mouldy food should be cleared from food bins and never used for feeding. Food should not be left to go mouldy in enclosures, and if mouldy food is found in an enclosure it should be removed at once. Food is most likely to become mouldy if it has a high moisture content and/or is kept in moist conditions, particularly in a warm environment.
  • Care should be taken to minimise consumption of food by pests such as wild birds and rodents, both during storage and after food has been offered to animals.
  • Most foodstuffs should be stored in a cool, clean, dry (low humidity) place away from vermin such as rodents and insects. 
    • Rodent droppings in feed have been associated with outbreaks of enteritis.
  • Hays should be visually checked to ensure they do not contain known toxic plants.

(B10.3.w18, B23.17.w3, B438.24.w24, B429.2.w2, B469.3.w3, V.w5)

Handling and storage of fish, meat and whole prey
  • Meat is more likely to decompose quickly than is food of vegetable origin, therefore more care is required in feeding meat diets. (B469.3.w3)
  • Only high-quality fish, meat or whole prey should be bought, in sizes appropriate for feeding whole. The origin of the catch should be obtained. (D260, D261)
  • Use of only one type of fish, meat or prey item for a prolonged period should be avoided, as animals may then refuse to accept substitutes; the diet also is less likely to be nutritionally balanced if only a single item is fed. (D260, D261)
  • Preferably, fish/meat should be obtained packaged in quantities sufficient for feeding in one day; if less than a pack per day is used then individually quick frozen (IQF) fish/meat or a shatter pack should be used. (D260, D261)
  • Every consignment should be checked to ensure that:
    • The correct fish, meat or prey items (size, type, quantity etc.) have been delivered; (D260, D261)
    • The food has not been transported together with non-food items which could contaminate it; (D260, D261)
    • The temperature of transport has been correct (indicated by the temperature gauge in the storage compartment, confirmed by checking the temperature inside several containers of the food; (D260, D261)
    • The fish/meat/prey items have not been thawed and refrozen: this is evident as water or ice on the boxes of food or the floor beneath them, moist, slippery or discoloured wrappings, soft, flabby fish, an "off" colour to fish, a sour smell to fish, meat that is discoloured or brown, prey items with cloudy dull eyes and soft flesh when thawed. (D260, D261)
  • Fish once thawed should have "bright red gills, prominent clear eyes, and firm, elastic flesh." (D260) In contrast, old or thawed and refrozen fish appear dull, with cloudy, red-bordered eyes and soft flesh in which fingers easily make impressions. (D260) Thawed prey items should have clear, prominent eyes and firm flesh, meat should be red. (D261)
  • Note: items which are not in a satisfactory conditions should not be accepted. Bad meat or fish is a health hazard and could cause illness or death of animals or of individuals preparing food; it is also unpalatable. (D260, D261)
  • Fish, meat and prey items should be stored in a freezer which has been checked to ensure that it is working correctly. (D260, D261)
    • This should be set to at least as low as -18 C (0 F) but for prolonged (up to one year) storage, -23 C (-10 F) or below (as low as -30 C (-22 F) is recommended). (D260, D261)
    • No non-food items should be stored in the same freezer. (D260, D261)
    • Cold air circulation must be adequate; check that cold air ducts are not blocked. (D260, D261)
    • Temperatures in several locations within the freezer should be checked and recorded on a regular schedule.
    • A high humidity (85 - 90 %) should be maintained in the freezer to reduce the rate of dehydration of the frozen foods. (D260, D261)
  • When new fish/meat/prey arrives, old stocks should be moved so that this is used first. (D260, D261)
  • Once moved out of the freezer for thawing, fish/meat must be used within 24 hours. (D260, D261)
  • Fish/meat should be moved from the freezer to an appropriate place for defrosting quickly and in a manner which prevents defrosting during transport; if defrosting occurs then the defrosted fish/meat should be used immediately. (D260, D261)
  • Fish or meat should be thawed preferably in a refrigerator maintaining a temperature below 7 C (45 F), checked with a thermometer placed under the fish. Alternative methods are:
    • Defrosting under potable running water at 21 C (70 F) or lower, with sufficient water velocity that loose particles are floated away. This method risks nutrient loss, particularly of water-soluble nutrients; (D260)
    • Defrosting in a microwave; this must be used only if the fish/meat is to be consumed immediately. (D260)
    • Note: defrosting in still water is not recommended due to the combination of nutrient loss and the risk of increased bacterial build-up. (D260)
    • While meat is being thawed, it should preferably be kept wrapped or in a container providing insulation so the meat thaws as uniformly as possible. (D261)
    • If a large block of fish or meat is to be thawed, it should be broken into smaller pieces while still frozen, or outer portions of the block should be removed as they become thawed. (D260, D261)
  • Thawed fish should be checked for quality and processed if necessary (e.g. removing spines which may be harmful, cutting large fish into pieces if required e.g. for training); processing can take place while the fish is not yet thawed.
  • Thawed fish or meat, and fresh meat (i.e. which has never been frozen) should be stored cool, for as short a time as possible, and all fish/meat must be eaten within 24 hours of being thawed. (D260, D261)
  • All utensils, surfaces, food containers, cutting boards etc. must be cleaned and sanitised after each feed, or at least once a day; kitchens and other food-preparation areas must be cleaned daily and sanitised at least once a week. (D260, D261)
  • Note: Meat, fish and prey items should be fed cool but not frozen. Frozen meat/fish is rigid, with reduced palatability and reduced nutrient availability. (D260, D261)
  • In hot, sunny weather, it is important to ensure that meat/fish is placed in the animal's enclosure as short a time as possible before it will be eaten. (D260, D261)
  • Meat/fish should be sampled periodically to check microbial build-up, nutrient content and, at least once yearly, whether any heavy metals or other toxins are present. If there is reason to suspect a problem then testing should be carried out immediately. (D260, D261)
Waste Disposal
  • Leftover food should be removed promptly. (B469.3.w3)
  • Provision must be made for disposal of food wastes, rubbish (trash) and debris in a manner which minimises their attractiveness to vermin as well as production of odours and disease hazards. (D260, D261)

Bear Consideration

  • As with all species, it is important to maintain good hygiene in food storage and food preparation.
  • Bears should not be fed pig meat, due to the risk of their becoming infected with Trichinella (see: Trichinella Infection in Hedgehogs and Bears) and due to the risk of Aujeszky's disease (see: Pseudorabies in Bears)
  • If feeding fish, particularly salmonids (salmon and trout), consider the risks of disease transmission; feeding of fresh or improperly frozen fish may lead to infection with flukes and associated rickettsias (P507.2005.w5). See: Intestinal Fluke Infection in Bears, Elokomin Fluke Fever in Bears, Salmon Poisoning in Bears.
  • Care should be taken to check foods are not mouldy. This can be a particular problem for nuts, which must be checked carefully before feeding. (W627.Mar06.w1)
  • Consider the risks of foods becoming spoilt or mouldy if they are hidden around the enclosure; it may be necessary to remove or replace some items given in logs etc. if they are not found and eaten quickly.
  • Browse supplied to bears should be checked carefully to ensure toxic plants are not included. See: Oleander Poisoning in Waterfowl and Bears, Yew Toxicity in Bears
  • In the US, APHIS standards for marine mammals, including Ursus maritimus - Polar bear state that: "Equipment and utensils used in food preparation must be cleaned and sanitized after each use. Kitchens and other food handling areas where animal food is prepared must be cleaned at least once daily and sanitized at least once every week. Sanitizing must be accomplished by washing with hot water (8 [deg]C, 180 [deg]F, or higher) and soap or detergent in a mechanical dishwasher, or by washing all soiled surfaces with a detergent solution followed by a safe and effective disinfectant, or by cleaning all soiled surfaces with live steam. Substances such as cleansing and sanitizing agents, pesticides, and other potentially toxic agents must be stored in properly labeled containers in secured cabinets designed and located to prevent contamination of food storage preparation surfaces." (LCofC9)
Waste Disposal
  • In the US, APHIS standards for marine mammals, including Ursus maritimus - Polar bear state that: "Provision must be made for the removal and disposal of animal and food wastes, dead animals, trash, and debris. Disposal facilities must be provided and operated in a manner that will minimize odors and the risk of vermin infestation and disease hazards. All waste disposal procedures must comply with all applicable Federal, State, and local laws pertaining to pollution control, protection of the environment, and public health." (LCofC9)

Lagomorph Consideration

Bag of hay. Click here for full page view with caption Food package with appropriate information. Click here for full page view with caption.

If prepared feedstuffs (e.g. commercial rabbit pellets) are used, it is important to use them within the time for which their declared vitamin content is valid.
  • Sacks of feed preferably should be stored at 15.5 C (60 F). (B187.16.w16, B602.16.w16)
  • Keep feed in a vermin-proof area. (B187.16.w16, B602.16.w16)
  • Prepared feeds should be used preferably within 90 days of milling, and certainly within six months. (B187.16.w16, B602.16.w16)
  • Concentrate foods should be offered in a heavy bowl to prevent spillage; these can still become contaminated. Use of a food hopper prevents contamination (B554.22.w22)

When wild green foods are gathered, healthy-looking plants should be taken, from open, sunny situations.

  • Avoid gathering wild plants from areas which may have been sprayed with pesticides, or which are used by dogs. (D354)
  • Avoid plants which are mildewed or have obvious fungal growth (mouldy).
  • Provide a variety of green food.
  • Wash collected food before use.
  • Store it laid loosely on a clean surface - preferably on wire racks - until it is fed.
  • Do not store collected green food in a heap, as it will heat up (in a similar manner to grass clippings, which should not be fed).
  • If the plants are frosted, they should be allowed to thaw before being offered, and then used up quickly as they keep less well after frosting.

(B601.1.w1, B602.16.w16, B621.I.w1, D354)

  • Fresh, high-quality hay should be used. (B554.21.w21)
  • Dried grass and hay should be stored in a dry, well ventilated area to avoid mould growing. (B622.4.w4, B624)


  • Water should be changed daily. (B622.4.w4, N34.Winter07.w3)
  • Water bowls easily become contaminated and/or spilled. (B602.16.w16)
  • Bowls should be cleaned and refilled at least once a day. (B602.16.w16)
  • Water bottles are less likely to become contaminated than are water bowls; they also allow easy monitoring of the amount being drunk. (B554.22.w22, B601.1.w1)
  • Water bottles or bowls need to be cleaned regularly e.g. to prevent growth of algae. (B622.4.w4, B554.22.w22, V.w134)
  • Water bowls may lead to a wet dewlap and resultant moist dermatitis. (B601.1.w1, B602.16.w16) 
Ferret Consideration
  • Foods should be stored properly. Foods stored for too long may no longer have adequate vitamin levels. Additionally, components such as fats may go off, making the food rancid and unpalatable. (V.w5)
    • When complete pelleted diets are fed, it is important not to buy to large a quantity at one time, as these can spoil and lose vitamin content with time. (B631.17.w17)
  • Hygiene is particularly important when fresh carcasses are being fed. (B631.17.w17)
    • Care must be taken to avoid food going off while being defrosted and prepared.
    • Food which is uneaten, including food stashed by the ferret, must be removed quickly, particularly in summer, before it becomes rotten and before maggots start growing in it. (B232.3.w3, B631.17.w17, B652.5.w5)
    • If carcasses are minced, the mincer must be cleaned thoroughly. (B652.5.w5)
    • Feeding of roadkill is sometimes suggested. If this is to take place, the carcasses must be fresh and must be checked for signs of illness which may have caused the animal to be more likely to be run over. (B651.5.w5, B652.5.w5)
    • Note: ferrets are susceptible to botulism. (Avian Botulism in Waterfowl (with notes on Hedgehogs, Elephants, Bears and Ferrets))
Bonobo Consideration
  • As with all species, food should be stored in a manner which minimises deterioration, and stored and prepared in a hygienic manner. (V.w5)
  • Food scraps should be cleaned up regularly, and soiled food disposed of correctly, not left for rodents to eat, as this encourages rodents, which may spread diseases. (D425.1.2.w1b)

Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

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Authors & Referees


Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)


Ellen Dierenfeld PhD (V.w16); Mike Jordan (V.w30); Chris Lasher (V.w110); Barbara Lintzenich (V.w102)

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