We often see animals on television being given milk as comfort food or a little treat. It’s a wholesome picture. However, although milk may be safe for some animals, it’s not safe for rabbits.
What Milk Can Rabbits Not Drink?
Adult rabbits are lactose intolerant which means milk is bad for their digestive system. Their body is unable to digest the main sugar that is in milk and other dairy products.
Therefore, rabbits shouldn’t be given any type of milk. This includes:
- Cow milk
- Almond milk
- Soya milk
- Evaporated milk
Milk can be very dangerous for rabbits and should be avoided. If rabbits are given milk regularly, it can cause severe digestive issues, discomfort, and potentially other health issues.
Even milk substitutes like almond milk are not suitable for your rabbit’s sensitive digestive system and can make them unwell. Rabbits are unable to vomit, which means anything that upsets their stomach has to pass through their system. Unfortunately, this can cause health problems.
Research shows that giving your rabbit inappropriate foods including milk can cause gastrointestinal (GI) stasis.
GI stasis is: “a syndrome of reduced or absent GI motility”. This causes problems with your rabbit going to the toilet and disrupts the natural bacteria in your rabbit’s stomach. It can lead to all sorts of symptoms and can be life-threatening.
Fundamentally, adult rabbits don’t need milk and don’t get any nutritional value from it. It can make them ill, so it’s not worth the risk to give them milk.
What if My Rabbit Had Milk?
If your rabbit was mischievous and sneaked a drink of milk, or you gave them a taste of milk without knowing it wasn’t good for them, don’t panic! While it’s not good for them, a taste one time isn’t going to harm them too much.
If they’ve had a lot of milk, or you’ve been giving it to them regularly, it’s important to stop now and it’s worth getting them checked by a vet. In particular, if you’ve noticed any changes in your rabbit’s toilet habits, eating habits, or general behavior and they’ve had a lot of milk, get them straight to a vet to get checked out.
What Should Rabbits Drink?
The only drink rabbits really need is water. It’s healthy for them, it keeps them hydrated, and it ensures their body is functioning properly. You can give your rabbit tap water or purified water. They should always have access to plenty of fresh water.
How much water your rabbit should be drinking each day depends on a lot of factors, such as their size, the temperature, their activity level, and what they’re eating (leafy greens provide some hydration). Vets at First Vet recommend that a rabbit should drink: “50 to 150ml per kilo (of their body weight) per day”.
Water Bowl vs Bottle
There are two options for providing your rabbit’s water: a bowl or a bottle. There are pros and cons to both options. In general, bowls are considered better for rabbits because it’s more natural for them, mimicking how they would drink water in the wild.
Bowls are also easier for rabbits to access and allow them to get their water easily, while bottles only let out a few drops of water at a time. Bottles can break more easily than bowls and can also become clogged or even freeze in winter if your rabbit lives outdoors.
However, some rabbits are prone to knocking over their water bowls (like our rabbit before he passed away). Not only does this make a mess, but it also leaves your rabbit without water until you notice and can refill their bowl.
Bowls can also attract bits of hay, fur, and dirt making them less hygienic. Rabbits drinking from a bowl may get water down their chin which can lead to skin irritation in some rabbits.
It’s really a personal choice as to what suits your rabbit and their living situation. The Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund suggest using both a bowl and a bottle, so your rabbit always has access to water and can choose what suits them best.
|Bowl||✓ Natural behavior|
✓ Easier to access water
✓ Less likely to break
|X More likely to be knocked over|
X Can be less hygienic
X Can cause skin irritation due to sloppy drinking
|Bottle||✓ Can be more hygienic|
✓ Prevents skin irritation from wet chin
✓ Can’t be knocked over
|X Not natural|
X Harder to get water from
X Can become clogged or frozen
X Break easily
Other Alternatives to Milk
It’s best for your rabbit to stick to water. They don’t need anything else to drink to keep them healthy.
However, there are times you might want to give them something else to drink, for example, if you’re trying to encourage them to drink more if they’re unwell. You could try flavoring their water with a bit of unsweetened fruit or vegetable juice. It’s crucial it doesn’t have any unhealthy additives and that it’s very watered down so it’s not too sweet. Apple juice or carrot juice can be good options.
Some herbal teas can be ok for your rabbits to have a little taste of, but they shouldn’t be given regularly. In theory, any herbs that are safe for rabbits to eat can be given in herbal tea.
Any herbal tea you offer should be free of caffeine and contain no tea leaves. Ensure the tea contains no harmful ingredients or additions.
Some herbal tea options include:
- Lemon balm
If you do choose to give your rabbit herbal tea, always make sure it’s not too hot and that you only give a very small amount. If you’re not sure if herbal tea is safe for your bunny, you can always check with your vet (it’s always better to be safe).
Feeding a Baby Rabbit
Baby rabbits are called kits or kittens. They’re born completely vulnerable and are hairless, blind, and deaf at birth. They stay in their nest with their mother for around three weeks and she feeds them rich milk once a day.
Since rabbits only feed their young once a day and they’re often left alone during the day, people can make the mistake of thinking they’ve been abandoned or that their mother isn’t caring for them. This happens especially in the wild if people come across kits on their own. However, most of the time wild kits should be left alone and their mother will return to them.
Whether it’s in the wild or in a domestic setting, hand-rearing a baby rabbit is very difficult. Unlike many other domestic animals, hand-reared kits tend not to survive.
Therefore, it’s absolutely crucial not to remove the babies from the mother and try to hand rear them unless it’s the last option (especially if you don’t have any experience). If you have to hand rear a kit, there’s some guidance below on how to feed them.
What Milk Alternatives Should I Give a Baby Rabbit?
If you need to hand rear a baby rabbit, you absolutely should not give them cow’s milk. Even though kits aren’t lactose intolerant like adult rabbits, a rabbit’s natural milk is very different nutritionally than a cow’s milk. Cow’s milk doesn’t give kits the nutrients they need to grow and thrive, and can upset their digestive system.
Instead, you should use a milk replacement formula. Ideally, a rabbit milk replacement formula is best such as the Wombaroo Rabbit Milk Replacer. However, this can be very hard to get your hands on.
Most people find using a Kitten Milk Replacer (KMR) can be effective. You can buy it from pet stores and online. Follow the packet instructions carefully to make the formula. Even with KMR, it isn’t as high in energy and fat as rabbit milk. To make up for this, the Royal Veterinary College recommends adding: “1-part full cream for every 10 parts kitten milk replacer to increase the fat content”.
In an emergency, you can use goat’s milk until you can get your hands on a kitten milk replacer. This won’t hurt the kit and is better than nothing, but isn’t effective for more than a few feeds until you can get KMR.
How to Feed a Baby Rabbit
Once you have the right milk, it’s time to start feeding. There are some basic steps below to guide you, but if you have no experience I highly recommend contacting an animal rescue or your vet for guidance.
- Always make milk fresh for each feed.
- Milk should be fed at 35 degrees celsius (use a thermometer to check it’s not too hot or cold).
- Use a small feeding bottle with a teat or a small syringe (stick with what you first choose).
- Put the kit on their back to feed and keep them warm.
- Be very gentle and go slow to avoid aspiration of the milk (meaning inhaling the milk into their lungs).
- Put a little bit of milk onto their lips to encourage them to lick.
- Gently start to feed from there, but never force it or rush them.
- Feed them frequently throughout the day. Although their mother would only feed them once a day, when they’re being hand-reared it’s very hard to get enough milk into them even over multiple feeds each day.
- Remove any spilled milk gently from around their face with a damp cloth.
- Keep a record of how much milk they take each feed and of their weight, so you can track their progress.
- You should start weaning kits between four and six weeks. You can do this by gradually introducing high-quality pellets and hay, while slowly reducing the amount of milk feeds you offer them.
For more information, both the Royal Veterinary College and Cottontails Rescue charity have detailed guides along with pictures of how to feed baby rabbits.
Syringe vs Bowl
Kits under two weeks of age should be fed using a small bottle or syringe. Kits over two weeks of age can be offered milk from a small shallow bowl or container (like a bottle lid). It can take a while for them to get the hang of this so you should keep offering it frequently throughout the day until they get used to it. Once they’re used to it, feeding them four times a day should be enough.
What if My Rabbit Isn’t Drinking Their Milk?
If the baby won’t take the milk, there are a few things you should check. Make sure the milk is the right temperature, not too hot or cold. You should also make sure the baby themselves isn’t too cold, as they’re unlikely to feed if they’re cold.
You can try a different shaped teat if you’re using a bottle to see if they prefer that. You can also try increasing the number of feeds you offer if they’re only taking a very small amount of milk each time, to encourage them to get enough milk.
It’s always best to get them checked by a vet to ensure they’re healthy, even if they are eating well. You can always call your vet for additional advice.
Adult Rabbits Shouldn’t Drink Milk
So, now we know that adult rabbits shouldn’t have milk of any kind. Kits (baby rabbits) can have a rabbit or kitten milk replacer until they’re four to six weeks old.
It’s best to give your adult rabbit clean, fresh water each day to keep them healthy and happy!
- Oglesbee, B. L., & Lord, B. (2020). Gastrointestinal Diseases of Rabbits. Ferrets, Rabbits, and Rodents, 174–187.
- First Vet, (2022), How much should a rabbit drink?
- Rabbit Welfare Association & Fund, (2022), The Importance of Water.
- Chankuang, P., Linlawan, A., Junda, K.,et al, (2020). Comparison of Rabbit, Kitten, and Mammal Milk Replacer Efficiencies in Early Weaning Rabbits. Animals: an open access journal from MDPI, 10(6), 1087.
- Royal Veterinary College, (2021), Guide to Hand Rearing Baby Rabbits.
- CottonTails Rescue, (2020), Hand Rearing of Rabbits.