I started raising rabbits about 25 years ago, and they are still my favorite animal on the homestead.
Rabbits can eat tree leaves. Most tree leaves are a healthful snack, and many are very nutritious for rabbits. Some trees are grown specifically for rabbit feed. Most tree leaves are good sources of protein and minerals for rabbits. Leaves should generally make up no more than 50 percent of a rabbit’s diet.
feeding leaves to rabbits is usually a good thing, but you have to know what you are doing. It’s a way to be more sustainable, but too much or the wrong type of leaves can result in poor health and growth of your rabbits.
Best Tree Leaves for Rabbits
Almost all trees have good leaves for rabbits. Tree leaves are highly digestible and very nutritious for rabbits. They are high in essential minerals, but low in several vitamins. Leaves are also more prolific and drought-tolerant than hay crops.
I’ve fed a lot of poplar, maple, and autumn olive leaves to my rabbits. Also, a bit of oak, wild cherry, and mulberry. They always seem to gobble them right up. Rabbits love fresh greens over those dried up old pellets most people give them. Fresh greens have a sweeter flavor from all the natural sugars.
For the most part, tree leaves can make up a large portion of a rabbit’s diet without any concern. If I had rabbits strictly as pets, I would be tempted to feed them solely on tree leaves. Tree leaves can very easily be a complete feed for mature, non-breeding rabbits and can be a major component in breeder feed.
The most amazing thing about tree leaves is the high protein levels. Tree leaves have higher protein levels than grasses. Some quite considerably so. Most grass has between 6 and 10 percent protein. Most trees are between 13 and 20 percent protein. Trees tend to have something like twice the calcium of grass too.
Some leaves are a bit low in protein, but some are quite high. Young bunnies need about 16 or 18 percent protein to achieve full-growth and pregnant or nursing does need the same to have strong, healthy litters.
I believe autumn olive leaves to be lower in protein because I saw poor growth on bunnies and some weight loss in my adults when fed almost purely autumn olive leaves for a month. I’ve seen good results from poplar and it turns out, poplar is a high-protein leaf. Here are some examples of high-protein leaves.
High-Protein Leaves for Rabbits
- Poplar (cottonwood)
Tree Leaves Rabbits Shouldn’t Eat
Wild cherry, red maple, and red oak have been known to pose toxicity issues in livestock. Wild cherry contains two compounds, that when brought together, can form a prussic acid. Prussic acid, when metabolized, can form a cyanide compound. Fortunately, that’s only an issue in wilted leaves.
I feed wild cherry leaves and twigs to my rabbits, and to my pigs. They absolutely love them and I haven’t seen any bad side effects. I only offer freshly picked wild cherry leaves and don’t give them a ton, but a small handful each. With my experience, I’ll keep doing it.
Red maple leaves can pose toxicity risks to horses, and perhaps rabbits. As the leaves turn red in the fall, they become toxic and remain that way for a few weeks. Currently, the toxin hasn’t been identified, but it seems to destroy hemoglobin in the blood of horses. It’s also thought that wilted leave may be risky.
Oak leaves are high in tannins. Too many tannins cause toxicity. Young oak leaves and green acorns are higher in tannins. Oak leaves can be fed to rabbits but should be only a few in limited amounts. I’d be fine feeding up to 10 percent of a rabbit’s daily diet in oak leaves. They are very safe as an occasional snack.
Balancing a Rabbit’s diet with Tree Leaves
A mix of 50/50 tree leaves and grass would be a fine general diet for rabbits. Grass is high in vitamins and leaves are high in minerals and protein, so it’d be a fair combination. For growing bunnies or active mothers, they would definitely benefit from blending in the higher protein leaves.
A balanced diet is always better than feeding just one or two things. If you feed one type of leaf today, offer them a different type tomorrow. Switch up the type of grass, or include other greens or vegetables now and then. A varied diet keeps animals healthy and happy.
How to Harvest Tree Leaves for Rabbits.
The simplest way is to pick them by hand. Small leafy branches can be cut and fed to rabbits. Leaves can also be collected and stored as tree hay, and fed over the winter. Tree hay is usually three to five-foot boughs filled with leaves, tightly bundled to store well. It can last for months in cold weather.
If you or someone you know cuts trees for firewood, that may be a great way to collect a large volume of leafy boughs. They can be stored in a shed, garage, or in my case, in a greenhouse. If you were to stack them on a pallet, they could be piled high and covered with a tarp, like hay bales.
Another option is to cultivate trees as a fodder crop by polling trees. Polling is cutting the trunk short on younger trees so the main growth stops there and many short straight branches, or poles, grow from the nubbed top. This way, you get a big ball-like leafy canopy that’s within reachable height.
I am planning on polling a lot of trees this winter. Hopefully, it goes well. I want to use fodder trees to help us do better should we get another drought year like this one.
If you do give rabbits small boughs, or branches with leaves on them, they will often chew on and eat part of the sticks too. Rabbits can actually get feed value from tender twigs and the newer, softer tree growth just like deer and goats can. The thin bark on fresh twigs is very nutritious for rabbits.
In the wild, the bark of saplings is what helps them get through winter. Here, the wild cottontails particularly like to chew bark from the staghorn sumac after the snow hits. That makes me wonder if it isn’t the more nutritious option in the area.