Can Rabbits Have Oats?
Feeding our animal companions is not as straightforward of a task as it ought to be. Though many people manage to escort their pet dogs (who are omnivores with dietary needs that are at least somewhat similar to our own) through life on a diet of mostly kibble with fresh fruits and vegetables as healthy treats, other animals have much stricter dietary needs. Dogs and cats, the most popular animal species when people are looking for four-legged critters to share their homes with, have a wide range of food products that have been formulated specifically to meet their daily dietary needs. Even hamsters can do okay on diets that consist predominantly of foods marketed as “hamster mix.”
When we get away from those types of animals, however, things get a little trickier. Whereas dogs can eat a lot of the same foods that we can eat, rabbits are herbivores, and the foods marketed for them look like lawn clippings that have been left on the sidewalk to dry out for a few days. To make matters even more stressful, the bags of hay marketed as ‘rabbit food’ don’t come with all the other nutrients that buns need in order to step up from surviving to thriving— in addition to hay, they need ‘balanced diets’ that include other foods!
Looking at our own food pyramid, we tend to notice the prominence of whole grains. We probably know that it isn’t a good idea to give our rabbit whole grain toast, but what about oats? After all, other small animals seem to love snacks that include rolled oats. But is that safe for buns? Can you give your rabbit oats?
The answer to whether or not rabbits ‘can’ eat oats is yes, but that does not mean that they ‘should’ eat oats. Both raw and cooked oats are totally nontoxic—you do not need to freak out if you have already sprinkled some of your Quaker rolled oats into your bunny’s food—but they are not a great choice for maintaining health and fitness. While oats are a great choice for animals like humans, who thrive on starchy foods, they can cause problems for grazing herbivores like rabbits, who are not well suited to eating a lot of starch. Oats are a safe treat option for healthy adult bunnies, and they might even be beneficial for those who are underweight, but you definitely should not give your furry friend oats for breakfast each morning.
Nevertheless, there are some rabbits who may benefit from eating small quantities of oats—for the exact same reason why most rabbits should avoid them. Though oatmeal is the epitome of a healthy human breakfast (even among people who are trying to drop a few pounds), oats are actually quite calorie-dense foods. This is why oats are such a great staple for athletes and growing children—they are chock full of the energy that these people’s bodies need in order to stay fit and healthy.
For this reason, oats can actually be helpful for rabbits who are underweight. They are rich in complex carbohydrates that can provide the energy necessary for your skinny bunny to fuel their body while it grows and repairs, and they also provide moderate amounts of both fiber and protein. Protein, of course, provides the amino acids your bun’s body uses to build and maintain muscle, hair, skin, and nails.
Fiber is an important part of why oats are a good weight gain food for rabbits. Unlike humans (who can survive even if their diets are horrifyingly lacking in plant foods), rabbits actually need fiber in order to keep their bodies running—without adequate fiber, the rabbit gastrointestinal tract can shut down completely. The presence of fiber in the gut is what keeps food moving from one digestive organ to the next.
If a rabbit eats a lot of starch without consuming enough fiber, the food sits in their gut for an extended period of time, where it begins to grow bad bacteria that can wreak havoc on the microbiome. This is why foods like pasta, bread, and potatoes are such a bad idea even for bunnies who need to gain weight.
Oats are one of the few starchy foods that are fairly easy to digest, so, if fed properly, they probably will not upset your bun’s stomach. People who work at animal shelters or rabbit rescue centers often feed oats to orphaned bunnies or rabbits who are severely underweight.
While oats make great ‘growth formula’ for scrawny bunnies, rabbits who are already at a healthy weight should not consume them with any regularity. Your rabbit is a fraction of your size, and they have much lower calorie needs than you do! Rabbits who eat oats on a regular basis will probably gain weight and become overweight or even obese, which can increase their risk of becoming seriously ill. Fat rabbits are more likely to develop foot infections, insulin resistance, diabetes, heart and lung problems, arthritis, and depression.
Things to Consider
Obesity can seriously decrease your rabbit’s quality of life, and, once a bunny gets obese, it can be very difficult to get them back down to a healthy weight again. The best weapon against rabbit obesity is feeding them the proper diet from the beginning. If your rabbit is already on the pudgy side, don’t give them any oats at all. If your rabbit is at a healthy weight, use oats only as a treat food.
Feeding your rabbit even small quantities of oats can also contribute to digestive problems. If you find that your bun produces soft and runny fecal pellets after eating oats, stick to less starchy, more fibrous foods like vegetables. There are no big benefits to gain from feeding your furry friend oats, so they will be better off eating what their GI tract is used to!
In the end, oats are only a good idea if your veterinarian has agreed that your rabbit needs to gain weight. They are a rich source of carbohydrates, and they contain enough fiber and protein to aid in digestion and the prevention of insulin spikes, but they’re simply too caloric for most rabbits. Try oat grass instead.