It is possible to feed a pellet-free diet; however, this requires much research to insure that you feed the necessary wide range of vitamins and minerals for a balanced diet with no deficiencies to guarantee long-term health.
A top US exotic vet, Dr. Mark Burgess DVM of Southwest Veterinary Hospital in Beaverton, OR, offers the following opinion:
It doesn't surprise me that the pellet-free craze has hit the rabbit sites as well as those for ferrets, hedgehogs, etc. My honest opinion is that pellet free diets are always more prone to problems... in Europe, where diets have often been veggie-only, it is more commonplace to see nutritional problems such as rickets, problems which have been virtually eliminated in the U.S. due to standardized pellet formulas. Simply put, there is no way for the average owner (or even a nutritionist) to know if a given mix of veggies/hay etc contains enough trace amounts (and the right balance of) calcium, phosphorous, other trace minerals such as copper and zinc, and all the trace vitamins, plus protein, needed for long term health. Only a precisely formulated homemade mix that had been laboratory-analyzed would be entirely reliable, and that is a LOT of work and requires minimal variation from the formula (can't substitute alternate veggies, for instance).
Pellets are far better in formulation in the past 10 years, so high quality timothy pellets are a good diet for adult rabbits; that said, I still recommend timothy or oat hay as the primary dietary item (80% or more), and pellets and leafy greens being smaller components of a balanced diet. It only takes a little pellet to provide guaranteed levels of vitamins and minerals, and this is far safer than trying to add a vitamin/mineral supplement to the diet (don't have to worry about overdosing or underdosing).
Also, if a home made diet is supplemented, you have to use human vitamin supplements, as the animal ones aren't potent enough (animal supplements are made assuming the animal is on a balanced kibble, so vitamins are already provided, and the supplement is very mild so as to not overdose the pet). Problem is, in homemade diets the supplement is asked to carry a heavier load, as it is the primary source of trace nutrients when a kibble is lacking. Thus the need to use human supplements in home made diets, and dosing must be done very carefully. Lots and lots of potential problems with home made veggie diets, and most pet owners don't have a clue as to most of the formulation problems, so they think it sounds great. A non-medically trained person will not evaluate the diet on its true nutritional merits, unfortunately, but more on what 'sounds good.' Pellets may not sound sexy, but well formulated pellets are a good base ingredient in a simple, easily balanced diet.
... I believe that pellets should nearly always be part of the diet, due to their containing all essential vitamins and minerals; one never sees rickets/calcium deficiency (or other nutrient deficiencies) when pellets are used, which is a strong reason to always include them in the diet. Simply stating that "bunnies don't need pellets to maintain body weight" is irrelevant; in places like Europe where pellets aren't always used, metabolic bone disease and other nutritional problems are seen, which is nearly unheard of in the U.S. due to the commercial rabbit foods. Using a pellet with a guaranteed analysis is the only reliable way for the average pet owner to know that ALL essential nutrients are present in the diet. It isn't as simple as "normal weight = ideal nutrition." These days there are great pellet formulas available, and no good reason to not use them.
Lucille Moore notes,
The claim by some persons that commercial pellets are made for fattening short-lived production rabbits and are unhealthy for longer-lived rabbits is dated and simply untrue. Many commercial pelleted rabbit feeds are specifically created to fulfill the nutritional needs of “companion,” “pet,” or “show” rabbits. Nor is it true that a pellet-based diet will necessarily lead to overweight rabbits—many show rabbits receive a pellet-based diet, and an overweight show rabbit would not receive any awards! In fact, the judge would likely disqualify an overweight rabbit and have it removed from the competition.
While it is theoretically possible to feed a rabbit a nutritionally complete diet without giving any commercial pellets, it is extremely difficult to do so. It has been estimated by some experts that it would take a precise combination of about 14–17 different vegetables fed in specific amounts in addition to grass hay to provide a rabbit a nutritionally complete diet composed of fresh vegetables and hay alone. Not all of us have time and money to find and purchase such vegetables, nor may they be available in all geographical areas. Not to mention that—rabbits being the selective eaters they are—it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to persuade any one rabbit to consume all 14–17 vegetables every day in the precise amounts required for the rabbit to receive all the necessary nutrients! For most of us, limited by time, money, living place, or a combination of the three, compounded pelleted rabbit feeds provide an easy, relatively inexpensive way to ensure our rabbits receive adequate nutrition.
- House Rabbit Society. (2012). Pellet Free Diet
- Dr. Sue A. Whitman, D.V.M., Non-Pelleted Diets in the Rabbit - The Key To Better Bunny Health
- Bunny Approved, No More Pellets – An Introduction
- Bunny Approved, Bunny’s Pellet-Free Diet
- BunSpace.com, Group: Pellet Free Buns (PFBs)
- Susan Smith. (2004). Alfalfa- and Timothy-Based Pellets: What’s the “Skinny?” [PDF] (read the 2nd to last paragraph for warnings about pellet-free diets)
- House Rabbit Society, Elizabeth TeSelle, Natural Nutrition Part II: Pellets and Veggies
Here are some relevant discussions about going on a pellet-free diet.
- Rabbits Online, New rabbit wants only grass and lettuce
- BunSpace, Questions about the No Pellet Movement
- Dr. Mark Burgess DVM, pers. email comm. to Iris Klimczuk, June 4, 2013.
- BinkyBunny.com. (2010). About diet.. RA member's emails to vets about fruits and veggies. Retrieved 16 Dec 2016 from http://www.binkybunny.com/FORUM/tabid/54/aft/109390/Default.aspx
- Moore, L. (2017). Rabbit nutrition and nutritional healing. (3rd ed.).