What Does a Young Cottontail Rabbit Eat?

Cottontail rabbits are herbivores.
Cottontail rabbits are herbivores. (Image: George Doyle & Ciaran Griffin/Stockbyte/Getty Images)

The eastern cottontail is the most common of the cottontail rabbits found in North American and is most widely recognized for its cottonball-like tail. Cottontails are herbivores, meaning they eat plants. They seek out habitats in fields, meadows and farms, where such food is easily found. However, they can also make themselves at home in populated areas – especially if there’s a garden nearby -- and some are domesticated and kept as pets.

Baby Cottontail Rabbits

Baby rabbits are nursed by their mothers. The mother bunny will return to the nest, typically at night, and nurse each baby cottontail for approximately five minutes, which is sufficient to provide the small rabbit with its fill. After four or five weeks, the rabbit is self-sufficient enough to find its own food.

Summer Diet of a Young Cottontail Rabbit

As herbivores, the cottontail rabbits’ diet consists solely of plants. What they eat depends on the season and what vegetation is readily available. During the summer they will each grasses, clover, herbs, fruits and vegetables, including those in your garden. As much as half of their diet may come from grasses.

Winter Diet of a Young Cottontail Rabbit

Cottontails do not hibernate, but their diet during the winter months is much less appealing. They will eat the woody parts of plants, including twigs and bark, as well as any small buds they can find. They have been known to eat birch, dogwood, maple, oak and sumac.

Domesticated Cottontail Rabbits

Rabbits are often kept as pets and can be obtained from shelters and pet stores. The House Rabbit Society recommends feeding pet cottontail rabbits a combination of pellets, hay and fresh vegetables. The young cottontail can be weaned off of pellets as it ages. As for vegetables, a combination of dark leafy vegetables, root vegetables and those of varying colors are best.

Abandoned Cottontail Rabbits

If you have determined that a wild baby cottontail rabbit has been abandoned -- it’s often hard to tell since the mother may only visit the nest at night -- it’s best to contact a skilled animal rehabilitator. If the bunny is domesticated, it’s possible to feed it a special rabbit milk formula. However, consult with an expert for types and amounts.

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