For rabbit owners, springtime brings blooming flowers, fresh greens, and a deadly garden invader: rhubarb. This tart vegetable may seem harmless, but its leaves and stalks harbor a toxic secret that can be fatal for bunnies. Rhubarb’s high oxalic acid content wreaks havoc on delicate kidneys, causing everything from tummy troubles to complete kidney failure. From identifying rhubarb’s tell-tale leaves to emergency first aid if nibbling occurs, this article details everything rabbit owners need to know about keeping their pets far away from this dangerous plant. If you grow rhubarb, read on to learn critical precautions to keep your rabbits safe and healthy as they hop outside this spring.
What Is Rhubarb?
Rhubarb (Rheum rhabarbarum) is a perennial vegetable that originated in Asia but is now grown worldwide for its edible stalks. It is one of the first fresh foods ready to harvest in spring. Rhubarb is not a true fruit, as only the stalks are eaten. The leaves contain high levels of oxalic acid and are toxic.
The stalks have a bright pinkish-red color, although some rhubarb varieties produce green stalks. Rhubarb has a very tart, sour taste due to its high levels of malic and citric acid. It is often combined with sugar to make sweet dishes like pies, crumbles, and jams.
Rhubarb is a cold-hardy plant that can tolerate frost and even some snowcover. The stalks emerge from thick rhizomes deep in the soil. It is usually propagated by dividing these rhizomes. Rhubarb does best in climates with cool springs and summers, meaning the Northern United States and Canada have ideal growing conditions.
This vegetable grows best in well-drained, fertile soil that is kept consistently moist. It prefers full sun but can tolerate some shade. After 2-3 years from being planted from seed, rhubarb reaches maturity and can be harvested. The stalks are typically ready to pick in early to mid spring.
Rhubarb contains antioxidants like vitamin C, vitamin K, and anthocyanins. It is also a good source of dietary fiber. While the leaves are toxic, the stalks are edible and safe for humans to eat when cooked. Rhubarb has a very tart, sour flavor profile. It is commonly used in baked goods, jams, sauces, and beverages.
Why Can’t Rabbit Eat Raw Rhubarb?
Rabbits should not eat any part of raw rhubarb, including the leaves, stalks, and greens. This is because raw rhubarb contains high levels of oxalic acid, which is toxic to rabbits.
Oxalic acid binds with calcium to form calcium oxalate crystals. This can lead to kidney damage, kidney stones, gastrointestinal issues, weakness, lethargy, tremors, and even death in rabbits who ingest it. The highest concentrations of oxalic acid are found in rhubarb leaves. However, raw stalks also have concerning levels.
A rabbit's digestive system is not equipped to break down the oxalic acid content found in raw rhubarb. The acidic conditions in a rabbit's stomach are not strong enough to destroy the oxalates like a human stomach can. As herbivores, rabbits did not evolve eating oxalate-rich plants and have a low tolerance.
The effects of raw rhubarb poisoning in rabbits can range from mild to severe depending on the amount ingested. But even small amounts can cause kidney issues over time. Rabbits have sensitive kidneys and are prone to developing kidney stones and kidney failure. Eating raw rhubarb significantly increases these risks.
For these reasons, it is critical to never let pet rabbits access or eat any part of a raw rhubarb plant. The stalks, leaves, stems, and roots all contain oxalates when raw. Cooked rhubarb that has been heated to break down oxalates is safer in moderation.
Can Rabbits Eat Wild Rhubarb?
Wild rhubarb should also be avoided by pet rabbits. Just like cultivated garden rhubarb, wild rhubarb contains high levels of oxalates when raw. The species commonly known as wild rhubarb include:
- Curly dock (Rumex crispus)
- Broadleaf dock (Rumex obtusifolius)
- Narrowleaf dock (Rumex stenophyllus)
- Patience dock (Rumex patientia)
- Alpine dock (Rumex alpinus)
These rhubarb relatives thrive in the wild in many parts of the world. They emerge in early spring with reddish stalks and large leaves. Despite resemblance to edible rhubarb, these dock species have very high oxalate levels.
Rabbits should not be allowed to graze on any type of wild dock or rhubarb plant. The oxalic acid content is extremely hazardous for a rabbit if consumed raw. Monitor outdoor play areas and enclosures to ensure harmful plants are not present.
Just like with garden rhubarb, wild dock leaves, stalks, shoots, and roots must be cooked before feeding to rabbits. This removes the toxic oxalates. Only feed wild foraged rhubarb if absolutely certain of the exact species and preparation method. When in doubt, avoid wild rhubarb altogether.
How To Identify Rhubarb
Rhubarb has some distinct characteristics that help identify it:
- Color: Bright pinkish-red, sometimes green depending on variety
- Shape: Long, thick, straight stalks
- Texture: Crisp, juicy, similar to celery
- Taste: Very tart and sour
- Color: Dark green with red veins
- Shape: Large, triangular leaves up to 2 feet wide
- Texture: Thin, wavy, and limp
- Toxic: High oxalic acid content
- Bloom Time: Late spring to mid summer
- Colors: Greenish-white or pink
- Shape: Clustered panicles on tall stalks
- Size: Small individual flowers
Identifying characteristics help distinguish rhubarb from other plants. Key points are the red stalks, green toxic leaves, and sour tart taste. Familiarize yourself with rhubarb's appearance before allowing rabbits contact. Monitor any rhubarb plants in outdoor spaces accessible to pet rabbits.
Is Rhubarb OK for Rabbits?
Whether or not rhubarb is okay for rabbits depends on the part of the plant and how it is prepared:
Rhubarb Greens And Stalks
The leaves and stalks of rhubarb contain high levels of oxalic acid when raw. Rabbits should never eat rhubarb greens or raw stalks due to toxicity concerns.
Rhubarb leaves contain the highest concentrations of oxalates. They are highly toxic to rabbits and cause kidney damage even in small amounts. Never feed rabbits rhubarb leaves.
Raw rhubarb stalks, greens, leaves, or roots should never be fed to rabbits. The high oxalic acid content can be fatal.
Cooked, stewed rhubarb pulp that has been heated to break down oxalates is safer for rabbits. Only feed in small amounts a few times per week due to sugar content.
The only rhubarb products safe for occasional rabbit consumption are cooked stewed rhubarb stalks and pulp without greens, leaves, or skin. Strictly monitor intake and keep cooked rhubarb as a rare treat.
What To Do If a Rabbit Eats Rhubarb
If your rabbit accidentally ingests any part of a rhubarb plant, take action quickly:
Remove any remaining rhubarb immediately so they cannot eat more.
Contact your vet and describe what part of the plant was eaten and the approximate amount.
Closely monitor your rabbit for the next 24 hours for symptoms of oxalate poisoning which can take time to appear.
Do not wait and see if your rabbit seems okay. Get ahead of any toxicity or kidney issues by calling your vet promptly for advice.
Your vet may recommend bringing your rabbit in immediately for evaluation and treatment. Time is of the essence with rhubarb toxicity.
Take rhubarb ingestion very seriously. The toxins build up gradually in the kidneys but can eventually lead to complete kidney failure. Call your vet without delay if your rabbit gets into any raw rhubarb to avoid permanent damage.
Symptoms of Rhubarb Poisoning in Rabbits
Monitor your rabbit closely for any of these symptoms after eating raw rhubarb:
- Loss of appetite
- Refusing food or treats
- Lewthargy, depression
- Hunched posture
- Grinding teeth due to abdominal pain
- Reduced urination or odd-colored urine
- Trembling or weakness
- Seizures in severe cases
The toxins in rhubarb can cause delayed kidney damage over 24-48 hours. Symptoms may gradually get worse, not better. Call your vet at the first sign of distress after rhubarb ingestion rather than waiting to see if symptoms improve. Quick action is critical.
Rhubarb Toxicity Treatment
If your rabbit eats raw rhubarb, your vet will likely recommend:
Inducing vomiting if ingestion was recent to eliminate remaining toxins
IV fluids to support kidney function and prevent dehydration
Diuretics to flush toxins and boost urine production
Calcium supplements to bind oxalates
Vitamin B12 injections which supports kidney function
Close monitoring of bloodwork kidney values and urine output
Repeat evaluations to check for kidney stones over the next few weeks
There is no antidote to reverse rhubarb poisoning. Treatment focuses on trying to neutralize and eliminate toxins from the body before they can do more damage.
Sadly, if kidneys are severely damaged, the prognosis is poor. However, quick action and aggressive therapy can help protect long-term kidney health after rhubarb poisoning.
Never hesitate to involve your vet if your rabbit eats any quantity of raw rhubarb leaves, stalks, or greens. Fast treatment is key to combatting toxicity and preventing chronic kidney issues.