During the last few months of my rabbit George’s life he became very thin. Increasing the number of dry pellets often gave him an upset stomach and his partner bunny Hazel, who was younger would eat quicker, often eating a bigger share of the calorific food. This meant that maintaining a healthy body weight for George was difficult and consequently Hazel became quite overweight. Not only was she eating more but it was winter so she was less active (she digs a lot in the spring and summer) and because George was poorly and less active she tended to sit with him to keep him company. I resorted to hand feeding George to prevent her getting fatter.
Hazel had physically changed shape and was ‘rounder’ so I could see she was too heavy, however, once George passed away I could control Hazel’s diet to help her lose the weight she gained. If you want to check your own bunnies weight then check out the PFMA rabbit size-o-meter here. A rabbit is classed as being overweight if they carry 10-20% more body weight than they should for their size. If they weigh 20% more than they should then they are classed as obese. It can be hard to tell what their ideal weight should be, especially if they are a crossbreed so a body condition chart is a great guide to identify their weight.
Why is being overweight a problem?
Obesity has been linked to many health conditions such as heart disease and arthritis. Being overweight causes the heart to work harder and puts pressure on the joints causing extra pain in individuals already suffering arthritis. In dogs, studies have shown that being even moderately overweight can shorten their lifespan by up to 2 years and although there are no longevity studies in rabbits there is little doubt that obesity affects quality of life and more than likely lifespan too. There are many other issues associated with being overweight:
- Overweight rabbits are more likely to suffer from pododermatitis (sore hocks), a painful condition of the feet.
- Overweight rabbits cannot reach their anus to eat caecotrophs. If they cannot eat these ‘night faeces’ to get important nutrients they can develop life threatening digestive problems.
- Overweight rabbits are more prone to developing cystitis and sludgy urine (Varga, 2014).
- Overweight rabbits are more likely than those rabbits of an ideal weight to suffer from a fatal liver disease (hepatic lipidosis) should they be fasted or become anorexic for any reason.
Why are rabbits overweight?
Pet obesity has been in the news quite a lot over the last couple of years with the most common figure being quoted of a third of UK pets are overweight. However, last year Marsden, supplier of veterinary weighing scales did their own survey of over 2500 vet practices and found that 58% of pets are overweight – more than half! Yet only 16% owners believe their pet is overweight (PDSA, 2016). One possible reason for the huge discrepancy between overweight pets and owners being able to identify weight problems is that there are now so many fat pets that we may have lost sight of what is ‘normal’.
The 2016 PDSA Animal Wellbeing Report highlighted many reasons that rabbits (and other pets could be overweight), for example owners tend to feed treats and extra food for a variety of reasons including to make up for feeling guilty for the lack of exercise their pet gets. The study also showed that many rabbit owners are still not feeding the recommended diet of 80% hay and grass, 15% greens and 5% dry food. Only 68% of owners feed hay and for many of these rabbits hay was not available 24 hours a day, as it should be. 24% owners were still feeding muesli style dry food which is generally lower in fibre and higher in calories than pellets and promotes selective feeding (rabbits tend to pick out the higher calorie bits like the flaked peas). Studies into rabbit nutrition support this claim that muesli should be avoided, for example Prebble et al (2014) found that rabbits fed ad-lib muesli food became obese when compared to rabbits fed muesli with hay, pellets with hay or just hay. The best body score was for the 4th group that were just fed hay but the study did not examine if the rabbits fed hay only suffered any nutrition deficiencies (Mancinelli, 2016).
Helping your rabbit lose weight
It can be difficult to get your rabbit to lose weight once they have put it on. However, fine-tuning the diet and encouraging exercise is the best way to do this. Keep in touch with your you vet or vet nurse so you can monitor progress and ensure the rate of weight loss is safe. Many practices now offer free weight clinics.
You can encourage exercise by:
- Providing a run that is permanently attached to the hutch so your rabbit has access to it 24 hours a day.
- Hide food around the run or hutch for your rabbit to forage for.
- Hang food from the roof of the run or ceiling so your rabbit has to stretch to get it.
- Use feeding toys or balls to encourage your rabbit to move and work for his/her food.
You can change the diet by:
- Increasing the amount of hay you offer and cut down on the dry food.
- Cut out the dry food completely if you are able to and instead offer a variety of vegetables/herbs or wild plants daily to ensure your rabbit is getting a balanced diet.
- Change to a high fibre, low calorie monocomponent dry food such as FibaFirst by Supreme.
- Avoid high sugar vegetables such as carrots and do not feed fruit.
- Cut out sugary, high calorie treats and chews from the pet shop e.g. seed bars and yogurt drops.
PDSA Animal Wellbeing (PAW) report https://www.pdsa.org.uk/get-involved/our-current-campaigns/pdsa-animal-wellbeing-report (Accessed January 8th 2017)
House Rabbit Society: Liver (Hepatic) disease in rabbits (2013) http://rabbit.org/liver-hepatic-disease-in-rabbits/ (Accessed January 8th 2017)
Mancinelli, E (2016) Taking a bite into rabbit diet research, www.vettimes.co.uk/article/taking-a-bite-into-rabbit-diet-research (accessed January 8th 2017).
Marsden: Our survey suggests over half of pets are overweight (2016) http://www.marsden-weighing.co.uk/index.php/blog/blog/2016/07/18/survey-suggests-half-pet-obesity/ (accessed January 8th 2017)
Prebble JL, Shaw DJ and Meredith AL (2014). Bodyweight and body condition score in rabbits on four feeding regimes, Journal of Small Animal Practice 56(3) 207-212.
Purina’s Landmark Life Span Study in Dogs https://www.proplan.com/dogs/dog-care/purinas-landmark-life-span-study-in-dogs/ (accessed January 8th 2017).
Varga, M (2014) Textbook of Rabbit Medicine, 2nd Edition, Butterworth-Heinemann p54-55, 313