Body condition scoring is a technique used in many animals and humans to assess if they are in good body condition, too thin or obese. Obesity is a common problem in all companion animals, and unfortunately, it is also seen in rabbits – one in four rabbits seen at the Rabbit Clinic, Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh, are obese.
It’s difficult to visually assess the body condition of a rabbit, particularly when the coat hair is long (most breeds). A long coat can disguise the actual appearance of the pelvis, ribs and spine while a short coat (eg Rex breeds) can make a rabbit’s appearance more irregular and highlight these areas. The only reliable method of assessing body condition is by palpation (feeling) of the ribs, pelvis and spine. Body weight should also be recorded, as body weight should be monitored to assess its overall trend, to see if the rabbit is gaining or losing weight.
There is a wide variation in the body weight of the different rabbits breeds commonly kept as pets, from the average 1kg Netherland dwarf to the 8kg Continental Giant rabbit. Then there are the large group of cross breed rabbits which represent the majority of the pet population. Body weight tables are therefore only a guide, and will not help to assess if the individual is obese. And often a rabbit is not necessarily the breed it is supposed to be!
Body condition scoring is used to assess if an individual is obese and the author has devised a technique for rabbits, adapted from the method used in cats, dogs and farm animals. In these animals the ribs, hips and spine are palpated and scored. However, the author has conducted a trial to find which area of the body shows changes associated with fat deposition in rabbits – the area found to be the easiest and most reliable to assess was the ribs. The spine and hips only changed with extremely thin or extremely fat rabbits.
The person examining the rabbit should feel its ribs at the area just behind its elbows. The amount of pressure required to feel the ribs will be increased if the rabbit is fat. Also, the ribs’ edges will feel sharp and pointed in a thin or emaciated rabbit. In comparison it may be difficult to feel the rib edges in a fat rabbit. Their ribs are easy to assess for small changes in subcutaneous body fat. The table (below) shows the grades that are given to describe the rabbit’s body condition.
Pelvis and ribs are very easily palpated and very sharp
Ribs feel like a pocket full of rulers
Concave rump area
Pelvis and ribs are easily palpated and feel sharp
Rump area is flat
Pelvis and ribs easily palpated but rounded edges
Ribs feel like a pocket full of pens
Rump area is flat
Firm palpation required to palpate ribs
Hard to palpate ribs
Ribs can’t be felt
Rump very convex
Take your rabbit to weight clinics at your vets’
Every month, owners should check their rabbit’s body condition score. If it is too high or too low the rabbit should be taken to the vet for a physical examination to check that there is no medical problem. If the rabbit is otherwise found to be healthy it should start to attend regular weight clinics. Many vet practices are happy to offer this service free of charge. The rabbit’s body condition score and body weight should also be measured and recorded, to allow goals to be set and worked towards. The rabbit should then be brought to the weight clinic every two to four weeks, with the aim of a weight loss of 0.5 to 1.5% of initial body weight per week. Obese rabbits are at risk of fatty liver disease so gradual weight loss is essential.
What else should be checked at the weight clinic?
The rabbit’s feet from toe to hock or wrist must be checked thoroughly, as severe pododermatitis (pressure sores) can easily be hidden under the fur. The perineum region (near the anus) should be clean in a normal rabbit. The fur should also be checked for signs of urine or faecal staining.
How to put a rabbit on a diet
The rabbit’s current diet should be recorded in detail, including all rabbit and human treats. The daily routine and amount of exercise should also be recorded.
All rabbits should be fed a mainly hay diet (at least 85% of their diet), which means the rabbit should eat a pile of hay equal to the body size as a minimum a day. Other forms of grass products including dried grass may also be fed. Grass or hay is naturally low in sugar and starch and high in fibre which is essential for the digestive system and teeth. As hay is the main dietary item, only good quality hay that is sweet-smelling, not dusty or mouldy, should be offered. A small amount of commercial rabbit food may also be fed – a maximum of one tablespoon per rabbit per day for all small and medium breed rabbits, while a maximum of two tablespoons per rabbit per day should be fed to giant breed rabbits. This may need to be reduced or completely removed from the diet if the rabbit fails to lose weight. The commercial rabbit food is fed as a vitamin and mineral supplement, and therefore if the hay or grass is of good quality, the rabbit doesn’t need any further supplementation.
A male rabbit with a dewlap – which he should not have
Excessive feeding of commercial rabbit food is a very common cause of obesity, as is feeding human food: everything from toast to chocolate biscuits gets offered to rabbits. As rabbits have more than 21 taste buds they enjoy variety in their diet. A large handful of leafy and fibrous vegetables and weeds, fed morning and evening, will provide good environmental enrichment and be a good source of calcium and vitamins. Treat foods are still allowed while on a diet. Good treat foods for rabbits include a few sprigs of herbs and edible flowers such as roses. During the diet all root vegetables and fruit should be avoided. Once the rabbit has achieved body condition score 3, a small amount of fruit (one-eighth of an apple or pear or four berries) or a small amount of root vegetables (one-quarter of a carrot or turnip, or one-eighth of a swede). Fresh drinking water must always be available.
To check that the maintenance diet is not too high in calories for the rabbit and its current lifestyle, further weight and body condition scoring will be required. Once the rabbit has slimmed down to body condition score 3, its weight can be recorded, and this is from then on considered its optimum body weight.
Increasing the opportunities and encouraging the rabbit to exercise is a very important part of a weight loss plan for rabbits. Rabbits are normally most active early in the morning and at dusk – therefore allowing them permanent access to a large secure enclosure will mean they can make use of these most active periods.
Hiding tasty treats (including their portion of commercial rabbit food) in a box of hay or a food ball will encourage their inquisitive nature. Hand-feeding treats in response to the rabbit following the owner is also a good way to encourage a lazy rabbit to exercise. A gradual increase in exercise is recommended for older rabbits (over six years for small and medium breeds, over four years in giant breeds) as arthritis is common.
Regular weight clinics for rabbits are recommended to help monitor and prevent problems associated with obesity and assess if further diet adjustments are required. At the Rabbit Clinic at the Royal (Dick) Vet School, Edinburgh we have a free-of-charge weight clinic. Check with your vet to see if they have a similar clinic.