Wild rabbits have to forage for food, breed, flee to their burrow whenever danger looms and keep warm in inclement weather. This uses up every scrap of energy from their food, especially in winter. On the other hand the average pet rabbit is neutered, indulged with a multitude of treats, is not routinely fleeing from danger and often not keen on exercise. The result? An awful lot of fat rabbits.
Recent surveys have shown that excess weight and obesity are serious and increasing problems within the UK’s pet population, with rabbits suffering just as much as cats and dogs.
What’s the problem?
Excess weight puts a strain on the cardiovascular system and worsens arthritis, which is common in older rabbits. Fat rabbits are unable to groom themselves properly or reach their anus to re-ingest caecal pellets. The resulting mucky bottom is dangerous in the warmer weather: fly eggs laid in the caked faeces hatch rapidly into maggots. Flystrike is a largely avoidable, nasty condition to afflict rabbits and sadly often fatal.
How do you decide if your rabbit is the correct weight?
Domestic rabbits vary immensely in body shape just like dogs do: think of the difference between a greyhound and a Labrador and you start getting the picture.
Deciding if your rabbit is too thin is relatively easy. If you stroke them and their backbone sticks up in a ridge then unless they’re very old) they’re probably too thin. Similarly, it is unusual to feel the hip bones easily except in very slender breeds like Belgian Hares or Polish. A thick winter coat can hide a thin body, or may make an average sized rabbit look fat, so it is important to feel them, rather than just look at them. It can be more difficult to decide if your rabbit is too fat, but we have a great article to help you assess your rabbit’s body condition score.
There is a handy guide to help check your rabbits’ weight on the Pet Food Manufacturers Association website.
Ask your vet or vet nurse the next time you take your rabbit in.
If it’s a purebred, then you can look up the correct weight for the breed and see how far off it is; although there are always weight ranges within breeds.
Rabbits with round heads often have chunky bodies, but no rabbit should have little head perched on a huge body.
A male rabbit with a dewlap, or a female rabbit with a huge dewlap is very likely too fat (although the oversize dewlap will often persist after weight is lost).
Obese rabbits may have fatty pads on their shoulders, legs and groins.
Internal fat is more difficult to see but large pot bellies indicate a problem. If you pet your rabbit very firmly, you should be able to feel their ribs under a firm layer of muscle.
If they look wider than they are long they are seriously fat.
If they can’t keep their bottom clean, you need to act quickly. Keep their bottom clean for them, and get your vet/vet nurse to devise a weight loss programme.
Body condition score
Vets will use a Body Condition score to assess your rabbit’s weight and to determine how overweight they are and how much they need to lose. The ideal score is a 3 out of 5 and would indicate the rabbit was at its optimum weight.
The pelvis and ribs are very easily palpated and very sharp. Ribs feel like a pocket full of rulers! Concave rump area.
The pelvis and ribs are easily palpated and feel sharp. Rump area is flat.
3. Ideal weight
Pelvis and ribs are easily palpated but have rounded edges. Ribs feel like a pocket full of pens! Rump area is flat.
Firm palpation required to feel the ribs. The rump is round to the touch.
Hard to palpate the ribs or ribs cannot be felt. The rump area is convex.
Sadly, many rabbits fall into a 4 or 5 category and very often owners are not aware that the rabbit is overweight and the implications this may cause or already be causing.
Bunny weight watchers?
Overweight rabbits need a weight loss programme designed for them. It is important that this is done carefully, as any dramatic and rapid weight loss in rabbits can be dangerous.
Most overweight rabbits are being fed far too much concentrated food. A neutered, healthy, adult rabbit only needs around one tablespoon per kg of bodyweight per day of concentrated food. The ration should be worked out based on the weight that the rabbit should be and not the weight that they are. This is often much less than most rabbits are fed. It is best to cut the rabbits dried food down gradually over a week or so, otherwise they may suddenly feel deprived.
All treats need to be totally removed from the diet. The odd piece of apple or pear can be used as treat (no more than once a week). High fat treats such as barley rings are extremely calorie dense, and should never be fed to pet rabbits.
The basic diet should consist of a small amount of a good quality, extruded nugget, ad-lib amounts of good quality hay and access to grass, and greens or herbs each day.