Obesity is a huge problem in pet rabbits. Two of the main causes are not enough exercise and poor diet.
Whether they live indoors or out, they must have enough room to exercise so when you plan their home, bear this in mind.
Remember that however much hay you give your rabbits, if you’re giving them too much commercial food and treats then, just like humans, they’ll often go for the unhealthy option at the expense of the good stuff.
Fat rabbits suffer from a number of serious health risks, including not being able to clean themselves or reach their bottom to eat their caecotrophs – which puts them at greater risk of skin infections and flystrike. The extra weight they carry also puts strain on all their organs, especially their hearts and livers. Just like us, if they are fat, their joints will suffer and it’ll be harder for them to exercise, which will just make things even worse.
Rabbit mixes look like muesli and are popular with owners because they look more ‘interesting’ as they are brightly coloured. However, they can encourage selective feeding, particularly if given in large quantities, and we don’t recommend them. Pellets are bite-sized nuggets. Each mouthful is the same which helps ensure rabbits eat a balanced diet. They don’t look as nice as muesli but they are much better for your rabbits.
In extruded foods, the ingredients are mixed, cooked and ‘extruded’ (squeezed or forced out). They have all the important advantages of pellets but taste nicer, and the more advanced brands contain the long-strand fibre similar to hay.
What about complete foods?
So-called complete foods are designed to contain all the nutrients that rabbits require (check the label and look for fibre of around 20% or higher and less than 15% protein) but they won’t provide the long fibre your rabbits need to keep their gut and teeth healthy. It’s absolutely vital that your rabbits have constant access to hay!
The primary reason we don’t recommend muesli-type “rabbit mix”, is because of the risk of selective feeding. If rabbits are given a large portion of muesli type food, they can select the bits they like the most and leave the rest – much like a child eating too many sweets and not wanting his dinner. This means they won’t be getting all the nutrition they need. And if you keep two rabbits, it’s impossible to be sure they are not each eating different bits of the mix. To discourage selective feeding, the RWAF recommends a good quality pelleted or extruded feed rather than a muesli-type mix. Two years of research at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies linked muesli style foods to life-threatening dental and digestive problems in rabbits.
Guide for 2.5kg rabbit
Feeding guide for an average sized rabbit of 2.5 kg
Adjust these measurements up or down according to the size of your rabbit.
*These are percentages of FOOD INTAKE, not of your rabbit’s weight*
Pellets 5% – 2 egg cups per day (one am, one pm) or 50g in total
Unlimited hay – Aim to give them their own body size in fresh hay every day, or access to fresh grass to graze
Greens 10% 100g – This does not include carrots which should be a treat.
If we eat too many treats such as crisps or cakes then we’re likely to suffer from heart problems, obesity and tooth decay. The same goes for rabbits – but they can also develop more serious problems that are quick to develop. Too many sweet and starchy treats can be very dangerous for the sensitive population of bacteria in the gut, leading to fatal digestive upsets. Stick to healthy treats, and keep them varied. For example, fresh coriander, a chunk of broccoli or a piece of mange tout will be greatly enjoyed by your rabbits.
Many of the treats that are marketed for rabbits (eg milk-based yoghurt drops; sticks of sweetened cereals) should be avoided.
Expert advice on treats
“We generally advise that only small amounts of sweet veg, such as peppers and carrots, are given. This should ideally be as consistent as possible eg a small piece of one or the other given every day or so, and certainly not a large amount, infrequently. Rabbits that are on an otherwise good diet, with lots of hay or grass, and subsequently a good gut microbiome, will tolerate larger amounts, whereas those on poor diets and with poor gut health, will readily develop diarrhoea and GI stasis with even a very small occasional piece. As a general rule we would suggest no more than a cubic centimetre or so at a time”
Richard Saunders (he/him) BSc (Hons) BVSc FRSB CBiol DZooMed (Mammalian) DipECZM(ZHM) FHEA MRCVS Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund Veterinary Adviser