By Emma Purnell, RVN Cert.Nut.
Our rabbits are just as prone to obesity as other companion animal species and this is a growing concern.
How can we tell if they are overweight? What should we do to keep their weight healthy?
Unlike most animals, there is a lot of very good, and clear advice available to help ensure we feed our rabbits correctly. 80% of their diet should be good quality feeding hay – this is the most vital piece of advice to keep them healthy. The best hay has long stalks as well as being green and fresh, this will help to keep them a healthy weight but also aids dental health.
Muesli type diets with lots of different ingredients should never be fed as they encourage selective feeding, allowing the rabbit to pick out the high calorie treats (risking weight gain) and meaning their diet will be imbalanced. Pellet diets should always be used, trying to make sure one is selected with as high a fibre content as possible. Only 5% of their daily diet should be these pellets as most are given a bowlful, which is far too much. This means that a higher quality food can be afforded as it is fed in smaller volumes. 10% of their diet should be safe, healthy, green leafy vegetables, leaving 5% for healthy treats.
But how do we tell if our rabbit is overweight? The best way to tell is not always what they weigh on the scales and more their body condition score and the physical feel of them. Their bones should be easily felt without protruding or being lost under many layers. There should be no abdominal bulge or extra weight on their back end and they should not have a large dewlap at the front.
If you are unsure then you can always speak to your veterinary team who can help you decide if your rabbit is the correct weight. If they are overweight or obese the rst thing to do is check that you are feeding them as per the guidelines highlighted. Do not dramatically cut their food – if rabbits stop eating they can go into gut stasis which can be fatal – but there are things you can change.
Ensure the diet is 80% hay but also ensure they are eating this hay! Some rabbits can be dif cult when it comes to eating hay but there are actually many different types of hay you can try including Timothy hay, Green Oat hay, Meadow hay and many more! Offering different varieties and seeing what your rabbit prefers is the best plan. Some websites will do small sample packs that you can try to see what you prefer.
Alfalfa hay should be avoided as a daily diet as it has much higher protein and calcium levels, potentially causing some health issues long-term. The 5% of the diet which is pellets should remain to ensure it is balanced but can be adjusted to be a high-quality diet pellet with a high fibre content. Which vegetables are offered are important – carrots, peppers and high sugar vegetables and fruit should be avoided as these will lead to weight gain. Green leafy vegetables, herbs, and safely and legally foraged grasses and weeds are a far better option.
Increasing their activity level is key to getting your rabbit to lose weight. Make sure they always have plenty of space to run and binky with permanent access to a large run, but you can also encourage them in other ways. Rather than giving them their pellets and veg in a bowl or placing it in front of them, make them work for their food. Treat balls can be filled with the pellets and they can push them around to get the treats to drop out. Pellets and vegetables can be stuffed into cardboard tubes and leafy greens pegged up on rope to get them moving more when eating. Both pellets and vegetables can also be hidden around their hutch and run to keep them moving. Activity toys are available for rabbits with sliding compartments and pieces to lift off and find food underneath.
If you suspect your rabbit is not the correct weight, speak to your local veterinary practice as many will offer free nursing clinics to give you help and advice to keep your rabbit happy and healthy for many years.
Emma qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in 2008 and works for Nutravet (UK) Ltd. She has a BSc in Zoology with Animal Ecology and an MSc in Ecology, helping to fuel her interest in more exotic species. She has a particular love of small furries and has a grade A distinction in Canine and Feline Clinical Nutrition (CertNut).