As with cats, dogs, and humans, obesity is a significant health issue in rabbits as well. Our pet rabbits often live quite sedentary lives compared to their wild counterparts and are often fed on an energy-rich diet.
Obesity makes rabbits more prone to developing arthritis, gut stasis, fly-strike and fatty liver disease. It is a major health and welfare problem.
The good news is that obesity can be treated with the right diet and exercise. Please note that rabbits are very sensitive to changes in diet and routine so any changes should be made very slowly to prevent other problems.
How can I tell if my rabbit is overweight?
The best way to tell if an animal is overweight is to do a body condition score (BCS). In rabbits, this is usually measured out of 5, where 5 is very overweight, 1 is extremely underweight and 3 is ideal.
Particularly with long-haired rabbits, telling if they are overweight just from looking at them is very difficult. You need to get hands-on.
Gently run your hands down your rabbit’s side. You should be able to feel their ribs with a slight fat covering over them. If you can see your rabbit’s ribs, they are underweight. If you struggle to feel them, they are overweight.
Now run your hands along your rabbit’s spine. This should feel slightly rounded. If the backbone feels very sharp, your rabbit is too thin. If you struggle to feel the spine at all, they are too fat.
If you are unsure whether your rabbit is a healthy weight, contact your vet for advice.
How can I get my rabbit to lose weight?
The right diet
A lot of rabbits are fed on high energy nuggets or muesli. Muesli is unhealthy for all sorts of reasons so should never be fed to a rabbit (although if your rabbit has always been fed on this, any changes should be made VERY gradually). However, even the ‘healthy’ nuggets will have too many calories for most rabbits, especially if fed in large quantities.
A rabbit who is overweight should be fed on a good quality hay and grass based diet only. A rabbit should eat their body size in hay every day. If your rabbit is not used to eating hay, try scattering a small amount of nuggets throughout the hay to encourage them. Hay is vitally important for all sorts of reasons, not just maintaining a healthy weight.
Green leafy vegetables can also be provided in small quantities but avoid high-calorie treats such as fruit or carrots.
If your rabbit is starting to lose some weight, you could use a small amount (teaspoon-full) of nuggets as rewards for encouraging exercise.
If a rabbit is confined to a hutch or run with little to do, they will tend to sit in one corner and not move much.
There are many things you can do to encourage your rabbits to exercise.
Rabbits need the company of other rabbits. As prey animals, they are constantly on the watch for danger. With two or more rabbits, one can be on the lookout while the others relax. This allows them to be more relaxed and interact more with their environment.
Rabbits need space to be able to exercise. The minimum recommended is 10′ x 6′ x 3′ (3m x 2m x 1m). They should have access to this space at all times, as rabbits are most active at dawn and dusk. Rabbits need to have the space to run and ‘binky’ (which is when they jump in the air and twist). Providing different places to hide, forage and jump on will encourage your rabbit to use their space. A plain open area is very threatening to rabbits.
Rabbits love to play with toys. Hiding food in things which your rabbit then has to work at to get it out is a really good way to encourage them to move. This can be as simple as stuffing hay inside an old toilet roll tube, to more sophisticated puzzle feeders. Don’t use high calorie ‘rabbit treats’ as many of these are extremely unhealthy. Stick to a very small amount of nuggets while your rabbit is on their weight loss diet.