Wild rabbits have to forage for food; breed; flee to the burrow whenever danger looms; and keep warm against inclement weather. This uses up every scrap of energy from their food, especially in winter. On the other hand the average houserabbit (often descended from meat rabbit breeds selected for efficient food to fat conversion) is neutered, indulged with a multitude of treats, lounges about on the furniture and basks in front of the fire. The result? An awful lot of fat bunnies!
People who boarded rabbits during the Summer of 1997 reported that increasing numbers of lapine guests were overweight, unbeknown to their owners. Obesity is a serious health hazard. For example, it puts a strain on the cardiovascular system and worsens the 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 downright dangerous in warmer weather : fly eggs laid in the caked faeces hatch rapidly into maggots. 'Flystrike' is certainly one of the most nastiest conditions to afflict rabbits and sadly often fatal.
So, 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 him and his backbone sticks up in a ridge then (unless he's very old) then he's probably too thin. Similarly, it is unusual to feel the hip bones easily except in very slender breeds like Belgian Hares or Polish. It can be more difficult to decide if your rabbit is too fat. Ask your vet next time you take your bunny, or take him to a rabbit show pet class and ask someone experienced. If he's pure-bred then you can look up the correct weight for the breed and see how far off he is, or go to a show and look at similar rabbits. Even if yours isn't a show specimen, you'll get an idea of what his build should be and see lots of rabbits who are the correct weight.
A few general rules: - 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 probably too fat (although the oversize dewlap will 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 his ribs under a firm layer of muscle. - If he looks wider than he is long he is seriously fat! - If he looks a bit podgy and he can't keep his bottom clean, you need to act quickly. Keep his bottom clean for him, and put him onto a drastic diet.
So how do you put a bunny on a diet ? First of all, decide if he is just a bit podgy or seriously fat. If the problem is mild then simply halve his dry food ration and make sure he has access to hay (meadow, not alfalfa) at all times. You can gradually increase his intake of greenfood which begins to mimic the natural diet of the rabbit. Fattening treats are out.. We all know houserabbits love cookies, cake and chocolate but it really is terribly bad for them and you must cut them out totally. Even peanuts and sunflower seeds need to go. Replace them with chunks of broccoli, carrot, or the corner of a Ryvita. You'll get some filthy looks from a disgruntled bunny but rabbits aren't stupid - they soon catch on it's that or nothing!
Encourage him to exercise
Fat rabbits are often lazy which makes the whole situation worse. Make him run up the stairs; play games with him; take him in the garden (supervised) for a run.
Something more drastic?
If he is seriously overweight then more drastic measures are called for. The usual advice in Britain is to cut out pellets/mix completely and feed hay and water alone for a few weeks. However some American experts feel that rabbit should not be dieted this rapidly (due to a risk of causing fatty liver disease) and the maximum rate of weight loss should be 1-2% loss per week. This may be ideal in mild to moderate cases of obesity but seriously fat rabbits do need to shift weight rapidly, at least until they can take care of their personal hygiene requirements. After that you can take things more steadily. Real fatties should probably be slimmed under veterinary supervision anyway.
Once you are getting towards target weight then you need to plan his long term diet. As well as unlimited hay, start gradually reintroducing a high quality rabbit food and make him eat it all. Quite apart from his weight, this is essential for his dental health. If he leaves some, cut down the amount until he clears his bowl. If you're really not getting anywhere and he flatly refuses to eat the pellets, stick with the hay-and-veggie diet or change him onto a different brand: perhaps a pellet-free where the vitamin supplementation is distributed throughout the feed. Good quality foods can also be fed in smaller quantities - he will fill up on hay and you will end up with a nice slim bunny who no longer produces excess caecal pellets - no more smelly shiny wonders stuck to a) the rabbit b) the carpet and c) your shoes! The end result should be a happier, healthier and more active rabbit. Good luck!
Written by Linda Dykes MBBS (Hons)
First published in Rabbiting On, the journal of the British Houserabbit Association, Winter 1997
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