Susan Smith, Ph.D.
Professor of Nutritional Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison
We love our rabbit companions because they give us unreserved love and attention. We reciprocate their love by giving them things that make them happy. Unfortunately, it is very common for people to use food as a substitute for affection. Rabbits, being very smart, then reinforce our behavior by begging even more. How can I refuse her?
Obesity is not just for people. Veterinarians are reporting an obesity epidemic in our pets. Sadly, I see a lot of overweight rabbits in my work with House Rabbit Society. Even sadder, some of these rabbits lose their lives because of this obesity. I call it “being loved to death.”
Why Is Obesity Dangerous?
Rabbits are sensitive to the same diseases that affect overweight people: heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stressed joints. Excess fat makes simple surgeries risky, because the fat makes it hard for your veterinarian to predict how the rabbit responds to anaesthesia. Abdominal fat puts pressure on the cecum and keeps it from operating efficiently, increasing the risk for gut stasis. Starchy and sugary treats can cause cecal overproduction, and these feces make an even bigger mess when an obese rabbit can’t reach to eat them or clean herself. The bottom line is that obesity reduces the number of happy years that you and your rabbit will spend together.
How Can You Tell If Your Rabbit Is Overweight?
Rabbits can’t tell us that their clothes are too tight. They depend on us to monitor them. For starters, find an old photo of your rabbit, and compare her body shape to how she looks now. Viewed from above, does she have a pear-shaped body size with a nice waist in front of the hips? Or does excess fat make her look rectangular? Viewed from the side, is there a nice, upward curve from hips to shoulder? Or does excess fat give her belly a straight line? “Yes” answers to the second questions mean your rabbit is overweight. Ask your vet for advice (and be prepared to accept it!). Your vet will have weight records from regular visits. In my experience, if you think your rabbit is overweight, then she probably is.
How Do I Make The Change?
The important part of this answer is You. Your rabbit isn’t the one shopping at the grocery store. She’s not the one reaching for the treat box, measuring the food, or opening the refrigerator. Our pets rely on us to make healthy and wise choices. This can be hard, in part because many of us equate food with love. Complicating this is that rabbits evolved on a low-calorie diet. Their natural instinct is to graze all day, and to pursue scarce, calorie-rich foods like seeds and fruits. Domestication didn’t change those instincts. So cravings that ensured survival in the wild, now guarantee obesity if allowed to run unchecked.
Find The Hidden Calories
Your first goal is to figure out where the excess calories are coming from. For one week (including the weekend!) keep a careful list of everything your rabbit eats. Use a measuring cup for pellets, count the number of Cheerios and raisins, weigh the fruit and vegetables. Be a detective. Does Thumper steal food from the dog bowl? Do the kids slip her extra treats when they think you aren’t looking? Does Thumper also eat the food portion of a slow-eating companion?
After a week, review your list with a critical eye. Pay special attention to high-calorie foods. Can you reduce portion sizes? Are too many people feeding the rabbit, so that she eats more than you thought? Should you move the cat food bowl to a counter, or separate the rabbits at feeding time?
A New Diet Plan
Now that you know where the calories are coming from, you can make changes to improve her diet. Rabbits should lose fat weight slowly, no more than 1-2% of their body weight per week. This means, for example, that it should take two and one half to five months (10 to 20 weeks) for five-pound Thumper to lose that extra pound. This slower weight reduction helps your rabbit to readjust her metabolism to this new diet. It also gives the gut bacteria a chance to adjust. Sudden diet changes can cause hunger strikes, bacterial overgrowth, gut stasis, and death.
Restrict Pellet Intake
Unless special circumstances dictate otherwise, feed pellets in restricted amounts proportionate to your rabbit’s needs. Buy a dedicated measuring cup for your rabbit, and always use it when dispensing pellets; it can be quite hard to judge how much is 1/8 cup or ¼ cup. Review the rabbit feeding guidelines and stick to them. Always use a measuring cup when dispensing pellets; it can be quite hard to accurately estimate how much is 1/8 cup or ¼ cup. Review the rabbit feeding guidelines and stick to them. Good guidelines are:
2-4 lb body weight – 1/8 to 1/4 cup daily (less if overweight)
4-7 lb body weight – ¼ to ½ cup daily (less if overweight)
7-10 lb body weight – ½ to ¾ cup daily (less if overweight)
11 – 15 lb body weight – ¾ to 1 cup daily (less if overweight)
Pellets vary in their calorie content, so feel free to adjust these a bit. Avoid pellets that contain seeds, whole grains, and dried vegetables; these are tasty, but they add extra calories that your rabbit doesn’t need. Many pellets are designed for weight gain, not longevity, so you might switch to a low calorie pellet that uses timothy instead of alfalfa. Some good low-calorie pellets include Purina’s Lab Chow (PMI), and timothy-based pellets such as Oxbow BBT or American Pet Diner’s Timmy (Oxbow and APD sell pellets via the Internet). Don’t switch pellets suddenly. Blend them together for a week or two and give taste buds time to adjust. Rabbits can be stubborn, so be persistent!
Feed More Vegetables
Most vegetables (except carrots) are low in calories and rich in nutrients. Offer new vegetables one at a time, to give adjustment time. Rabbits are cautious and it may take several tries before she eats a new vegetable. Be flexible. Most green vegetables and fresh herbs are safe for rabbits. Avoid starchy vegetables like peas, beans, corn, and potato as these can cause gut stasis and are calorie-rich. If you increase vegetable intake significantly, be prepared to reduce the pellet portion, depending on your rabbit’s needs.
Offer Unlimited Hay
Hay is essential for weight control. It satisfies the grazing urge and is low in calories. Grass hays are lower in calories than are alfalfa hays, but any hay is always better than none. You can purchase hay on-line (Oxbow sells hay by the bale). Or find a horse stable and ask where they get hay. Wheat and oat hays contain seed heads that contain hidden calories, so inspect hay closely. Some people tell me their rabbit “doesn’t like” hay, but in my experience even rabbits that just “play” with the hay tend to eat and chew it.
Throw away high calorie treats that are rich in starch, sugar, and fat (high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup solids, and partly hydrolyzed corn starch are just sugar). Read the label if you aren’t sure. View the manufacturer’s “feeding guidelines” with suspicion; most are aimed at using up the product faster, so that you buy more. Claims of “healthy,” “nutritious” and “contains vitamins and minerals” don’t mean “low-calorie.” Instead, use low-calorie, flavorful vegetables and fresh fruit slices as a treat. Even better are calorie-free treats: exercise, “new” toys, and affection.
Please be aware that some popular treats, such as dried fruits, are calorie-rich and can stick to the teeth, causing cavities. I have heard several reports of raisin-induced cavities in rabbits. Starch-rich treats such as oatmeal, Cheerios, crackers, bread also contain lots of calories for a rabbit. Be aware that even fresh fruit has more calories than green vegetables, and these should be monitored as well.
Add Exercise To The Equation
Every weight control plan includes exercise. Exercise trains the body to burn more calories, even when the body is resting. How to get Lazy Bunny to exercise? One approach is to stimulate curiosity. Rotate toys frequently, and use toys that promote pushing, tossing, and chewing. Our Holly loves her “treat” ball, a plastic ball with a hole in it. Instead of treats, I fill it with her pellet ration, and she loves to shove it around the floor to obtain her meal. Rearrange furniture, or hide hay or apple slices, to stimulate exploration. Try a cardboard “castle” with ramps and tunnels to encourage jumping. Remember that rabbits eat to reduce boredom; hay, toys, and attention will reduce that need.
Your overweight rabbit wasn’t created overnight, and it will take time to return her to a healthy body size. Rabbits, like people, can have stubborn food habits. Be patient, and remember that your efforts will be rewarded with a more active and longer-lived companion.