There are important reasons why you must not give in to your rabbit’s adorable begging. Once a rabbit becomes overweight it can be as difficult for him to lose weight as it is for us humans. The best plan is prevention.
Many pelleted foods sold for rabbits are designed and marketed for the human eye rather than for the health of your rabbit. We see a rabbit food that has colored pieces that look like dried vegetables, and assume it will be a better diet than plain green pellets. This is not the case. Many of the pieces of what appear to be dried carrots; papaya, etc. are actually fried foods, which add far too much fat to the diet. The term gourmet usually means a rich food, high in fat. Beware of foods trumpeting variety as a desirable quality. Choose a pelleted food that contains only plain green pellets with less than 2% fat and more than 18% fiber.
Beware of feeding junk food that is sold in pet stores. Products such as yogurt drops, seed bars, etc., usually contain too much sugar and starch. If you have to give a treat for good behavior or to get him to go back to his enclosure, use fresh fruit. One grape will satisfy his sweet tooth. Dried fruit has more sugar. You don’t have to put your rabbit on a scale to check for weight gain. As you pet him, feel his spine and ribs. You should be able to feel those bones just under a thin layer of muscle as you stroke him.
Results of Being Overweight
A fat rabbit may be unable to reach down to take his cecotropes* from his anus because his large abdomen can get in the way. Sometimes there is even a fatty skin fold that lies over the anus, blocking access. When he tries to reach them, the cecotropes can smear onto his hair and become hardened. This situation will continue, each day adding to the mass until the caretaker finally notices. Then begins a routine of daily bottom baths until the caretaker wants to call it quits and find a new home for the rabbit.
Fatty Liver Disease
This is a serious metabolic disorder which happens when fat has accumulated in the liver. It can be life threatening but is totally preventable.
Pododermatitis is a painful disorder which can be accompanied by serious infections. Rabbits rock back onto their heels when eating cecotropes and bathing themselves. Living on carpeting can cause hair to rub off leaving bald areas on the heels and feet. Because of the additional weight carried by obese rabbits, they are at added risk of irritating the skin on their feet allowing bacteria to enter. (Rabbits should not live in cages with wire bottoms as they are even more problematic for rabbit feet.) Abscessed feet can become so painful that the rabbit is unable to walk and if left untreated, the infection can go into the bone putting the rabbit at risk of amputation.
Extra weight can damage joints and can cause additional pain and deterioration of already arthritic joints.
The heart has to work much harder than that of a normal weight rabbit. Lifestyle is the most common cause of heart problems.
Fat accumulates inside the chest putting pressure around the lungs. This can cause difficulties breathing and may result in a rabbit passing out or even dying if they are seriously stressed.
An obese rabbit will not want to move around to exercise, and fat deposits will put pressure on the bladder. The result is urine that sits in the bladder too long and accumulates minerals in the form of sludge. Sludge can lead to painful urination and blockage of the urethra.
Difficulty reading radiographs
Because fat-laden structures may not be clear enough to identify, accurate diagnosis may be impossible.
When your rabbit requires surgery, the veterinarian will have to penetrate layers of fat to find the organ s/he’s looking for, increasing surgery time. This means more anaesthesia, putting your rabbit at greater risk. The additional fat also puts an unusual amount of pressure on the chest while the rabbit is on his back which can cause risk to the heart and lungs.
Addressing the obesity problem
One way to jump start your rabbit’s weight loss is to remove all pellets for a couple of weeks and feed only a grass hay diet during that time. Please check with your veterinarian before starting this diet to make sure there are no underlying diseases that need to be treated first. Also make sure your rabbit is a good hay eater. A more conservative approach is to cut out all treats and feed your rabbit half his regular pellet ration to allow his hay consumption time to increase. Losing the weight that’s necessary for your rabbit to regain his health will take many months. The primary house rabbit diet should be hay and greens with a small amount of pellets. House Rabbit Handbook and www.rabbit.org have many detailed articles on diet.
When feeding pellets (over 1 year), you should consider a timothy based pellet rather than alfalfa. Rabbits under one year of age require the higher protein found in alfalfa.
Of course, the easier course of action is to avoid the bad foods and not allow your rabbit to become obese in the first place. Young, growing rabbits can have unlimited pellets, hay and veggies. A mature rabbit must have his pellets restricted. Purchase a measuring scoop so you will know the exact amount of pellets you are feeding. Grass hay (timothy, orchard grass, etc) must be available 24/7. If there are multiple people in the house, set up a check list, so that everyone will know if your rabbit has already received his food. You should do the same with any “extras” so that everyone in the home isn’t handing out treats.
*Cecotropes also referred to as night droppings and cecal pellets. Cecotropes are designed to be ingested so that your rabbit will get appropriate vitamins and minerals.
By Sandi Ackerman
House Rabbit Journal Winter 2011: Volume V, Number 6