Dealing With Obesity in Rabbits

Small rabbit on white background
Getty Images/Fernando Trabanco Fotografía

Obesity is a problem no matter what species you are, including rabbits. Just like in humans, dogs, cats, and even birds, being overweight unfortunately plays a major part in the health of your pet rabbit and is considered a pet welfare issue.

What Causes Obesity in Rabbits? 

Overeating is typically the reason for obesity in rabbits but this factor alone may not affect a very active rabbit. Rabbits need to take in more calories than they are exerting in order to pack on the pounds and since many pet rabbits are unfortunately caged for the majority of their lives, obesity is a common problem when they don't get the exercise they need.

Sugary treats are also contributors to the obesity problem in pet rabbits and are marketed as cute but the fact is your rabbit doesn't care what their food looks like. But many pet owners give in to the gimmicks and want to give their rabbits whatever the pet store has to offer.

Being stationary is the main culprit for obesity in every species. Rabbits are made to jump and run but too often we keep them contained in small cages or only allow them to hop and binky for short periods of time. This lack of energy exertion can create a multitude of problems for your rabbit and also gives them nothing to do but eat, sleep, and gain weight.

How Can You Tell if Your Rabbit is Obese?

Being obese means that your rabbit has more body fat than is healthy for their body size. Each rabbit species has a different set of breed standards that tells you what a normal size and weight of that particular breed should be.

These standards should be used as a guideline to help you and your veterinarian judge whether or not your rabbit weighs an appropriate amount.

By assigning a body condition score to your rabbit you will be better enabled to monitor your rabbit's weight. A body condition score is a number that correlates to certain physical attributes and most body condition score scales are a one through five with three being ideal.

A rabbit that you can feel but not easily see the ribs on is typically a three. The easiest way to tell if the ribs stick out too much (if they are too prominent it means your rabbit is underweight) is to compare feeling your rabbit's ribs to your closed fist. Make a fist with your hand and then feel the knuckles. If the ribs feel like this your rabbit is too skinny. Now feel your fingers (where your rings would normally sit on your hand) while your fist is still clenched. This is what it should feel like on a rabbit that has an ideal body condition score. If you cannot feel your rabbit's ribs or you have to push hard to feel them then your rabbit is overweight. Your veterinarian can help you with this process if you are not sure of it.

Why is Obesity in Rabbits Bad?

Obesity has been thought to be associated with many diseases included myiasis, pododermatitis, pregnancy toxemia, and even ileus (GI stasis), among other things. These diseases may also be caused by other things but no loving pet owner would ever want to knowingly contribute to making their rabbit sick.

Myiasis is more commonly referred to as a maggot infestation. Since overweight rabbits are unable to properly clean themselves they are more prone to having dirty areas on their body that attract flies (especially the rectum).

Flies lay eggs that turn into maggots and if you aren't regularly checking and cleaning your rabbit these can easily go unnoticed. Secondary infections, unrepairable wounds, and even internal damage can be done by maggots.

Pododermatitis is known as bumblefoot and is often due to a sedentary lifestyle or an obese rabbit that is putting too much pressure on their feet. Contributing factors can be rough and unclean surfaces but inflammation typically starts due to the pressure on the hock and feet from an obese rabbit. Bumblefoot is painful and can be difficult to treat and clean and the first signs of it usually including limping.

GI stasis (ileus) is the most common problem in pet rabbits due to it's many causes. Obesity by itself may not cause a rabbit to stop eating and develop ileus but because of all the other problems that can be associated with obesity it is definitely a major player in the ileus game.

Obesity has also been thought to be a player in cancer in people so there also may be bigger consequences for our pet rabbits that we don't know about.

What Can You Do to Prevent and Reverse Obesity in Rabbits?

The obviously easiest thing to do to help prevent obesity in rabbits is to feed an appropriate kind and amount of food and provide ample exercise. Grass hay is vital to the health of your rabbit and should be the main part of their diet. Pellets and treats are usually the reasons for weight gain so these should always be limited in adult rabbits.

Healthy food items like fruits and vegetables can be reserved as treats and only offered when you want to give something special to your rabbit. Avoid sugary and fat filled foods like sunflower seeds yogurt drops from the pet store, and many kinds of cereals. Instead, reserve a strawberry or carrot as a special treat for your rabbit that they only get from you and they'll think it is just as good as a sugar cube.

Allow your rabbit to run around. Ideally a rabbit is never caged but rather has a rabbit-proofed "room" or large penned area to live and explore.This will not only keep their mind stimulated but it will also keep them lean and happy. If you have no choice but to cage your pet rabbit then you can still give them time to exercise. Harnesses for rabbits are often used as are play pens to make sure your rabbit doesn't get into an unsafe area. They should be allowed at least three hours of time to play and exercise if they are restricted during the day. Remember, rabbits run around several miles a day in the wild so the least we can do is let them play in our homes for a few hours.