Obesity – why it happens and how we can help

Rabbits of all ages and breeds are at risk from obesity. We take a look at how to understand the problem and help

Posted: 15 February 2017

Obesity – why it happens and how we can help


Obesity is a big problem for people and their pets in our modern world. Rabbits of all ages and breeds are at risk, though we probably see more problems in middle-aged dwarf breeds than any other.

What causes obesity?

Lack of exercise – rabbits in the wild will spend much of their lives outside grazing, playing and chasing. They can cover a lot of ground in a day. The sedentary lives of pet rabbits is very different. Most will spend less than 15 minutes a day exercising.

Excessive feeding – rabbits generally become overweight when they eat more calories than they expend in a day. It’s too easy for owners to fill up a hay ball with high-energy hay, followed by the food bowl with high-energy nuggets, and then walk away feeling all is well. The problem is that rabbits are notorious selective feeders, so will fill up on the nuggets first and then move onto the hay. They’ll literally eat too much, and lay down fat.

Look for these 7 signs

  1. Scalding – check around the back end for urine and faeces sticking to and soaking the fur. The skin becomes inflamed and raw.
  2. Poor coat – look for signs of no grooming, such as a flaky, scurfy appearance. Obese rabbits can’t groom properly.
  3. Pododermatitis – this occurs as a result of excess weight being placed on the metatarsals along with standing in faeces and urine.
  4. Caecotrophs – if you see them then they’re not being consumed. An overweight rabbit will find it difficult to bend and reach its tail.
  5. Tachypnoea – when overweight, the airways are restricted so the animal can’t breath normally. To compensate they breath faster and with more effort.
  6. Fatty liver – excess lipids are stored in the liver, causing a dangerous metabolic disease associated with fatty liver and hepatic lipidosis. The risks to the animal are obvious and serious.
  7. Fly strike – common in the summer months. Flies are attracted and lay eggs as a result of urine and faecal soiling. Overweight rabbits find it difficult to clean and groom themselves.

5 ways we can help

  1. Discuss diet – there have been huge advances in our understanding of diets in rabbits over the past few years. Make sure your clients know the importance of a fibrevore diet and feeding hay and grass. Check they aren’t feeding muesli style foods.
  2. Measure body condition score – the online PFMA ‘Rabbit size-o-meter’ is an excellent way to introduce pet owners to regularly monitoring their pet rabbit.
  3. Monitor body weight – we all have scales in our consulting rooms. Ensure everyone in the practice checks and records the body weight of every animal each time it’s in for an examination.
  4. Run obesity clinics – an invaluable tool that will allow the practice nurses to bond with owners to help their pet to lose weight safely. We’d normally recommend no more than 0.5-1% of its body weight per week. If you need help, we can provide you with some excellent posters to use in your consulting room to highlight the importance of a fibrevore diet.
  5. Make time for exercise – an active lifestyle should be encouraged, so think of ways to help the rabbit get out and about. It helps if the owner hides the food around the home to encourage the animal to move about as it forages.

If you’ve found a successful way to run obesity clinics, why not share them with us. We’d love to hear what you think.