Obesity – a growing problem in pet rabbits
We’ve all seen them – far too many of our patients are becoming more and more overweight, and in rabbits it’s certainly a recurring clinical problem. They become overweight for a number of reasons;
- Diet – a lack of understanding about rabbit nutrition results in their owners feeding inappropriate diets, which are low in fibre and excessively high in carbohydrates and energy.
- Exercise – everyone is busy these days, rushing about being preoccupied with too many things to do. As a result, many pets are given minimal attention, and are frequently left locked away in their enclosures for most of the day. Lack of exercise results in all sorts of problems, with weigh gain being one of them.
- Old age and arthritis – domesticated animals are all tending to live longer. As a consequence, we see more and more age-related problems, including degenerative joint disease. Rabbits also suffer from these problems, and if untreated, results in their movement and mobility being restricted. They then tend to gain weight.
Why is weight management important?
There are so many problems associated with being overweight or obese, and as humans we’re constantly being reminded of some of them. Below is a list of the complications we regularly see in pet rabbits;
- Liver disease - 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
- Foot problems – obesity will increase the risk pododermatitis (see our article on pododermatitis)
- Poor coat – overweight rabbits will tend to grow a scruffy coat, mainly as grooming becomes more difficult
- Skin infections – pyoderma from skin folds are more common
- Nutritional deficiencies – obese rabbits are often unable to reach under their tail to eat the nutrient-rich caecotrophs
- Soiling and scalding – check for this under the tail as a result of urine dribbling and soft faecal accumulations
- Fly strike – this happens most often in the summer months as a result of soiling and scalding
- Tachypnoea – when overweight, the airways are restricted, and the animal can’t breathe normally. To compensate they have to breath faster and with more effort
- Anaesthesia risk – there is an increased risk of complications from anaesthesia in obese rabbits
- Surgical complications - ligation of blood vessels is much more challenging during ovariohysterectomy in a fat abdomen
- Pregnancy - increased risk from pregnancy toxaemia
How do you know if a rabbit is overweight?
You can’t rely on weight alone, as there can be tremendous variation amongst different breeds. For example, small breeds can weigh as little as 1 kg whilst large to giant breeds can be in excess of 7 kg. In a similar way, the normal conformation can be quite variable, with dwarf rabbits being small and stocky whilst giant breeds tend to be more slender.
Body condition score – the perfect weight management tool
Body condition scoring is a technique used to assess body condition in many species, and in rabbits we use the same method as we do in cats and dogs. The aim is to palpate the entire body, assessing bony prominences over the ribs, hips, shoulders, spine and pelvis. An assessment is also made of the dewlap.
Understanding Body Condition Scores (BCS)
Score 1/5 - this is when the animal is considered to be emaciated
- Pelvis and ribs are very easily palpated and very sharp
- Rump area is described as being concave
- Loss of muscle and no fat cover
Score 2/5 – you would say the rabbit is lean
- Pelvis and ribs are easily palpated
- Rump area is flat
Score 3/5 – the target condition
- Pelvis and ribs easily palpated but have smooth, rounded edges
- No abdominal bulge
- Rump area is flat
Score 4/5 – with this score, the rabbit is overweight or fat
- Firm palpation required to palpate ribs
- Rump is rounded
- Some fat layers evident
- 10-15% overweight
Score 5/5 – the rabbit is now obese, being more than 15% overweight
- Hard to palpate ribs, hips and spine
- Often the ribs can’t be felt
- Rump is convex
- Abdomen sags
- Dewlap restricts movement and grooming
Make sure all your staff know how to use the rabbit body condition score system. Take every opportunity in the clinic to measure and record, as trends in weight gain or loss can be identified early.
Use the PFMA Rabbit size-o-meter >
Read our article on Obesity in Rabbits >
Weight management – 5 top tips
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 or grass. Check they aren’t feeding muesli style foods.
2. Measure body condition score – the online 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 body weight loss 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.