Which species of exotic pets tend to pack on the pounds? This week, we’re looking at the top five species I treat for obesity.
No. 3 on my list of obesity-prone pets are bunnies!
Dangle a carrot in front of a rabbit, and that bunny should hop. But if he is overweight, as are many of the pet rabbits I see in my practice, then he might not be able to. Just as in people, obesity is a large problem among captive rabbits who eat too much and exercise too little.
A Beefy Bunny Isn’t Best
When most people think of a rabbit, the image of a lean, muscular animal able to leap and jump high is what many people conjure up. For many pet rabbits, however, the reality is very different. Too many pet bunnies are housed in cages barely big enough to turn around in, and often they come out of their cages for only a few minutes a day. Although these animals should be offered a predominantly high-fiber diet in the form of unlimited amounts of hay with some greens, too many are given ad-lib, high-carbohydrate pellets with only small amounts of hay. Overweight rabbits are prone to health problems, like other obese animals, but particularly to the development of hepatic lipidosis, a disease in which excess fat is deposited in the liver where it interferes with liver function and may even cause death. Fat bunnies also commonly develop “sore hock,” or ulcers on the bottoms of their feet, from carrying excess weight. High carbohydrate and fat ingestion by bunnies can also lead to gastrointestinal (GI) upset and potentially to life-threatening problems.
To prevent weight gain, the rule of thumb is no more than a quarter cup of pellets per four to five pounds of bunny per day. Also, like all other pets, rabbits need out-of-cage time daily to exercise and should be encouraged to climb up ramps and hop onto different levels in their cages to help strengthen their muscles. But remember, before starting any diet or exercise plan with your bunny, be sure to consult with your veterinarian first to make sure you know how to help your pet lose weight safely. For example, some long-haired bunnies may look big, but in fact might be all hair and no fat. Your veterinarian can help you determine whether your bunny is at a good weight or not.
Many healthy rabbits will turn up their noses at hay because they are offered excessive amounts of pelleted food. This is because most rabbits prefer pellets to hay. Rabbit pellets are predominantly made of carbohydrates, and like most people, rabbits love their carbs and will choose them over fiber (hay). The general rule for healthy adult bunnies is no more than one-quarter cup of timothy hay-based pellets per 5 pounds of body weight each day. Growing and lactating (nursing) rabbits sometimes need more pellets in order to consume adequate calories (ask your veterinarian for feeding advice if you own a rabbit in one of these life stages), but for most bunnies, this is enough.
Adult rabbits can get all the nutrients they need from good quality hay and don’t actually need pellets. Hay should be the main food item a rabbit eats, and you cannot overfeed him. Timothy is usually the hay of choice, but orchard grass, oat hay and meadow grass hay are also suitable for healthy adult bunnies. Most owners purchase bags of loose hay at pet stores, although hay cubes are another acceptable, though less common, option. Both forms of fiber are fine as long as the hay is relatively fresh and hasn’t been sitting on the shelf for months (check the label). Certainly, if a rabbit that normally eats hay abruptly stops doing so, he should be examined by a rabbit-savvy veterinarian as soon as possible to ensure nothing is wrong, such as a dental problem or gastrointestinal upset. Rabbits are prone to both conditions.
While your rabbit should primarily consume hay, pellets contain carbohydrates and can be helpful in aiding thin rabbits to maintain or gain weight. Pellets are fine to feed in limited quantities, but should not be fed to the degree that they discourage your rabbit from eating his hay.
It may seem gross, but rabbits normally eat some of their feces once a day, either early in the morning or late at night.
These special feces are called cecotropes, or “night feces.” They are produced through fermentation of food in the part of the rabbit’s digestive tract called the cecum. Cecotropes are soft feces that are nutrient-rich and are passed out of the body like normal stool but then are re-ingested later by the rabbit so that important nutrients can be reabsorbed. These feces have more protein, less fiber and higher levels of certain vitamins, such as B vitamins, than the typical hard bunny fecal pellets you might see in the litterbox or around your rabbit’s cage.
While owners are often disturbed when they see their pets eating their own feces, realize that cecotrope ingestion is a normal and important part of rabbit behavior that will help keep your pet healthy. Owners should not try to prevent their rabbits from eating these feces and, since cecotropes are only passed once a day, there is little chance that an excessive amount could be consumed.