Helping Obese Rabbits Lose Weight


weight loss for a fat, obese rabbit

For humans, we know that obesity is linked to a multitude of health problems and complications. The same goes for our pets. My old bun, Tenshi, became a very obese bunny by the time she was middle aged. I had to learn how to feed Tenshi a much healthier diet, and work with her to help her lose weight and become a healthy and active rabbit. In the end my sweet bun was able to shed the weight and lived to be 13 years old.

You can test if your rabbit is obese by feeling for their ribs, spine and hips. If these bones are difficult to find because of a thick layer of fat, then you need to help your rabbit lose weight. By putting your rabbit onto a healthy diet and encouraging lots of exercise, you can help your rabbit become healthy again and live a long life.

But the good news is that rabbit obesity is often solved by correcting your rabbit’s diet and encouraging more exercise. You can help your rabbit lose weight and become a happy and healthy bunny again.


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How to know if your rabbit is overweight

First, you might be wondering how to know if your rabbit is fat. If your rabbit is severely obese, you can probably tell just by looking. But it’s not always that simple, especially for those bunnies that have long fur coats, hiding their body shapes.

Because of significant differences we can find between breeds of rabbits, there is no BMI that we can measure to determine if our rabbits are overweight. Professionals will use the Body Condition Scoring (BCS) chart to determine if a pet is obese or underweight.

BCS chart

1: EmaciatedNo fat, with a visible spine, hips and ribs that feel sharp when touched. Likely there will be a loss of muscle mass and there may be concave areas around the rabbits behind.
2: ThinA very thin fat layer. The spine, hips and ribs of the rabbit are easily felt and are somewhat sharp when touched. 
3: Ideal weightThere is a healthy layer of fat, but no bulging areas. The spine, hips and ribs can be felt, but are rounded and not sharp when touched.
4: OverweightThere is a thick layer of fat making it difficult to feel the ribs, hips and spine. There may be some extra folds of fat and the bottom will start to become rounded on the sides.
5: ObeseIt is very difficult or impossible to feel the hips, spine and ribs. There are many layers of visible fat, and the stomach sags. The rabbit will be rounded on the sides around their bottom and abdomen.

The rabbit’s profile

RABBIT BODY WEIGHT
An underweight rabbit will have sharp ribs, spine, shoulders, and hips with little to no fat. An overweight rabbit will have a rounded butt and chest with sagging folds of fat. The ribs, spine, shoulders and hip bones will be difficult or impossible to touch.

The first thing to do is check your rabbit’s profile. Look at them from the side and from above to see if they are visibly obese. You’ll be looking for a visibly rounded stomach and bottom. The rabbit may even have layers or rolls of fat.

If your rabbit is a long haired rabbit, this will not be an accurate way of determining if your rabbit is too fat. Long fur can easily cover a healthy rabbit and make them appear to be obese, even when they are not. 

Feel the rabbit’s ribs

To get a more accurate idea of whether or not your rabbit is overweight, you should gently feel along their sides and chest. You should be able to easily touch the ribs of the rabbit, and the ribs should feel rounded to the touch with a thin layer of fat, and not sharp (sharp ribs are an indication of an underweight rabbit). 

If you need to put pressure on your rabbit’s chest in order to feel their ribs through the fat, that’s an indication that your rabbit is overweight. If you cannot feel the ribs at all, or if it is very difficult, that is an indication that your rabbit is obese.

Feel the Spine, shoulders, and hips

Similar to feeling the ribs, you should gently touch your rabbit along their spine, shoulders and hips. You should be able to touch each of these bones easily, but they should be rounded with a layer of fat, and not sharp to the touch. If you have difficulty locating these bones, or cannot feel them at all, your rabbit is overweight or obese.

Head size compared to body size

You can also compare the size of your rabbit’s head compared to the size of your rabbits body. They should be proportional. In general, the head is not an area of the rabbit that puts on a lot of fat when they gain weight. If it looks like the rabbit has a noticeably small head on a large body, this is an indication that they are overweight. This will be especially noticeable in small and medium sized rabbits, and in rabbits that have a more elegant and arched body shape.

examples of small, medium and large dewlaps
Dewlaps can come in many different sizes. Larger rabbits and lop rabbits tend to have bigger dewlaps.

Male rabbit with a dewlap or an overly large dewlap in females

A dewlap is a pocket of fatty tissue underneath a rabbit’s chin. It will look like your rabbit has a double chin. Dewlaps are common among female rabbits, who develop them to get more nesting material. With the exception of some larger breeds of rabbits, males will not usually form dewlaps.

However, the skin in that area of both male and female rabbits is elastic, and can therefore get very large when a rabbit is putting on weight, even on male rabbits. For this reason, if your male rabbit is starting to form a dewlap under his chin, they are likely becoming overweight or obese. Similarly, if a female rabbit’s dewlap becomes extra large, especially if they have been spayed, this is an indication that your rabbit may be overweight.

Difficulty cleaning themselves

As a rabbit becomes obese, they will start to have a lot of difficulty keeping themselves clean. They won’t be able to reach over all the folds of fat, and might start to get feces stuck to their butt, or urine scald on the skin around their bottom and hind legs.

Causes of obesity in rabbits

While it is possible that there is an underlying condition causing obesity in a rabbit, most of the time the root cause comes down to diet and exercise. Many pet rabbits do not have a balanced diet, and live in enclosures that are too small for them to get enough exercise.

Unhealthy diet

The main cause of obesity in rabbits is an unhealthy diet. It is common for people to feed their rabbit’s too many treats (because they are just so cute when they beg), or give them a diet high in pellets and low in the essential, fiber-dense hay.

Graph: What to feed your rabbit? 80% hay, 15% leafy greens, 4% pellets, 1% treats

Many pet rabbits are fed a diet with too many pellets. The rabbits are left with a whole bowl full of pellets during the day. Or maybe their daily dry food has those colorful fruity bits in the mix. This is a recipe for weight gain and eventual health complications. 

Rabbits don’t need very many pellets on a daily basis. For most rabbits, they should only get about ¼ to ½ a cup of pellets a day, with the bulk of their diet being made up of grass-based hay (such as timothy hay) and some fresh leafy greens. The pellets that the rabbit receives on a daily basis should be a plain timothy based mix, no extra fruity pieces!

While it is okay to give your rabbit the occasional treat, you want to avoid giving them more than a tablespoon in a day. Too many sugary treats (including carrots) can cause rapid weight gain in rabbits, and they can be the cause of an imbalance in the gut, making the rabbit more likely to suffer from a digestive related disease or condition.

Not enough exercise

The other major cause of obesity in pet rabbits is the sedentary lifestyle that they often live. Many rabbits are kept in cages that are too small for them, and are given very little time out to exercise and socialize.

Most cages sold in pet stores and many sold online, are much too small for rabbits. Rabbit enclosures should be large enough for a rabbit to make three full hops along the length of the cage. While the ideal enclosure size will vary based on the size of your rabbit, for an average sized, five pound rabbit, you’ll want an enclosure size of at least 4ft by 2ft. This will give your rabbit some space to move around even when you are not home during the day.

rabbit playpen
I always recommend using a pet exercise pen as your rabbit’s enclosure. It gives the rabbit a lot of space and it’s easy to clean.

In addition to an appropriately sized enclosure, rabbits need time out in a large area (a room in the house) to get some exercise during the day. Giving the rabbit 3 to 4 hours of exercise is ideal, but at least 1 to 2 hours a day is necessary for their health.

Some rabbits will also sit around all day because they are depressed or bored. Rabbits are social animals and require some time with people or other rabbits to be happy. They can also get bored and depressed if they are left in a cage all day with no toys to play with or chew on, leaving them with nothing to do but eat and sleep all day.

Rabbits that are more at risk of obesity

All rabbits have a risk of becoming obese if they have a poor diet or sedentary lifestyle, but there are some that have a greater risk than others. Some dwarf breeds are more prone to obesity because their small size makes it easy for them to overeat. 

In addition, many large rabbits were originally meant to be meat rabbits, so they were bred to gain weight quickly and have a calmer, less active demeanor. This is, of course, more of a problem for pet rabbits because it puts these gentle giants at a higher risk of becoming overweight and obese.

Elderly rabbits are also at risk. As rabbits get older they lose muscle mass and may develop arthritis. This will often cause the elderly rabbit to be reluctant to move around. They can end up gaining weight as their lifestyle becomes less active.

Health problems associated with rabbit obesity

Obesity is dangerous for our rabbits because of the many health problems that can result from the extra weight. Because of the many conditions and complications that occur, obesity will often cause a reduced lifespan for pet rabbits.

Heart disease

Like with humans, obesity in rabbits puts them at an increased risk of heart disease. A rabbit’s heart is relatively small compared to the size of their body, so adding extra weight can but a lot of stress on the heart and cardiovascular system. This puts them at risk of a heart attack or heart failure.

Heart disease is difficult to detect in rabbits until it reaches an advanced stage. The symptoms of heart disease in rabbits include:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Coughing
  • Signs of pain (sitting in a hunched position)
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness or dizzy spells
  • Mouth breathing
  • Sleep apnea
  • Rapid heart rate

Poopy butt and fly strike

Obese rabbits are more likely to have soft cecotropes (called cecal dysbiosis). These mushy droppings get stuck to the rabbits bottom. Normally rabbits would easily be able to keep themselves clean, but obese rabbits will often have trouble reaching around their fat to clean up the poop that is stuck to their fur.

Over time this poop ends up forming into a ball attached to the bottom of the rabbits butt. This is a condition called Poopy Butt, and it is common for obese and elderly rabbits who are unable or don’t have the mobility to clean themselves.

rabbit bottom check
Check your rabbit’s bottom on a daily basis to be sure it’s not dirty, so that it won’t attract any flies.

Not only does this mean that you will have to do a lot of extra work to keep your rabbit’s butt clean. Poopy butt puts rabbits at an increased risk of being the target of fly strike. This is a gross and deadly condition where a fly will lay eggs on the rabbit, preferring areas that are dirty. When the eggs hatch, the maggots will begin eating through the rabbits skin. If undetected, this can be fatal for rabbits within a 48 hour time period.

Gastrointestinal (GI) Stasis

GI Stasis is a condition that occurs when a rabbit’s gut slows down or stops completely. It is especially a danger for obese rabbits, who often have an imbalance of bacteria in their gut, and have extra fat putting pressure on their sensitive digestive tract. If the symptoms are not detected soon enough, GI Stasis is often a deadly condition for rabbits.

Obese rabbits are also more sedentary, which discourages the movement of food through the digestive system. It is much more likely for an overweight rabbit to suffer from digestive conditions than rabbits at a healthy weight.

Symptoms of GI Stasis include:

  • Not eating
  • No poops or small malformed poops
  • Diarrhea or mushy poops
  • Loud stomach gurgles, or no sound coming from the stomach at all
  • Hunched posture
  • Lack of energy

Sore hocks

The extra weight that obese rabbits carry can end up putting a lot of stress on their feet. The heel of a rabbit’s foot is called a hock, and it is very much like a human’s elbow. The skin is right up against the bone with little fat or muscle in between.

Obese rabbits put a lot of extra weight on this area, which causes blisters or sores to develop. While not life threatening, this can be a painful condition for rabbits. If you notice sores on your rabbits heels, you may need to provide them with softer flooring (wire cages are particularly bad for rabbit feet), and rub vaseline on their hocks to help them heal.

Urine scalding

Urine scalding is a skin irritation that occurs on a rabbit’s bottom and legs when a rabbit cannot fully clean the urine off. Usually this occurs as the result of a Urinary Tract Infection, when a rabbit is constantly dribbling a little bit of pee. But it can also happen when the rabbit is too fat to clean themselves properly.

The rabbit will end up sitting in their urine for long periods of time, causing a skin rash and irritation. Eventually the area will begin to bald and lose fur, and it’s possible that an infection can result from the urine scalding. It is a very uncomfortable condition for rabbits, who generally prefer to remain clean.

Fatty liver disease

Also known as Hepatic Lipidosis, fatty liver disease happens when fat accumulates in the liver. It is usually caused when a rabbit suddenly becomes anorexic and stops eating (a common symptom of many rabbit illnesses). This is much more common in obese rabbits than in rabbits at a healthy weight. 

When the liver is functioning normally, it will store some fatty acids to use for energy. But when a rabbit stops eating, especially obese rabbits who already have a larger store of fat, the liver can start to panic, and fat begins to build up causing the rabbit to become very sick.

This is an extremely serious illness, and if not treated as soon as possible may result in liver failure and death. The symptoms of fatty liver disease can come on quickly, so be prepared to take fast action:

  • Not eating
  • Weight loss
  • Small poops or not pooping at all
  • Not drinking
  • Lack of energy

Arthritis

The excess weight that obese rabbits carry can put a lot of extra strain on their joints. Over time the joints might become inflamed and cause painful arthritis. The arthritis tends to be especially bad in joints that work to support the weight of the rabbit, such as in the feet and knees. Thus causing them to be even more reluctant to move than before, and worsening the problem.

elderly rabbit in a box
Having a litter box with a lower entry way can help elderly rabbits with arthritis or weak muscles.

Obese, elderly rabbits tend to have a really hard time with arthritis. Not only do they have painful joints, but they also have a decreasing muscle mass, which makes it more and more difficult for them to move around. This makes it a hard task to help obese, elderly rabbits lose their excess weight.

Respiratory Illnesses

Fat accumulation in the body can also put a lot of pressure on a rabbit’s lungs, making it more difficult for them to breathe. Overweight rabbits may breathe or pant more heavily than healthy rabbits. There is even potential that they will pass out when experiencing stress, a very dangerous position for a rabbit to be in.

Obese rabbits can also suffer from sleep apnea. A sleep-related breathing disorder that causes breathing to sporadically stop completely while the rabbit is sleeping. 

Bladder Sludge or Stones

Because obese rabbits tend to be less active, they have an increased chance of developing bladder sludge or bladder stones. This occurs when excess calcium forms hardened stones or sand-like sludge in the bladder, making it difficult and painful for the rabbit to urinate. If nothing is done about these conditions, they can lead to a much more serious bladder or kidney infection.

While the exact cause of these conditions is not understood, having an appropriate diet and exercising daily are the main ways to prevent your rabbit from developing them. Exercise is particularly important, as it will get the juices flowing through the rabbits body, encouraging them to drink and urinate more frequently. Thus keeping the build up of sludge and calcium crystals in the bladder.

Surgery is more difficult

Surgery is exponentially more difficult to perform on an overweight rabbit. What could be a simple procedure for a healthy rabbit is often riddled with complications as doctors try to manage a precise surgery with layers of fat in the way.

This means that surgeries will almost definitely last longer, requiring more anesthesia. The excess fat can also put pressure on the rabbits essential organs while the rabbit is laying on their back on the surgery table.

It can even be confusing for doctors to get an accurate diagnosis for a rabbit. The fat build up can make it difficult for doctors to read rabbit X-rays, as it can get in the way and be hard to identify when reading the radiographs.

Treatment for obesity 

In most cases, obesity can be reversed with a healthy diet and some daily exercise. You want to make sure your rabbit doesn’t lose weight too quickly though, since rapid weight lose can cause other health problems in rabbits (such as fatty liver disease). The idea is to put your rabbit on a healthy diet and help them lose 1 to 2 ounces of weight per week until they reach their goal weight (which will vary based on rabbit breed and size).

Step 1: consult a vet

Before making any changes to your rabbit’s diet, you should consult your rabbit savvy vet for advice. Your vet will be able to help you determine the ideal weight of your rabbit, and they will be able to help you safely develop a diet plan that will help your rabbit slowly lose their excess weight. 

A rabbit savvy vet will also be able to check for any underlying diseases. While diet and lifestyle are the most frequent causes of obesity in rabbits, there may be other conditions that have contributed to the weight gain.

The veterinarian will be able to rule out a possible pregnancy in an unspayed female rabbit. They can check for tumors or other abdominal masses that can be an indication of a much more serious condition as well.

Step 2: Improving your rabbits diet

After you have consulted with your vet and determined your rabbit’s goal weight, you will want to take steps to improve your rabbit’s diet. Switching your rabbit to a healthy pellet mix and limiting their daily pellets and treats will help your rabbit slowly lose the extra pounds.

During this time you want to monitor your rabbit and watch for any rapid weight loss or refusal to eat. These can be signs of more serious conditions, such as fatty liver disease, and should be treated as an emergency. The goal is to help your rabbit steadily lose a little weight at a time until they have reached their ideal weight.

Giving your rabbit healthy pellets

You will want to feed your rabbit over to a healthier pellet mix. If you are currently giving your rabbit a fruity rabbit food mix, you will want to transition them over to plain timothy-based pellets.

I use and recommend Oxbow’s Garden Select rabbit food. Oxbow is a well known and respected brand that supplies food for rabbits and other small animals. Their pellets meet all the highest standards for fortified rabbit foods, including a very high percentage of fiber, which is good for a rabbit’s digestion.

You don’t want to give your rabbit a new food all at once because that can shock your rabbit’s digestive system, so take 3-4 weeks to slowly transition your rabbit from their old, unhealthy food, to the new one.

Give your rabbit more hay

You also want to change your rabbits diet so that they will be eating more hay and less pellets. Rather than giving your rabbit a whole bowl full of their pellets, limit them to ¼ cup a day (or about 1 tablespoon per pound of your rabbit’s ideal weight). 

While you limit their pellets, you want to make sure they have access to unlimited grass-based hay (such as timothy hay). This is good for their teeth and is high in fiber, making it an essential part of their digestive system.

If your rabbit is not eating their hay despite having it available, then they might be a picky bunny. This can happen with rabbits that are used to eating the soft pellets all day. If this is a problem you are facing, then check out my article on picky rabbits, which is full of ideas to convince your rabbit to eat their hay.

No sweet treats

However much your rabbit may beg, for the time being you should stop giving them any special treats. This includes sweet fruits and vegetables, such as strawberries, bananas, and carrots. It also includes bagged rabbit treats. Yogurt treats, in particular, can be very high in sugar and are very bad for a rabbit’s digestion.

Step 3: Encourage activity

You can also help your rabbit lose some weight by encouraging them to be more active and engaged. Even if their diet has changed, a sedentary rabbit in a small cage is likely to have many of the same health problems. So take a tally of the living area of your rabbit, and make sure your giving them a chance to be happy and active.

Larger cage

Getting a larger cage for your rabbit will immediately increase the amount they can move around during the day. You want to get a cage that is three to four times the full length of your rabbit. 

how to connect a playpen to a cage
If your cage is too small, attach a rabbit playpen to give your rabbit more space.

I prefer to get an ex-pen enclosure for my rabbits. It gives them a fair amount of space and actually makes clean up easier too. If your rabbit is attached to their original, smaller cage, you can attach an ex-pen to the front, so you can expand your rabbits space without taking away an area they may view as their home.

You can also have climbing areas inside their enclosure and other fun toys to encourage more movement. Even in a large enclosure, a bored rabbit might sit around all day. Giving them some chew toys to throw around will encourage them to get up and play.

More exercise time

Make sure you give your rabbit enough time to exercise every day. Leaving the enclosure open for many hours at a time will give the rabbit a chance to come out and exercise, even if they don’t feel like being active when you first open the cage door.

You can also plan exercise times at the beginning and end of the day. Rabbits are crepuscular animals, which means they are most active during the dawn and dusk hours of the day. So if you make their out-of-cage sessions for the times when they are naturally more active, it will encourage them to move around more and get exercise.

Forage for food

You can also help you rabbit get more exercise by getting puzzle toys that encourage them to forage for their food. I put my rabbit’s pellets into a ball that she rolls around to get at the pellets inside.

treat dispenser ball
You can give your rabbit their daily pellets in a treat dispenser. This will encourage them to move around and forage for their food, to get a little more exercise.

You can also find puzzle toys where you hide the food and give your rabbit a chance to find it on their own. If you’re looking for a DIY option, you can use some toilet paper rolls and hide food inside of them. Alternatively, you can sprinkle your rabbits pellets on their hay so that they will be more active in finding the pellets, and they will be encouraged to eat more hay.

Socialization

You will also want to make sure your rabbit is getting enough attention. Rabbits are social creatures and can easily get lonely and depressed. If you don’t have enough time to spend with your rabbit, you should consider finding them a partner rabbit to bond with.

When bonding rabbits, you want to make sure you are careful when you introduce the rabbits. Some bunnies tend to be very territorial and will attack other rabbits who enter their area. So be sure to introduce them in a neutral area and see if they are a compatible pair first.


Related Questions:

How do I know if my rabbit is underweight?

A rabbit that is underweight will have sharp or protruding spine, hips, and ribs. If they are severely underweight they may have no fat layer at all protecting their body, and making it difficult or impossible for the rabbit to regulate their body temperature.

Do rabbits lose weight in the summer?

There should not be a significant weight loss for a rabbit in the summer. Often times rabbit will appear to lose weight because they have shed their thicker winter coat, and you are able to see the rabbits body more easily with the thinner, summer coat.

Sources:

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  2. Courcier, EA., Mellor, DJ., Pendlebury, E., Evans, C., Yam, PS.(2012) Preliminary investigation to establish prevalence and risk factors for being overweight in pet rabbits in Great BritainVeterinary Record 171, 197. Accessed at: https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/171/8/197.2.short.
  3. House Rabbit Society. “Practical Nutrition.” Youtube. Commentary by Susan Smith Ph.D. Nov. 7, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91mSv1PqyY4&feature=youtu.be.
  4. “Is Your Rabbit Fat?” Rabbit Welfare Association and Fund. https://rabbitwelfare.co.uk/rabbit-health/is-your-rabbit-too-fat.
  5. Mead, Marie. “Liver (Hepatic) Disease in Rabbits.” House Rabbit Society. Jan. 22, 2013. https://rabbit.org/liver-hepatic-disease-in-rabbits. 
  6. Meredith, A.(2012) Is obesity a problem in pet rabbits?Veterinary Record 171, 192-193. Accessed at: https://veterinaryrecord.bmj.com/content/171/8/192.short.
  7. Myung-Chul Lee, MD1; Chul Hee Lee, MD2; Sung-Lyong Hong, MD3; et al. “Establishment of a Rabbit Model of Obstructive Sleep Apnea by Paralyzing the Genioglossus.” Original Investigation. August 2013. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaotolaryngology/fullarticle/1729109.
  8. “Obesity in Rabbits.” PetMD. https://www.petmd.com/rabbit/conditions/digestive/c_rb_obesity.
  9. Pollock, Christal DVM. “Body Condition Scoring the Rabbit.” LafeberVet. March 30, 2013. https://lafeber.com/vet/body-condition-scoring-the-rabbit.
  10. Praag, Esther van. “Congestive Heart Failure in Rabbits.” Medirabbit.com. February 2015. http://www.medirabbit.com/EN/Cardiology/Failure/Cong_heart_en.pdf
  11. Schulman, Jackie Ph.D. “Obese Rabbits at Risk.” House Rabbit Society: Baltimore/DC Chapter. http://rabbitsinthehouse.org/newsletter/obesity.pdf.

Amy Pratt

Amy Pratt is a lifelong rabbit owner who has been specializing with rabbits at the Humane Rescue Alliance. She helps to socialize the rabbits and educate volunteers on the care and behavior of these small mammals.

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