Our rabbits and other small pets are very much part of the family. Great news in many ways but not so good in others. Did you know that more sedentary lifestyles and expanding waistlines are not just a human concern? Sadly, our pets are following close behind when it comes to weight gain and small pet obesity is a growing concern.
While vets think that 29 percent of small pets are obese or overweight, only eight percent of pet parents thought that their four-legged friend needed to lose weight.
“Vets report that 29% of small pets are obese or overweight1“
This mismatch in perception, shows how tricky it can be to know whether your pocket pal is carrying a bit of excess weight. So with that in mind, read on for all you need to know to keep your pet in good shape and avoid small pet obesity.
Overweight or obese?
Overweight or obese – what’s the difference? According to UK Pet Food, a pet is classed as overweight when it is 10 to 15 percent over ideal body weight, and obese when it is 15 percent or more over the ideal. For small pets like rabbits, this means that they do not need to gain a great deal of weight before it starts to impact their health.
Risk factors for obesity
Just as with us humans, some pets are more at risk of weight gain than others. When it comes to rabbits, breed plays a part, with large or giant breeds tending to be more at risk of weight gain. Genetics may well be important here, but the reduced activity levels in these larger pets is also likely to be a key factor.
Top tip: Encourage giant breeds to stay active with plenty of environmental enrichment
How about lifestyle? Keeping warm uses energy. House rabbits are less exposed to chilly winter weather than their outdoor friends, so with less need to expend energy to stay snug, they may be more inclined to gain weight.
Whether a rabbit has been neutered is another factor for consideration. There is lots of evidence that energy requirements decrease after neutering in cats and dogs, but this area of knowledge is less well established in rabbits. However, one study2 concluded that neutered rabbits are over five times more likely to be overweight. Not a reason to avoid having your pet neutered, but you may have to adjust their daily ration a little.
Effects of obesity on small pets
Even carrying a small amount of extra weight, can have a detrimental effect on health, including:
- Liver disease (hepatic lipidosis)
- Fly strike (due to impaired grooming)
- Sore feet (pododermatitis)
- Reduced caecotrophy
- Poor gut health
- Reduced life expectancy
A complex problem
While weight management is a complex problem, one thing that is not in doubt, is the importance of feeding a high quality, species-specific diet. Lack of dietary fibre, too many sugary treats and lack of portion control will all increase the risk obesity. Sounds familiar? As pets have become part of the family, so bad human habits have influenced small pet waistlines.
Here is a quick reminder of the must-haves for a healthy rabbit diet:
- High-fibre food is critical for maintaining a healthy weight as well as supporting the delicate rabbit digestive system and wearing down their continually growing teeth. At Supreme, we have refined our manufacturing process to include higher levels of fibre in our diets, and our Science Selective Adult Rabbit has 25% crude fibre – higher than any other comparable rabbit food.
- Excess sugar can lead to health problems including dental disease and obesity, so diets with no added sugars will be preferable to those that may include sugary ingredients. Look out for hidden sugars under the guise of ingredients like molasses.
- Hay should make up at least 80% of the diet and should be chosen for its palatability and nutritional content. Some of the best options for rabbits are Timothy hay such as Science Selective Timothy Hay or Meadow hay like
- Feed a carefully measured portion of rabbit nuggets every morning and evening, together with a handful of leafy greens.
Quality and quantity
Of course just like us, rabbits and other small pets can have too much of a good thing, so when it comes to nuggets, portion control is important. If portions are too generous, not only will your bun tend to gain weight, but they are also less likely to eat enough hay with a knock-on detrimental effect on dental and digestive health.
A guide that is often used, is that in addition to unlimited hay, rabbits should have an egg-cup sized offering of dry food every day. While this may be true for some, it is far better to determine portion size on an individual basis, considering factors such as size, lifestyle, activity levels and body condition score.
Head over to our portion control blog for a step-by-step guide to getting nugget portions just right.
Dry rabbit food is much more energy dense than hay or grass, so when it comes to weight loss, reducing the nugget portion a little is one option. You can also encourage your bun to work a bit harder for their nuggets.
Top tip: Scatter-feed the daily portion amongst the hay to keep your bun busy
Be careful not to reduce portion size too far, or your rabbit may not get all the essential nutrients that they need. If in doubt, ask your vet for advice when it comes to managing your pet’s weight.
However for those rabbits that have a little more to lose, a higher fibre diet like Science Naturals Fibafirst is a great option. With a crude fibre level of 30 percent, Fibafirst has a nutritional profile similar to hay and is a good choice for all adult rabbits, but especially those that need to lose weight. The high fibre content also encourages chewing and is excellent for dental and digestive health.
So what about treats? We all love giving our pet pals a tasty reward every so often – does this have to stop? Sugary treats should be avoided, however there is no reason to stop treats altogether. Choose treats that are high in fibre with no added sugar, such as Supreme’s Selective Naturals range; from Selective Naturals Orchard Loops with Timothy hay and apple, to Selective Naturals Garden Sticks with pea and mint, there is something to suit all tastes. Offered in moderation as part of your pet’s daily allowance, they can help strengthen the bonds you have with your tiny pal, and also encourage foraging behaviour.
So don’t let your pet pile on the pounds. Feeding a diet that respects natural nutrition and seeking advice if necessary will go a long way to supporting your pet’s health and wellbeing for a long and happy life.
1. 1. PFMA Report: Pet Obesity Ten Years On 2009 – 2019
2. Courcier E.A. et al., Preliminary investigation to establish prevalence and risk factors for being overweight in pet rabbits in Great Britain. Vet Rec 2012;171(8):197