Obesity in pets is a growing concern among veterinarians. Obesity in rabbits and other pets has been associated with such medical disorders as myiasis (fly strike), pododermatitis (sore hocks) and gastrointestinal stasis and ileus, and exacerbates the pain and reduced mobility associated with arthritis.
The results of a new study, published in the British Journal ‘Veterinary Record’ have attempted to determine the prevalence of obesity in rabbits and to identify risk factors associated with the condition.
Information was gathered from a national database consisting of 41 primary companion animal practices in Great Britain. Data consisted of body condition score (BCS), pet gender, neutered status, age, location and country of the veterinary practice (England, Scotland or Wales) and date of birth of rabbits presenting at 11 equally spaced time points throughout 2008 and 2010.
The rabbits' Body Condition Score (BCS) was rated at each veterinary visit using a five point scale (1 = Very underweight, 2 = Underweight, 3 = Ideal, 4 = Overweight, 5 = Obese) by the attending veterinarian. Overweight/obese animals were defined as animals with a BCS of 4 or 5 while non-overweight animals were classed as all animals with a BCS of 3 or under.
The study found that about 10 percent of the rabbits were obese, and females were twice as likely as males to be overweight; informal surveys of American veterinarians suggests that the rate of rabbit obesity in the United States is significantly higher.
Heath problems associated with obesity are increasingly being recognized in dogs and cats, but public awareness of this issue in house rabbits has not been widely recognized. Despite the progress made in educating owners that rabbits should eat a diet of hay, leafy greens and limited amounts of high fiber pellets, most of the rabbit ‘treats’ sold in the pet stores contain unhealthy amounts of sugars and starches; even the pellets often contain bits of junk food which many rabbits pick out and eat, leaving the healthier pellets behind. Many individuals equate food with love, constantly offering their rabbits high-fat,/high-sugar snacks.
Too, it can be more difficult for rabbit owners (as compared to cat or dog owners) to recognize signs of overweight in their pet. It can be visually difficult to determine if your rabbit is obese, and different breeds of rabbits have slight differences in body shape. Many owners perceive their rabbit’s weight as being just fine, when in fact the rabbit is obese. Early signs of exercise intolerance and difficulties with mobility associated with obesity are not as easily identified in rabbits as they are in dogs and cats. On the other hand, female rabbits may have a very good BCS and yet some will naturally have a very large dewlap which can make them appear overweight.. The best bet in determining if your bunny is of an appropriate weight is to take your rabbit for at least an annual checkup to a bunny-savvy veterinarian.
Obesity among American pets – as with American pet owners – is on the rise. An annual survey of over 500 pets by the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention revealed that approximately 53 percent of cats and 55 percent of dogs are now overweight or obese. The fact that such an organization even exists speaks volumes.
Get your bunny in for a checkup. Follow your veterinarians recommendations as to an appropriate weight for your bunny and how to achieve this. Avoid all the unhealthy junk treats sold by the pet stores, which not only make bunny fat but promote unhealthy bacteria in the gut, increasing the chances of potentially-fatal GI stasis. If you want to offer your rabbit treats now and then (not entirely a bad idea, as refusal or acceptance of treats is one way to gauge whether bunny has an upset stomach or not) offer them healthy treats. A half a grape or a thin slice of banana is a fine treat. Purchase natural (no added sugar or preservatives) dried fruits or dry your own (but offer these in minuscule amounts, as drying concentrates the natural fruit sugars). Oxbow dried fruit treats for rabbits are sold locally at PetCare Solutions, or you can buy dried fruits at Liberty Market or dry your own. In the summer, grow your own herbs, plantain and thistle – bunnies regard these high-fiber 'weeds' as fine treats, and they can also be dried for winter use.
Encourage exercise: change their toys around, switch out hiding boxes for cardboard tunnels – anything to add interest and get your bunny exploring his surroundings. Play games with your bunny, and try putting his pellets in a Go Cat Go toy so he gets exercise while he gets his pellets!
Never withhold food from your rabbit; they have to eat constantly to keep that gut moving and avoid GI stasis. Do feed your rabbit unlimited hay and water 24/7, limit the treats, and get them moving!
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