It suddenly dawned on me the other day why many people over-feed their rabbits, while I was talking to a couple who had just rescued a stray bunny who was nibbling the grass on their front lawn. They were lovingly telling me about how they had gone online and learned a little about rabbits and discovered that they should live indoors.
The nice man had gone out and bought a rabbit hutch at the local pet store, but because he had read that wire bottom cages were bad for rabbits, he converted it by covering the floor with a nice wood. He also cut off the legs and made it so the rabbit could hop in and out of the hutch when he wanted. The couple had learned a little about bunny-proofing inside their house and were learning the “hard way” as the went along about spots and places that they had missed, when their new bunny went out for play time runs.
It was quite obvious to me that these people had totally and completely fallen in love with this rabbit. They were eager to tell me all about him and asked me all kinds of questions, as they hungrily learned as much as they could from talking to me.
After we had spoken a while, we learned that their rabbit was already very over-weight and suffering from being over-fed. It was then, that I had the revelation about why so many people make this deadly mistake with their bunnies, especially people uneducated about them.
When we first get rabbits, we quickly learn that our bunny likes to interact and will easily approach you if you have some kind of food or treat for them. We all love it when our rabbit goes through his silly begging motions, which are usually quite cute and highly effective. When we are just learning about pet rabbits, this is sometimes the only interaction that we are able to have with our furry pets. Some of us get a Pavlovian response and will continue pass out the treats in order to interact more and get the approval from our otherwise aloof or distant bunny. This can become a habit and the toll that this takes is directly proportional to the caloric content of the treats that you bestow.
Of course, the more sweet or caloric the treat, the more your rabbit will beg and dance and mine even hop up into my lap to say, “Please, please, please”. It is hard not to give in to a bunny who has jumped into your lap and is giving your kisses to try and pry another treat out of you. Other rabbits will do their own brand of seduction to get that next treat, but I now realize how universal this behavior is.
The problem arises when you fall into the habit of using highly caloric food to get close and interact with your rabbit, because over time it builds up. I am not going to go into a long speech about how bad it is for your rabbit to be overweight, because I have written a lot about the subject. Let’s just say that an overweight rabbit will generally live less than half as long as a rabbit who is not. This means that instead of living ten or twelve years, an obese bunny can usually only expect to live about five years… maybe six if he is lucky.
Add to the equation that rabbits prefer sweet treats to ones that are not. People who are not rabbit savvy, do not know how bad that it can be for their pet. This is a formula for disaster. Rabbit vets see thousands of rabbits each year who are overweight and in the throes of some horrible kind of GI stasis, fatty liver disease and other problems that it causes.
Of course, it does not help that many of these treats that are so bad for your bunny are sold in pet stores and online at bunny websites. Virtually all rabbits will scarf down as many pieces of dried fruit, yogurt drops or treat cookies as you will give them and still do a dance for more. If you do not know any better, you might be inclined to even give them another and then another, when they woo you into it. If you do this every day for several years, your rabbit will eventually have problems from it.
Another big mistake that is frequently made is we over-feed our bunnies their green salad. I often see people giving their little five pound rabbit a half pound of salad each day. This is three or four times the correct amount to feed a bunny, each day. The amount of salad that I suggest you feed your rabbit should be no bigger than twice the size of his head, daily. This will account for different sizes of rabbits, since smaller rabbits should eat less than larger ones. So if you are giving your rabbit this mondo green salad every day, that too can lead to rabbit obesity over the years and dramatically shorten their life or cause many trips to the vet.
Probably the worst mistake people make is in giving their rabbits too many rabbit pellets. Most adult rabbits do not need them. They were actually designed for farmers to get a bunny fat very quickly, so you could eat him, not for a long healthy life as a pet. Many rabbit lovers never give them to their bunnies. If you do, I recommend 1/8-1/4 cup of timothy (not alfalfa) pellets a day. Even less is OK. I think that vets tend to tell people to give too many pellets. I have been told to let them have unlimited pellets by a vet before.
Pellets are the densest most nutritious food that a rabbit usually eats and so it can have a dramatic effect on their weight with just a little more or less each day. When rabbits become seniors and they have trouble keeping weight on, pellets are often used to help keep them from getting too skinny, but for most healthy adult bunnies, they must be given very judiciously, if at all.
In conclusion, I think people need to learn other ways to get close and interact with their pet rabbits other than just feeding them all the time. I know how easy it is to fall into this :”treat trap”, as I call it in my new book, The Bunny Lover’s Complete Guide To House Rabbits. I have been there myself, before.
Get down on the floor and interact with your bunny. Just being down on his level and in his space will eventually turn into interaction time between you. “Play” with your bun using simple toys. Some bunnies will nudge a ball back to you, if you gently roll it towards them. Rattles and small toss toys, like toilet paper tubes are fun to hand to your rabbit. He will sometimes take them from your hand and toss them.
These “fun” rabbit games are how you get close and enrich your rabbits life. I have had a bunny who like to chase the end of a shoe lace. She saw my cat doing it and learned to do it, too. She would grab the end and pull it with her teeth, just like my kitty would do, if I tossed it to her.
You will find if you spend close to an hour each day interacting with your rabbit, that your bond will become greater and he will be a lot more interested in you. I can virtually promise that you will both be happier, as a result. He will look forward to this time and approach you for pets and closeness.
Of course, you can reward your bunny with very small treats regularly, but look for the healthiest ones you can find. Get things that most closely resemble what their natural food would be. By this I mean fresh sprigs of cilantro or parley, instead of fruit or cookies. Apple sticks or a small handful of oat hay. Compressed hay cubes are good healthy treats of timothy hay that most rabbits adore. Get the ones without the pieces of fruit and seeds in them.
Never buy those gourmet pellets at the pet store. They have all kinds of things in them that rabbits were never meant to have, such as dried peas and corn, nuts and seeds and lots of other bad stuff. Many rabbits will pick out all the junk and not even eat the pellets. This is bad. I wish this stuff was not even sold in pet stores. Once again, people think that if they pay more money for this “deluxe” food, that they are loving their rabbit more. Little do they know that they are actually loving their rabbit to death.
If you are in the “treat trap”, get out now before it is too late. You can reverse obesity, but once it hits a certain point, there is no way to go back. Don’t wait until it is too late and you are sitting in the vet office crying about it like I have done before.
The Bunny Guy