A Visual Check
A rabbit’s coat conceals the outline of its body and makes it impossible to see at a glance whether most rabbits are thin, fat, or just right. To measure its condition, you’ll need to get hands-on. However, a visual inspection can still be helpful. As you approach the cage, observe the rabbit. Does it come to the door as you get near? Whether your rabbits are on pasture or in hutches, they should always have access to forage such as hay – I expect to see some leftover hay at feeding times - but I also expect my rabbits to have eaten their grass and/or pellets and be looking forward to their next meal. Provided that you handle your rabbits somewhat regularly, they should not run and hide as you approach. Ideally, they should come closer and seem excited about the prospect of food. A “take it or leave it” attitude can indicate that the rabbit is fully satiated and might be overconditioned. An overly eager rabbit that seems desperate for food, though, probably needs more to eat. Get to know your animals so that you can judge their behavior individually.
Now comes the real assessment of condition. Run your hand down the rabbit’s back with your fingers passing down the spine. You want to feel the bunny’s backbone with your fingers – your palm is not as sensitive. What does the rabbit’s back feel like?
In a thin rabbit, there isn’t much fat or muscle to spare and the spinous processes (the bony bumps of the back) are not well-covered. The bones will feel prominent, like distinct hard little bumps. As you approach the hindquarters, you may feel the pelvic bones clearly. A rabbit in this condition needs further evaluation and a change in husbandry, as it won’t make either a good dinner or a good parent!
In a fat rabbit, there is an excess of flesh on the body and those spinous processes will not be distinct at all. They’ll feel thickly covered and the structure of the back won’t be discernable; it’ll feel thick and smoothed by fat and muscle. If you can’t find a bunny’s backbone, you need to check the rabbit’s diet plan, because overweight bunnies have a more difficult time breeding.
Young bunnies being grown for meat should always feel well-covered, and should be encouraged to grow quickly to harvest size. You’ll probably choose to have food available to them at all times – hay and pellets in a hutch, and multiple moves to fresh grass plus pellets and hay if the rabbits are in a tractor on pasture. Also, lactating does need ample calories to provide for their litters. But other adult rabbits, especially non-breeding animals, can become overweight if they have pellets on hand all the time. If your adult rabbit is overweight, reduce the amount of pelleted food gradually – remember to avoid sudden diet changes in rabbits – but keep the hay free-choice. Check the rabbit’s condition every few days until the body feels more defined.
If your rabbit is too thin, the solutions may not be as simple as tossing in more food each day. Evaluate the rabbit’s diet, of course, but also consider other factors such as dental health, parasites, and stress (competition, heat, etc). Remember that a good breeding animal represents a significant investment on your part and may not be easily replaced – you should have access to a veterinarian if necessary.
When you’ve made changes, check the bunny’s condition once or twice each week. Feeling the rabbit more frequently won’t be helpful and might make it harder to detect a change in condition.
Also, what about scales? Scales are always helpful for tracking health if you have access to one.Just keep in mind that all rabbits, even bunnies of the same breed or gender, may vary in size. You should be checking body condition alongside the number on the scale to find out what each rabbit’s healthy weight range is.
Since my bunnies are outdoors on pasture, I don’t track weights using a scale and instead just feel the rabbits regularly, making changes in diet as necessary to keep the does and buck in good shape as they produce healthy litters. You can take the guesswork out of body condition too, with just a quick feel. Happy rabbit-raising!
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