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Obesity in Small Animals

Obesity in rabbits, hedgehogs, guinea pigs, hamsters, ferrets and other exotic mammals is becoming more prevalent.

Leticia Materi, PhD, DVM
Posted: October 10, 2014, 12:05 p.m. EDT

One of the most alarming trends among traditional pets like dogs and cats is the rising rate of obesity. However, when it comes to exotic pet mammals, many questions remain: Does obesity occur in exotic pets? What makes them overweight? How can we tell? What can be done about it?

Unfortunately, very few reports on the prevalence of obesity in exotic pets have been published. But that does not mean the problem of excessive weight does not exist for these pets. I personally have seen many obese rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters, mice and ferrets come through our clinic’s front door.

I encourage all owners to keep a record of the weight of their pet in order to determine if there are dramatic changes. Placing the pet in a small container and using a food scale works well. For larger animals like Flemish Giant rabbits this can be a bit trickier. One method is to weigh yourself alone and then with the rabbit, using the difference between the two values as the weight of the pet.

Obese Hedgehog
© Leticia Materi, Phd, DVM
If a hedgehog cannot completely roll up, he is likely packing too much weight.

It is also strongly recommended that we have a good feel of our pet in order to determine his body condition. If the bones of the spine, ribs, shoulder blades and hips are very prominent, then your pet is likely underweight. If you are having difficulty feeling the ribs, hips, or spine, then you have a chubby pet! Ideally, when we touch our pet we should be able to just make out the hips, ribs and spine without having to feel through a lot of flesh. So go ahead and give your pet lots of cuddles! That is a great way to get to know his body condition.

If your pet is too plump, what can be done? Just like humans, proper weight is best maintained by two key factors: diet and exercise.  Today I will briefly focus on diet.

Diet: It is important that we feed our pets a proper diet that is appropriate for their species, age, medical needs and reproductive status.

• Rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas: The vast majority of the diet should be hay. Alfalfa has more protein, energy and calcium and is therefore best for growing babies and pregnant or nursing females. Giving alfalfa as a maintenance food for adults can contribute to obesity, so non-legume hays like timothy are a better choice. Always read the labels of all food items and treats. Avoid high sugar content foods like dried fruits and yogurt drops and high-fat foods like seeds and nuts. Pellets should be given in measured amounts.

• Hamsters, degus, and gerbils: These clever creatures pick and choose the best bits in to food bowl so be careful about offering diets with lots of seeds, nuts and dried fruit. Formulated diets should form the base of the diet along with appropriate fresh vegetables and fruit.

• Ferrets and hedgehogs: Be sure to feed diets appropriate to the age and species. High sugar/fat treats can quickly lead to weight gain.

Obese Rabbit
© Leticia Materi, Phd, DVM
An overweight pet needs to have his diet reviewed to be sure it is appropriate and get more exercise if he is otherwise healthy. 

In future blog entries, I will discuss diets in more detail as well as methods for getting our pets to exercise. In the meantime, please contact your veterinarian for advice on what diet is appropriate for your pet.

Note: This article is meant for educational purposes only and in no way represents any particular individual or case. It is not for diagnostic purposes. If your pet is sick, please take him or her to a veterinarian.

See all Dr. Materi's blogs.

Like this article? Please share it and check out:
Is My Hamster Overweight?
Pregnant Hedgehog or Fat Hedgehog
Ferrets and Exercise

Posted: October 10, 2014, 12:05 p.m. EDT

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Obesity in Small Animals

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Reader Comments
To keep my Siberian hamster fit and active I've connected two big cages with a short length of habitrail tubing. One cage is her "home cage," with her wheel, food dish, and water bottle. The other is a "play cage" almost filled with hay, litter and small, clean cardboard boxes for her to burrow and play in. She seems to love it, and she can decide where she sleeps - like a wild hamster. You just need to always make sure the tube connection between the two cages is secure.
Alicia, International
Posted: 10/15/2014 11:39:39 AM
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