Caring for a disabled rabbit can be a laborious and emotionally daunting job. Rabbits that can no longer hop unassisted rely on their caregivers to make daily assessments and necessary adjustments for implementing new ways to achieve exercise and life enriching activities. They must also make difficult decisions about what is best for their rabbit.
However, even though the daily tasks seem endless, as two members share with us, the rewards can be enormous.

Krista and Theo:

In July of 2003 I noticed that Theo had stopped using his litter box. After trying a variety of things – frequent litter box changes, different types of litter, and covering the floor with litter boxes – I decided that it wasn’t behavioural.

We went to the vet and were told that Theo had a urine infection, which is often easy to treat. After two weeks of antibiotic treatment and without any signs of improvement we went back to the vet. The infection was still present and Theo was prescribed a different antibiotic. He improved, but he was still leaving small puddles of urine on the floor and his poops were frequently outside the litter box, rather than in.

For a bunny with formerly pristine habits, I knew something was still wrong. Another vet visit determined that Theo’s problem was more complicated than we originally thought. An x-ray showed that his bladder was filled with sludge. The vet told me to eliminate as much calcium as possible from his diet, as this might have been a contributing factor. Theo also needed sub-q injections of saline three times a day to help flush the sludge from his bladder. I gave him extra greens and added a small amount of pear juice to his drinking water to encourage him to get more oral fluids. I was determined to be as aggressive as possible in fighting the sludge.

We returned to the vet the following week for a check-up. During this time Theo had been producing large amounts of urine and seemingly unaware he was sitting it.

He seemed miserable and was often huddled in a corner or acting aggressively. After the examination the vet noted his bladder had less sludge, although the tone felt “funny”. She also thought he had decreased muscle tone in his hind legs. She ordered another x-ray and this time the results were more disturbing.

The x-ray indicated a shadowy mass over the base of his spine, near his pelvis. There was also a fracture of his pelvis near this mass, presumably related. Unfortunately, the location precluded doing a needle biopsy, so there was no way of knowing if the mass was cancerous or caused by an abscess. What was known, however, was that this growth was impinging on his spine and the resulting neurological damage was responsible for all of his symptoms: the loss of bladder tone resulted in Theo being unable to empty his bladder effectively, and consequently led to the build-up of sludge and bacteria. It also explained the weakness in his hind legs and why he was pooping everywhere.

I was devastated. We’d gone from a simple bladder infection, to sludge, to an inaccessible spinal tumour. Because there was a possibility the mass was an abscess we decided to start him on bicillin injections, hoping the antibiotic would reach the site. The drug had the added advantage of clearing up the urine infection that he had dedeveloped. After time, his symptoms worsened and the mass grew on the x-rays so we stopped the bicillin treatment. However, the Metacam he was receiving for pain control, helped considerably.

His condition soon stabilized, and though I was quite busy with his various treatments, it was the same every day. I swept up, and mopped A LOT.

As Theo’s hind legs continued to lose strength, I laid down washable rubberbacked mats and made little pathways in the kitchen for him to travel on. I also bought a dog crate and put it in the kitchen to provide a hiding place. It has a plastic base, which makes for easy clean-up. I keep a spray bottle of vinegar on hand to clean up any accidents.

I bought cushy bedding for him and put it on the bottom level of his cage. Initially I bought expensive synthetic sheepskin at a health supply store, but found a similar fabric at a fabric store in bright colours. I was able to make lots of blankies for him, and scattered them all over the kitchen.

Theo’s bladder problems continued. He left little puddles on the floor, and at one point I thought about diapering him, but decided against it – although it would have made for a lot less work for me, it would have made my little guy unhappy. As he began to dribble on himself more, he was constantly soaked with urine. Cleaning the area was difficult because Theo has a very dense, woolly undercoat that is almost impossible to dry – it holds moisture for a long time. I clipped the fur from his tummy, legs and backside as much as I could to make drying him easier.

The vet soon determined that he had developed an atonic bladder – he probably had no sensation at all, had little ability to empty his bladder on his own, and was having overflow incontinence. The volume in his bladder would become so large that it was constantly dribbling out. We weighed him before and after the vet expressed his bladder. She figured he had about 500 cc of urine in his bladder – that’s an enormous amount for a five pound bunny. I had to learn how to express his bladder since he’d lost the ability to do it on his own. I found it quite difficult at first. After several visits to the vet, and several more lessons (she has the patience of a saint), I picked up the proper technique.

By chance I came across some information on the Internet that indicated Cisapride (a drug used for GI motility that restores rhythmic contractions in the intestines) might be of benefit in atonic bladders. Since we already knew it was safe for bunnies, we decided to try him on it. Within a few days he had improved to the point where I didn’t have to express his bladder any more – he seemed to be managing on his own. I kept checking it, and although the tone was still flabby, it was generally almost empty. We settled into another routine, with me poking his tummy several times a day to make sure his bladder wasn’t distended, and Theo trying to hide whenever he saw me coming.

But, I was quickly reminded not to get too complacent. When I ordered a refill of Cisapride, the new tablets must have been made up by a different compounding pharmacy because he refused to eat them. He had been doing so well I wondered if he didn’t need them any more. But within a few days he was producing giant, excess cecals; his fecals were becoming smaller and harder, and he had a severe case of urine scald. He stopped eating and was in obvious misery. He lost weight and was so frail that I really thought he wouldn’t pull through. We went back to the vet and she prescribed bicillin injections again, since she felt his skin was infected along with being irritated.
Luckily, we were able to order the more palatable Cisapride from the previous supplier and Theo’s improvement was rapid. His skin changed from a red, oozing mess to healthy, pink skin in about 48 hours. After a couple of days back on the Cisapride he regained his bladder tone and stopped dribbling on himself. He regained his weight after about a month.

In hopes of furthering his progress, I decided to try acupuncture treatments for Theo.

I had seen marvellous results in humans in terms of pain control, so I wondered if it might help Theo. I was very lucky to find a vet here in Peterborough who does acupuncture. We went once a week for about a month and gradually decreased the frequency of the sessions to once a month. After about four treatments I began to see an improvement in his mobility. He began to venture off the mats and onto the bare floor. He was leaping more easily into his litter box. Eventually he was able to jump up onto the second level of his cage. Over the Christmas holidays I brought him outdoors on a mild day and he ran the Bunny 500 around the back yard, and did leaping binkies all over the place – amazing progress for a bunny who could barely hop about a month earlier.

I began to feel that we were living with a chronic condition rather than a life threatening disease. Keeping his symptoms under control meant constant observation of his condition, but he had really perked up with acupuncture and seemed like a healthy bunny that just had a few incontinence issues.

Sadly, our family suffered a terrible loss recently when Theo’s girlfriend Bossy died from an abscess she had been fighting since Theo first became ill. He had always been very dependent on Bossy, so I was anticipating that he would have difficulty coping on his own. At first he seemed fine. But I think the stress affected him more than was initially apparent. His litter box problems came back and his hind legs were noticeably weaker again. We helped ease his symptoms with continued acupuncture treatments.

We distracted him by bringing him on frequent trips to the back yard where he loves to play. We’ve also given him the run of the house again in the evenings when we’re home. Everything seems to have settled down now and Theo’s back to his old self. I’m sure he misses bunny companionship, but I wouldn’t risk introducing him to another rabbit, since he responds so negatively to stress.

Theo will be going in for another checkup in a few days for another set of x-rays and to check on the progress of the mass detected previously, but I’m already amazed he’s made it this far. He looks wonderfully healthy and feisty. He’s even gone back to chasing the cats. I still don’t know what the mass is, but I don’t think knowing would make any difference to his overall treatment. We treat his symptoms and keep a careful eye open for even the slightest change. I still get very anxious when I notice that he’s having an off day and I still don’t cope very well with the idea that he may get sicker, but I manage not to obsess about it.

I’m also lucky that I’ve taken some time off work and can spend a lot of time caring for him. I’m planning on bringing him to the cottage on weekends since he really seems to enjoy the change of scene. Caring for him has been a learning experience and always very timeconsuming. But I’ve never resented it; I’m grateful that my fuzzy little guy is still around for me to spoil.


Karen and Kally

Kally is my 7-year old Holland lop. One morning in October 2003 she was suddenly unable to hop. Thinking that maybe she was hurt, I put her in a cage to rest and, about eight hours later, she seemed okay.

However, over the course of the week her condition persisted and I decided to take her to the vet. The vet took x-rays which showed arthritis in her hips as well as lumbar disc degeneration. She proceeded to get worse, with more bad days than good. She was put on Metacam and Glucosamine with Chondroitin in November. By that time, Kally had lost almost half a pound and by January she could no longer hop on her own.

I started looking for cures. We drove 1-1/2 hours to see the closest acupuncturist, who had never performed acupuncture on a rabbit before. However, he manipulated Kally’s legs and when he put her on the floor, lo and behold, she hopped. As a result, the vet recommended Kally start seeing a chiropractor. But Kally only hopped that one day. I decided to take Kally off the Glucosmine and Chondroitin because I wasn’t seeing any improvement.

At the end of February, I started taking Kally to a chiropractor, but she didn’t seem to have much faith in being able to help Kally hop again. After 5 visits, a mutual decision was made that chiropractic treatments weren’t helping Kally.

At the end of April, Kally’s vet said she really wanted to try Cartrophen injections because it had helped so many dogs and cats she had treated. It was my last attempt at curing Kally. The vet did four weekly injections but I’m not convinced that I saw any improvement afterwards.

I had finally come to realize that Kally would never hop again. Deep down I knew this all along, but first I had to try everything I could. Actually, I think I was more bothered about her not hopping than she was. She seemed to adapt quite well and she seemed to have accepted the situation.

Kally is unable to get into a litter box and position herself properly, so she is sometimes soaked with urine. I give her mini baths every few days (or as needed) to keep her fur clean. I also trim excess fur to minimize wetness. I tried diapering her using newborn diapers but was unsuccessful: they would slip down her legs as she scooted around. The vet has taught me how to express her bladder, which I do about 2-3 times a day. This helps keep her dry.

Kally is now in an exercise pen with puppy training pads on the bottom and her synthetic lamb’s wool or Profleece beds. The beds are great because they have a raised edge so Kally can prop herself up to eat or groom. She also likes to lay over the edge, and I think this may be because it takes some pressure off her body in certain places. Needless to say, with all her bedding there is extra laundry being done at our house.

Kally’s food, water crocks, and bottles are positioned low and have lower edges for her to reach. I also keep hay and veggies nearby. She is regularly propped up with rolled up towels so she can sit up, groom herself, and eat. I clean and scratch her ears every day because she can’t reach with her back feet anymore. I also give her a light brushing to tidy up her fur and get at any itches or mats she may have. I recently started giving her my version of a massage, which she thoroughly enjoys, especially her shoulders. This is where I get the loudest tooth purrs. If she seems more stiff than usual I place a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel for her to lean against.

Kally also gets regular exercise. Sometimes I place a towel under her belly and help her hop. Or, I bend over and hold her hips up so she can hop. To give her more freedom I bought a cart from Doggon Wheels. The cart has a detachable sling, which holds her legs and comes with straps that I can grasp to hold her up. Kally really enjoys being able to run with the boys, Hoppy and Clyde. She’s still very unsure about the cart as a whole but we are slowly working on it. She also somehow manages to get out of it. She gets her back feet out of the sling and crawls through the harness while running with the cart. Quite a feat.

Caring for a disabled rabbit may not be everyone’s choice, but it’s mine. I get negative looks and comments when people find out Kally is disabled; however, if they knew her before she became disabled they would see that her personality hasn’t changed at all. She is still so full of life and love that doing anything other than caring for her wouldn’t be an option for me.

I sometimes have doubts about whether I’m doing the right thing. But, when I see her shuffle to me for attention or greet me with her head held high, those bright expressive eyes wash away my doubts. Kally still has good quality of life and we make the most what she has left. The bond between Kally and I is like nothing I have ever experienced before and is mostly due to the time we’ve spent together since she became disabled. There is a lot of added care in keeping a disabled bunny but there’s nothing that I would change. I would definitely care for another disabled rabbit. It’s not a burden in my life and believe it or not I like doing these things for Kally. People may see it as unnecessary work but it’s not work at all to me. It’s just a part of how I care for all of my rabbits, with a bit of extra care, attention and love for Kally.

Suggested reading:

Caring for the Chronically Ill -by Marinell Harriman

Caring for the Partially Paralyzed Rabbit -by Mary Edwardsen

How to Diaper Disabled Bunnies -by Violet

“Bijou”, Caring for a Disabled Rabbit -by Amy Spintman