Medicating Your Rabbit
Rabbits are very sensitive creatures and they stress very easily. Your veterinarian or a veterinary technician will probably show you how to give pills, administer eye or ear drops, or syringe feed your rabbit. But sometimes rabbits who are as good as gold when they’re at the clinic put up quite a struggle when you try the same procedure at home. Every rabbit/person pair will work out their own routines. But to give you a head start, members of the House Rabbit Society have pooled their experience and come up with the following tips for medicating bunnies at home.
Getting Set Up
Because your rabbit may act up a bit once you start to medicate her, it’s important to make things as easy as possible for her and for you.
- The first step is figuring out the best place to do the procedure. Some rabbits are most cooperative if you treat them on the floor, usually when they’re feeling very relaxed. Other rabbits may simply hop away from you if you start fiddling with them on the floor; those rabbits may need to be medicated on a table, a bed, a countertop, or in your lap. If you’re using a table or countertop, be sure to clear away any glasses, knives, or objects with sharp edges. Rabbits who are very squirmy or who nip may need to be wrapped in a “bunny burrito.” Every one has a different way of wrapping their rabbit, but the general idea is to place your rabbit on top of a flat towel, then wrap the towel tightly (not too tightly!) around her legs and body. Wrapping diagonally (i.e., from shoulder towards hip) helps to keep the towel secure. Some people put the towel over the rabbit, then pick him from behind, and wrap the towel up around his hind legs and tummy. The basic idea is that you’re wrapping the rabbit to keep him from squirming or running away.
- Once you’ve found a spot, get out all your supplies: a towel (see below), the medication, syringes (if need be), and treats, if you decide to make that a part of the whole procedure. You don’t want to end up scrambling for supplies while trying to hold a squirmy bunny. You especially don’t ever want to leave a rabbit on top of a table or countertop unattended, while you look for that elusive tube of ointment. Unscrew tops, measure out medication, and load syringes before you go get the rabbit. That way you’ll have two free hands.
- Maintain a cheerful and patient attitude. Sometimes your rabbit may perform what San Francisco veterinarian Dr. Jeffrey Bryan calls a “rabbit rodeo,” complete with bucking, rearing, squealing, and kicking. If you get tense or impatient, the rabbit will just get more stressed. Talk to your rabbit, sing little songs, kiss her nose, rub her ears, do anything you can to help her feel calm.
- Develop a routine. Try to do things in the same order, in the same place, every day. That way the rabbit knows when you are beginning and ending the procedure, and he won’t live in constant fear that you’re going to start torturing him. Some people also give their rabbits little treats, like a raisin or a big sprig of parsley, after each medication. That helps take the rabbit’s mind off his medication woes. It also gives him a signal that the procedure is over, for the time being at least.
Some oral medications don’t taste like much of anything; some are very bitter. And some rabbits will swallow just about anything, while some will curl their tender lips at anything that even hints of medicine. House Rabbit Society members haven’t quite come up with fifty ways to disguise the medications, but here are some suggestions.
If your veterinarian has prescribed medication in tablet form:
- Try offering Thumper the tablet right out of your hand. Some actually will take it that way (except Cipro-yuck!).
- Put the whole tablet in a piece of Thumper’s favorite treat (banana, apple).
- Crush the tablet and mix it with some of Thumper’s favorite food (applesauce, yogurt*, baby food veggies). You can grind up pills with the butt of a knife, a mortar, or hammer, or dissolve them with a little hot water, and then mix them in with applesauce, jam, banana, a little fruit or V8 juice, babyfood (vegetables or fruit flavors), vanilla yogurt, vanilla-flavored Ensure, Nutrical, ground up pellets, or fresh fruit. You can put half a tablet inside a raisin, a piece of banana, a stalk of celery, or wadded up leaves of basil. You also can give your rabbit two papaya tablets, one medicine pill, and then two papaya pills. See? He didn’t even notice!
- Crush the tablet and mix it with a favorite liquid (see administering liquid medication). You can also dissolve the pill in water or a little fruit juice and syringe feed it into the rabbit’s mouth. Let the pill dissolve in the fluid in the syringe for a few minutes, then shake it. Either on the tabletop or on the floor, put the syringe into the corner of the rabbit’s mouth, with the tip pointing sideways and depress gently, allowing your rabbit to chew and swallow slowly. If too much comes out, he won’t aspirate (get fluid into his lungs–very dangerous), so pointing to the side prevents squirting out too much. Keep some baby wipes or a wet washcloth on hand to wipe up anything that gets on the rabbit’s face. NOTE: Be extra careful NOT to tip your rabbit backwards while doing this (on your lap or against your chest). A rabbit can choke if the liquid gets into his lungs. Keep him sitting upright.
Note: Yogurt or acidophilus are strongly recommended when your rabbit is receiving any type of antibiotic to keep normal gut flora.
If your veterinarian has prescribed medication in liquid form:
- Put the liquid in a small dish next to Thumper – some rabbits will lick it up and that’s all there is to it! Liquid medications sometimes come in a fruit-flavored suspension. Some rabbits think these concoctions are the best thing since sliced carrots. Others will take one sniff and run under the bed. Try mixing the medicine with something that you know your rabbit absolutley adores, like a ripe juicy peach, oatmeal, a banana, or real strawberries. (Some HRS members put three or four treats together at once for a big moosh of a medicine casserole.) Then feed it on a flat plate, rather than in a bowl. That helps the fumes to disperse. If no one’s watching, you can feed it to the rabbit in little bits on a spoon. We don’t want you to be accused of spoiling your rabbit or anything.
- Mix the liquid with some of Thumper’s favorite food (banana, applesauce, etc.)
- Put Thumper on the counter with his rear-end tight against your stomach/chest area. With the measured liquid medication in a syringe (available from your vet) or eye-dropper, take your left hand and bring it around Thumper’s face and lift up his lip on the right side. Take the syringe or eye-dropper and put it behind Thumper’s front teeth. Slowly depress the syringe or eye-dropper, letting Thumper swallow the liquid at his own pace. (NOTE: this procedure is also used for force feeding).
Eye Drops and Eye Ointments
When it comes to eye drops, most people are either “uppies” or “downies.” That is, some people prefer to pull the lower eyelid out, to form a little pocket into which to squirt the medicine. Others prefer to lift the upper eyelid back, and drop the medication onto the eyeball itself or the white of the eye itself.
This is usually done quite easily on the floor; most rabbits hardly blink (sorry) at the procedure. (Some rabbits, in fact, seem to think this is their owner’s strange way of showing affection.) Some people like to do it with the bunny on a waist-high surface, however, so they can stabilize him with one hand and medicate with the other.
If you’re putting ointment in, try not to touch the eyeball with the nozzle. And once you squirted it into the eye, you can gently hold the eye shut and massage it to melt and spread the ointment. Otherwise it sometimes clumps and floats off the eyeball.
Rabbits like to have their ears stroked. They generally are not big fans of having liquid squirted down there though. It feels weird and it sometimes makes a mess of their ears and faces, which, of course, hurts their egos. That means that sometimes rabbits are most uncooperative about this procedure.
You can try administering ear drops on the floor, but a smart rabbit will vote with her feet–that is, she’ll hop away after the first squirt. It’s often easier to do it on a tabletop, where you can secure her with one hand.
The first trick with ear drops is to get the nozzle pretty close to the ear’s actual opening (never push anything down beyond that opening though!). That way, when the rabbit shakes her head, the medicine will go down into the ear instead of all over your kitchen. The second trick is to try not to hit the inside surface of the ear with the nozzle itself. This tickles and it will make the rabbit shake her head, which makes it very hard to aim.
Once the drops are in, you can massage the base of the ear to help it go down and get spread around. You can wipe off any liquid that dripped onto her cheeks as well and that will help her dignity.
If your rabbit stops eating, your vet may suggest that your “force” or “syringe” feed your rabbit. This just means that you’re making some kind of food mixture and giving it to your rabbit through a big syringe. Your rabbit may be very calm about this procedure at the vet’s office. Chances are, he’ll throw quite a fit when you try it at home.
Syringe feeding is really an art and a science, and it takes practice, patience and creativity to figure out how to do it. Nevertheless, we swear it can be done and doing so often makes the difference between life and death.
CAUTION: syringe-feeding can cause the rabbit to inhale food, with serious consequences or death.
Always check with a rabbit vet first. The amount of food (cc’s) will be based on rabbit size. Don’t force – make sure the rabbit swallows. In general, Take your time, use less rather than more and point syringe to the side and go slowly.
Your vet will probably recommend some find of pellet “slurry” for your rabbit, or may prescribe Oxbow’s Critical Care. One standard recipe is 1/2 cup of pellets, blended with one cup of water, one tablespoon of psyllium husks, and one tablespoon of acidolopholus or Prozyme. You can throw it all in a blender or food processor; keep blending until it appears shiny. (Never give your rabbit straight psyllium, as it can suck the liquid out of the rabbit’s gut and cause serious problems.).
Load the syringe with the recommended amount. Put your rabbit up on a countertop or table. You can wrap the rabbit up in a bunny burrito if you think she’ll need it. Then:
- Point her nose towards the right (if you’re right handed)
- Curl left arm around her body
- Tell her she’s the cutest
- Pick up loaded syringe with right hand
- Tuck the nozzle into the corner of bunny’s mouth
- Point somewhat to the side, so if too much comes out, the bunny will not aspirate. Go slow..less is better than more, give him time to swallow; don’t let fluid go down the lungs.
- Keep giving a little more as she chews
- Praise rabbit vigorously, tell her you know it’s a drag
- Wipe slurry off tabletop and walls, reload into syringe
- When you’ve given her a good dose, quickly wipe off her cheek with a warm wet rag, so it doesn’t cake on there for the next three months.
Some people also do this with the rabbit cradled in the crook of their arm. Again, be sure not to choke the rabbit with the slurry.
Melissa’s Banana-Pellet Balls
For rabbits who aren’t eating because they’ve just had surgery, have sore teeth, or who are elderly or are depressed, you might also try the very famous Melissa’s Banana-Pellet Balls, developed by Elizabeth TeSelle. These are high-protein and high-fat and not suitable as a steady diet for young healthy rabbits.
You will need:
- electric coffee grinder ($12.00 at Target or Wal-Mart)
- 1/2 banana
- 1/3 c. pellets
- rolled oats (bulk rolled oats from a health food store or Quaker Old Fashioned rolled oats — NOT quick-style)
- non-dairy acidophilus, ProZyme, or whatever else you need or want to add
Mash banana in a shallow bowl with a fork. Add acidophilus and mash it in. Grind up 1/3 – 1/2 c. dry pellets in coffee grinder until they are dust, and add slowly to banana. Cream the pellet dust into the banana with a fork just as you would cream butter and sugar. The mixture will be very stiff. When fully blended, add a small amount of rolled oats and cream again. Form the mixture into stiff balls with your hands. It should make 2-3 balls, enough for one or two meals per day. Discuss the amount with your vet and weigh your rabbit weekly to ensure that she is maintaining weight (or gaining, if that is what is desired). Some rabbits may like the mixture firmer and others may like it gooier. Experiment a little to see what your bunny prefers. You can add a little less pellet dust to make it gooier, or make the recipe as is and add a small amount of banana baby food. Do not add water, as it provides no calories.
Other helpful tips for when Thumper has to visit the vet:
- If Thumper has a friend, bring the friend along – it’s less stressful to have a buddy along to commiserate with you.
- If Thumper has to stay at the vet (i.e., after surgery) most vets will allow his friend to be there with him (possibly in the cage next door, depending on Thumper’s condition). NOTE: Your veterinarian may suggest physical separation so that he can monitor appetite, thirst, urination, defication, etc.
- If, heaven forbid, Thumper should pass away, please let his friend say good-bye to him. It may sound morbid but your bunnies life may depend on it. If his friend does not see Thumper after Thumper has died, he won’t know what has happened and he could die from depression. Each rabbit will say goodbye differently and will take different amounts of time. Some rabbits will lay next to their buddy, some will groom him, some will ignore him. Just keep on eye on Thumper and when he stays away from the body – his goodbyes have been said. NOTE: If Thumper has been sick for a long time, his friend may already have said goodbye – you’ll know this because formerly loving bunnies won’t pay attention to each other anymore. If this happens and you haven’t taken your bunny to the vet – do so immediately!