Caring for the Chronically Ill

Your vet has just informed you that your rabbit will not recover from her present illness. You are faced with the decision of having her put down or sustaining her for as long as possible. The experience that we have to share is with the latter choice. In no way do we advise keeping suffering animal with a terminal illness alive for the sake of auld lang syne, but sometimes the suffering is in the eyes of the beholder. Think this through with the help of your veterinarian.


If your pet is not in physical pain and you’re not interested in “killing for convenience,” you will need to plan a routine that will minimize your inconvenience.

Your bunny may be impaired due to injury, illness, or normal aging. Impairment usually involves mobility problems and incontinence. Add to this the peculiar rabbit function, coprophagy (discussed in HRJ Vol. I, No.4), and you will have many problems to solve for her.


If your bunny has a terminal illness, she will be on medications to slow it down and make her comfortable. If the disease is long-term and chronic, you will be dealing largely with support. Most of your effort will be in keeping bunny clean and free of sores and urine burns; in preventing excessive weight loss; and in providing any prescribed physical therapy.


Discuss appropriate diet and vitamin supplements with your vet. Specific needs depend on the type of illness. Anorexic rabbits can be fed Nutrical or moistened pellets through a large oral syringe (or smaller ones with the ends cut off).

Sometimes a rabbit who is not eating well is also not drinking well and may become dehydrated. Your vet can instruct you on giving subcutaneous (under the skin) fluids.


The first necessity is a small portable cage, possibly two cages. You may want to leave her in a well-supplied large cage while you’re away from home, but then you can tote her around in something smaller when you’re home and have her next to you at the dinner table or in front of the TV at night. If she’s unable to move herself about the house, it’s your job to give her some variety.

Most paralyzed rabbits are better able to drink from water bottles attached to the sides of the cage than from water bowls. On the other hand the pellets are easier to manage in a flat, heavy bowl, no deeper than 2 inches. Her treats can be placed directly on her rug.

Yes, I did say rug. One of the greatest inventions for an invalid bunny is the washable, quick-drying, soft, synthetic-sheepskin rug. Get a bunch of them and change them daily. Think of them as diapers. You can even wash them by hand and hang them up to dry. The cushioning is also helpful in preventing “bedsores.”


When bladder control is lost, a rabbit’s hindquarters become soaked with urine because he can’t project the urine away from his body. The result is severe urine burn and hair loss. The burn can be treated with a generous application of Panalog. This marvelous ointment does wonders on inflamed flesh and also dissolves caked- on feces. Once the inflammation is relieved, Vaseline can be used to protect the skin from the urine. An incontinent rabbit must be kept strictly indoors. Outdoors, he will become a victim of fly strike (maggots) in just a few hours. Rabbit fur takes a long time to dry. For this reason I learned to give abbreviated baths sometimes consisting only of shoving the rear end under running water. These tasks become routine and not a burden.


Scooter spent the last year of his life with us. Paraplegic when he came to us, he never improved physically. Often visitors were repelled by him and pressured us to put him out of his misery. What could we do for this hopeless animal? We could provide him with a pleasant environment next to the kitchen window, and we could give him some physical exercise by letting him scoot around on the living room floor. (We protected our carpet by placing him on the floor after he had urinated.)

The real highlight of his day, however, was his bath, which was necessary to reduce the accumulation of urine and feces. My husband would towel-dry him in front of the heater, and Scooter spent a good part of the evening on Bob’s lap being scratched, rubbed, and fed banana slices.

Melinda had a huge abscess in her chest. It was inoperable. Her lung capacity was so greatly reduced that the slightest stress would leave her gasping for air. The X-ray procedure had stressed her so much that she had to be given oxygen.

How much time does she have? Two hours? Two days? Should we have her put down or let her die naturally at home? Will it be painful? Does she have anything to live for at this moment? I thought of her loving mate waiting for her return. We decided to take her home.

Tetracycline in the drinking water slowed the growth of the abscess enough to give her another two months in which the two bunnies ate and slept together, licked and groomed each other and even played a little. One night she was overly tired and died quietly in her sleep.

Peggy came to us recently with an eye infection, a twisted body, and an amputated rear leg. Added to this are loose stools, which get smeared on the cage floor, because she can’t maneuver well enough to use a litterbox or clean herself.

How can we give a decent life to this bunny? Gentocin drops for her eyes have helped. A slat floor helps me, since I can sponge it off easily with vinegar-water. And since we had a sweet-tempered, chronically ill, lonely neutered male on hand, we gave the two rabbits to each other.

No one knows how much time they have left or what kind of suffering they may have encountered. But what matters is that each precious day they experience right now is a lifetime in itself.

In consultation with Marliss Geissler, DVM

House Rabbit Journal Volume I 1989

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