Coping with Each Other: The Disabled Bunny

I was about to drop off to sleep when I heard my wife Jeanette coming upstairs at full speed. “Come and look at Ben,” she called, “I think he’s having convulsions!” Ben Bunny has been with us for all but the first few weeks of his nine years. We know he’s old. We know he won’t be with us much longer. But no matter how often you contemplate the inevitable, your heart gets taken by surprise. It was a shock to see Ben: he was stretched out on his side, his back bowed and his neck twisted to one side. When I picked him up, it was like holding a fur-covered board.

I called our vet’s emergency number and left a message; in five minutes she called back, listened to me babble about his symptoms, and told us to meet her at the clinic in twenty minutes. When we got there she examined Ben and thought he may have had a stroke. She thought the prognosis was good for at least partial recovery: rabbits, unlike humans, apparently have ways to reroute the blood supply to the brain.

Ben looked seedy. The stroke had affected his right side, leaving his head twisted to the left and his right eye bulging. He began to convulse again after we got home, and we injected him with librium as the vet had instructed us. Jeanette prepared for an emergency at any moment; she made a nest of pillows, lined it with towels for absorbency, and took Ben to bed with her.

In the morning Ben looked a little better. His muscles began to relax, his appetite improved, and he made a few desultory attempts to move around. He was unable to clean himself, so this had to be done with a damp rag, a procedure he enjoyed except when it was applied to his bottom. By degrees he regained control of his head and his right forepaw, and he began to crawl and to clean himself. The day he was finally able to bend sufficiently to clean his own bottom was a red-letter day for us all!

Perhaps the one most upset about Ben’s disability was his inseparable lady friend, Blossom. Blossom took over a good deal of the duty of cleaning Ben; she hopped up onto the bed every afternoon to take a nap with him; but when he was put on the floor for exercise, she would sometimes attack him. Perhaps his odd locomotion—equal parts crawling and thrashing about—confused her so that she didn’t recognize him. Or maybe she was telling him to snap out of it. In either case, the attacks ceased after two or three days, and the two bunnies are closer than ever.

Because Jeanette and I both work, we had to find some way to keep Ben cozy during the day. He would need enough room to move around a bit, along with access to food and water. We considered buying a child’s wading pool or playpen, but the former are made of soft (i.e. edible) plastic and the latter turned out to be quite expensive. Finally Jeanette designed a playpen just for Ben. From a box store she got a cardboard box 24x32x6 inches, the size used to ship picture frames. She cut four pieces of foam rubber—two each of 6×24 and 6×32—to fit inside the walls of the box as padding: these were covered with felt to make them even softer. The bottom of the box was covered with a sheet of vinyl—glued in place—as waterproofing, and on top of this were laid a sheet of felt and a towel. To clean the playpen, the towel and felt sheet are removed for washing and the vinyl is wiped down with a damp rag. There are now two playpens, each with its felt-and towel liner, and an extra set of liners for emergencies. While Ben is in one pen, the other is ready to receive him and the extra towel and felt are in the washer.

To make sure Ben has food and water when he wants them, we made him a “cafeteria” from a shallow, hard plastic tray set into a vinyl-covered piece of styrofoam which fits across the end of his playpen. This is filled with pellets, oats, and a few bite-size wheat chex with bran (a big favorite). At the other end of the pen (to minimize the mess) a water bottle was hung from a cradle of coat hanger wire. However, as Ben acquired better control of his movements, we were able to replace the bottle with his familiar water dish, which he seemed to prefer.

Ben is quite satisfied with this arrangement. From his playpen he can see whatever is going on; he has a soft, comfortable surface to nap on; and Blossom can hop in for frequent visits (and to eat his oats). We feel safe in leaving him for two or three hours, and our schedules are arranged so that one or the other will check on him at least that often. It involves a little extra work, but the advantages of having Ben’s companionship and love compensate overwhelmingly for our efforts.

Ralph Doty

House Rabbit Journal Fall 1999: Volume IV, Number 1