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Life with a Disabled Rabbit
Janis Wild
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  • Molly wasn't always disabled. A member of our household for almost eight years, she hopped about our fenced yard, let herself in and out of the house through a doggie door, and spent the better part of her day keeping those pesky ferns in check.

    Overnight her health and life changed drastically--and our lives did, too. One morning I found her lying on her side, her back legs stretched out abnormally. I set her upright, only to have her fall on the same side, kicking her back legs in an effort to right herself. Her rear end was propelled in wide circles, and her back legs would not tuck under her.

    Our veterinarian, Dr. David Penney, took x-rays and did blood tests. We hoped she had some minor back injury and would recover shortly. Later that morning, I noticed Molly's eyes flickering, a clue that she had suffered a series of small strokes from which she would never fully recover.

    Dealing with Incontinence

    This was not Molly's first health problem. She had been without bladder control for the previous year. As her bladder filled she could not contract her muscles to empty it, and when it was full, the urine dribbled out. Molly's whole rear end became soaked with urine, so we rinsed her in the laundry-room sink to prevent urine burns .

    Dr. Penney suggested twice-daily 5-minute sitz baths in warm water and Nolvasan solution. After experimenting I found the best method was to put a rubber dish mat in the bottom of the sink and a towel on the edge of the sink. I would lower Molly's rear into the water, leaving her front feet on the towel for stability (and to minimize how much of her got wet).

    The 5-minute soak was followed by a thorough rinse and blotting with a towel. Molly's feet took the longest to dry, so I would wrap them in paper towels and very gently hold them in place for 30 seconds to absorb the moisture. Next I used a blow-dryer with a diffuser, which dries the fur quickly with minimal chance of burning. Electric clippers can be used to keep the fur on the rump short. Many veterinarians consider this a safer alternative to scissors.

    Dr. Penney taught me how to express Molly's bladder by placing my hand under her stomach and pressing. I did this every few hours, which greatly reduced her dribbling. After some practice my husband, Don, and I were able to do this without having the urine run down her leg.

    Just when we had everything under control, this new complication arose with the strokes. We waited anxiously over the next few weeks to see how much mobility she would recover.

    There are many arguments and theories regarding quality of life vs. euthanasia. We reduced it to one simple question: if we were Molly, what would we want? Our Molly had always been tough and determined, and we felt sure she would want to live. Not all rabbits would like this sort of life, with its physical limitations. But as an older rabbit Molly spent most of her day "meatloafing," and she had proved through the years to be a survivor. She was a mellow rabbit, who had tolerated and even enjoyed the handling that accompanied her bladder problems. We felt confident that she would adjust, and that we would, too.

    Soft Props

    To keep her comfortable and close to us, we put a fluffy comforter on the kitchen floor and propped her up into a normal position, using rolled-up towels for support. Don and I took turns supporting her lame rear leg with our hands so she could hop around and get some exercise and physical therapy.

    Because Molly still had enough use of her hind legs to propel herself forward, from her soft blanket onto the tile floor or deck, we never left Molly alone, even briefly. I carried her with me in a basket to run my errands; Don took her to the office when I visited my mother, who was also ill that year. When I went to lunch with friends during warm weather, we chose restaurants with outdoor seating. I would park Molly under the table and not have to worry that she was getting overheated in the car. She slept next to our bed so I could hear if she flung herself forward during the night. I would wake at the sound of her nails on the wood floor.

    Then we discovered a miraculous use for cardboard boxes, which gave us a whole new life. We put a blanket in the bottom of a box with sides cut just high enough to keep Molly in but low enough to let her see out. In went her rolled-up towels, and in went Molly, (continued on page 11) Disabled Rabbit continued from page 7 with her rear nearly up against one end of the box. This gave her a little room to propel herself forward without going very far. So if she dropped some soft pellets during the night she would not have to sit in them. Still, we could not leave her alone for more than a couple of hours at a time. There were times that I relied on my friend and fellow rabbit-person, Joann Wainwright, to baby-sit Molly (it's a true friend who will express your rabbit's bladder). Dr. Penney's staff was always willing to care for her for the day.

    Through all of this, Molly got more attention than she had during her whole life. We spent more time holding and cuddling her, and she got treats more often, now that she was literally underfoot at all times. She also got bonus affection from all the new people she was meeting in her travels. We constantly measured her happiness by her level of animation, her appetite, and the sparkle in her eyes. All these signs told us that Molly was happy and that we were doing the right thing for her. Dr. Penney agreed with us.

    A year and a half after we started giving Molly sitz baths twice a day, and six months since her first stroke, she was besieged by a number of new health problems, including kidney stones and urinary polyps, which Dr. Penney suspected were blocking her urinary tract. She had massive internal bleeding and appeared to have another stroke. There was no longer a question of quality of life versus euthanasia.

    Our loss of Molly was painful, but we have drawn comfort from the memories of the wonderful years we had with her. We also have the satisfaction of knowing we did everything possible and made the right decisions. There were no shortcuts. It wasn't always easy, but in the end our role as caregiver gave us a rich relationship with this small furry package of personality and tenacity--and with each other.

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